Why We're So Addicted to Sugar — And What It's Doing to Our Bodies

Sugar's playing you.

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It hides where you least expect it. Wraps itself around your brain so you crave more, more, more. New guidelines say cut back, but how? This is your detox. And yes, life will still be plenty sweet.

The Size of the Problem

The 15 teaspoons of sugar here? Picture gulping them all down, one by one. Kind of unthinkable, but most of us already get about that much every single day. Even if you steer clear of the sugar bowl, the sweet stuff finds its way into your life via sodas, energy bars, coffee concoctions, sauces, and so much more — plus, of course, actual sweets.

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Nearly every part of the body struggles under this sugar load, which is why the government got serious this year, recommending that we keep added sugars to less than 10 percent of total calories. The World Health Organization and the American Heart Association say we should go further. OK, breathe. We'll help you get to the right level, deliciously.

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Why We're So Addicted

It may be easy to take candy from a baby, but a grown-up will likely put up a fight. Evolutionarily, we're wired to crave sweet things, since they provide a quick burst of energy.

"But too much sugar can cause changes in the brain similar to what you'd see with cocaine or heroin," explains Nicole Avena, PhD, an assistant professor of pharmacology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and author of Why Diets Fail (Because You're Addicted to Sugar).

In fact, scans show that sugary foods stimulate the brain's reward center in the same way that those drugs do. (One study even found that rats — considered good stand-ins for humans when it comes to sugar — preferred to get their feel-good hits from sweet drinks rather than cocaine.) Over time, we get desensitized to sweets, meaning we need to eat more to get the same satisfaction. No wonder researchers have declared sugar officially addictive.

That's what sugar does to your brain; now let's look at the rest of your body.

What Sugar Does to Your Body, Step By Step

  1. You eat two doughnuts, and the sugar dumps itself into your blood quickly.
  2. To get it out of your bloodstream and into the cells that need it, the pancreas cranks up production of insulin.
  3. Insulin delivers sugar to cells, which squirrel it away.
  4. Suddenly, your brain can't find much sugar in your bloodstream anymore, so it tells you, "Hey, eat something that will raise blood sugar fast!" You reach for the closest sweet thing.
  5. You feel better for a bit; then the cycle starts over again. But if you reduce the sugar flood to a trickle, all this settles down.

How Sugar Affects Your...

Pancreas: To help process repeated floods of sugar, your pancreas pumps out more insulin. Over time, the gland can get overwhelmed and produce too little (that's what happens with diabetes), leaving blood sugar roving around like a band of vandals.

Teeth: Sweets contribute to tooth decay. But eat less than 5 percent of calories from sugar and cavity risk drops.

Belly Fat: Sugar is easy to consume in excess. More processed sugary calories = more fat in your belly and body.

Heart: Extra sugar is linked to higher blood pressure and triglyceride numbers (a blood fat that's associated with heart disease). Eating 25 percent more than the recommended amount of sugar triples the risk of dying from heart disease.

Blood Vessels: When sugar is in your bloodstream at a too-high level, it acts like shards of glass on the delicate linings of your arteries, putting you at risk for heart attack and stroke.

Mood: Sugar highs and crashes don't keep spirits sunny. Sweets are also linked to more persistent issues, including depression. Sugar may suppress a hormone that's already low in people with mood disorders.

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