The Effects of Sugar Overload & Eating Too Much Sugar
Feb 3, 2023
Whether you are struggling with a one-time sugar binge or are regularly eating too much sugar, the effects of sugar overload on your body can leave you feeling more sour than sweet.
To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with sugar. In fact, the human body uses glucose, a simple type of sugar, as one of its primary sources of fuel. When sugar is eaten in excess, however, it can have negative effects on the body.
Complete Care is here to break down why it’s easy to overdo your sugar intake, what happens to your body when you go on a sugar binge, how excessive sugar consumption can affect your overall health, and what to do after eating too much sugar.
Can eating too much sugar make you sick?
Yes, eating too much sugar can make us sick — in the short and long term. In order to understand how to avoid a sugar overload, let’s discuss our body’s limitations with sugar. The recommended amount of sugar is 200 calories (12 teaspoons) of sugar per day. According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, the average North American eats about 270 calories (17 teaspoons) of added sugar per day. Unfortunately, added sugar tends to outweigh natural sugar in most American diets. Here’s why that’s dangerous.
Natural sugar vs. unnatural sugar
To understand why added sugar is problematic, we need to back up a little bit and describe the two main categories of sugar: natural sugar and processed sugar. Natural sugar, as its name suggests, occurs naturally in foods. When people think of natural sugar, they typically picture fruits, but natural sugar is also found in vegetables and dairy products.
Then there’s processed/artificial sugar. These sugars do not occur naturally; they have been extracted from another source or modified in some way. Commonly processed sugars include high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, agave, and maltose.
Added sugar is sugar that is added to food and can be sourced from either natural or processed sugar. For example, if you add either honey (a natural sugar) or agave (a processed sugar) to a recipe, both would be considered added sugars.
The problem with added sugar
The problem with added sugar is two-pronged. Firstly, the amount of added sugars found in food is copiously higher than that of natural sugars found in whole foods. Secondly, while natural sugars take longer to break down, evening out the amount of sugar entering your body and giving you energy, added sugar breaks down quickly, entering your bloodstream all at once, resulting in energy and insulin spikes — and then an energy crash.
In other words, not only does added sugar enter your bloodstream at a much quicker rate than normal, but it does so in amounts so high that you’re practically bombing your system with sugar.
If you’re eating too much sugar, what happens to your body? Over time, you can increase your risk of developing diseases caused by too much sugar including heart disease and diabetes — but more on that later.
Where is sugar hiding in your everyday foods?
Eating sugar is not dangerous, but eating too much of it in excessive amounts can have long-term consequences. Overall, you want to avoid consuming too much sugar and have a more balanced diet. It can be beneficial to familiarize yourself with the many types of sugar, so that you can recognize them on food labels and better understand which foods contain added sugar.
Common types of sugars
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Agave nectar
- Cane sugar
- Invert sugar
- Maple syrup
- Refiner’s syrup
- Brown sugar
Keep in mind that these are just some of the most common names. In reality, there are over 50 types of sugar.
Common foods high in added sugars
- Sodas/soft drinks
- Fruit juice
- Chocolate milk
- Pre-made sauces
- Sports drinks
- Granola and cereal
- Canned fruit
- Canned soups
- Energy drinks
Note that many of these foods are not actually foods, but drinks. In fact, one of the best things you can do to reduce your intake of added sugars is to drink water in place of other types of popular drinks.
What are the symptoms of sugar overload?
A holiday party, your favorite pie, a rough day at the office — no matter the occasion or reason, an occasional sugar overload happens to the best of us. Unfortunately, once the euphoria of all that dopamine rushing through your body passes, your body is left to deal with the fallout. After eating too much sugar, side effects are inevitable.
Why does this happen? Well, when you consume sugar, your body reacts by releasing insulin. Insulin helps keep the sugar level in your blood consistent. Unfortunately, once the sugar wears off, your body is left with an overabundance of insulin and not enough glucose to provide you with energy, which in turn causes the dreaded “sugar crash.” The symptoms of a sugar crash include:
- Fatigue and difficulty concentrating
- Feeling jittery or anxious
- Feeling shaky or dizzy
- Bloating (which can result in stomach and chest pain in severe cases)
For people living with diabetes,* these crashes are typically more severe and are treated as a condition called hypoglycemia. (There are occasional cases of hypoglycemia in individuals who do not suffer from diabetes.)
So, is sugar overload dangerous? While sugar overload and the subsequent sugar crash can be uncomfortable, it is not typically dangerous in healthy individuals. For those with diabetes, however, even a one-time sugar overload can have more severe effects. The long-term ramifications of excessive sugar intake, however, can be alarming for everyone.
*Continue reading: Symptoms of a diabetic emergency
Long-term effects of eating too much sugar: How your body reacts
The occasional sugar binge is one thing, but eating too much sugar on a regular basis can have long-term effects and increase the likelihood that you will develop certain health conditions.
Eating too much sugar on a regular basis has been shown to increase rates of obesity, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, inflammation, and atherosclerosis. All of these issues are risk factors for heart disease, and an unhealthy heart can make you more susceptible to heart attacks. To put it bluntly, a high-sugar diet is linked to heart disease, the number one cause of death in North America.
Continue reading: What to do when someone is having a heart attack
Weight gain and increased cravings
Once your body crashes, it will send out signals to you that it needs more energy in the form of hunger. Specifically, you will likely start craving foods that provide a large amount of quick energy — sugary foods. Unfortunately, these cravings often lead to a vicious cycle of grabbing something high in sugar from the pantry, only to be hungry again a short while later.
Additionally, sugar has been shown to encourage resistance toward the brain hormone, leptin. This hormone helps regulate your hunger by telling you that you’ve had enough to eat. Even if you are full, a diet that’s high in sugar makes it harder for your body to alert you that that’s the case. If this becomes a common occurrence, your risk for excessive weight gain and obesity will increase significantly.
Type 2 diabetes
Because sugar overload may lead to obesity and insulin resistance — the top two factors for type 2 diabetes — eating too much sugar has strong ties to the onset of diabetes. In turn, diabetes and having too much sugar in your blood can lead to health issues related to your kidneys, liver, and pancreas. Diabetes is one of the most insidious health problems associated with sugar consumption and, unfortunately, its prevalence is on the rise.
When you eat sugary foods late at night, the spike in energy that follows can make it difficult to wind down to sleep. A bad night’s sleep means that you will likely be tired the next day and, again, leads to cravings for high-energy, sugary food, creating another cycle that can be difficult to break.
Brain fog and decreased energy
When you regularly consume too much sugar, your body is constantly oscillating between peaks and crashes. These highs and lows can make it extremely difficult to concentrate, and result in “brain fog.” They also drain you of energy, making that trip to the gym much less likely.
We already know that the energy highs and lows that come with sugar overload can cause irritability and fatigue. Repeat that cycle over and over again, throw in trouble sleeping, chronically decreased energy levels (and fewer endorphins from working out), potential weight gain and the other potentially negative effects of sugar on your health, and you’ve created the perfect environment for mood disorders such as depression to thrive. To that end, several studies have found that lower intake of sugar may be associated with better psychological health.
High-sugar diets have been shown to increase the production of oil and androgens (hormones). They have also been shown to increase the creation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). The former increases the likelihood of acne; the latter speeds up the skin’s aging process and creates wrinkles.
The sugar in sugary foods doesn’t cause tooth decay itself. But when you eat sugary foods, the natural bacteria in your mouth convert them into an acidic substance. As acids tend to do, these acids wear down what’s around them; in this case, the enamel of your teeth, thus weakening your teeth and making them more susceptible to cavities.
What to do after eating too much sugar
As we’ve seen, it can be difficult to reset after eating too much sugar. But there are still certain things you can do to help get you back to feeling normal after a sugar crash. Here are our top recommendations.
- Refrain from guilt trips: Whether you normally eat healthily and had a one-off binge, or you’ve developed a pattern of eating poorly, the time to stop mentally chastising yourself is now. Beating yourself up is only going to make you stressed, which in turn is only going to make you crave a pick-me-up. Loving sugar is normal (who doesn’t?) but we all have to remember to enjoy sugary sweets in moderation.
- Drink water: If you’re feeling low on energy, you may be dehydrated as well as experiencing a sugar crash. Staying hydrated is one of the most important things you can do to help your body recover from a sugar overdose and to stay healthy in general. If you find that you are incredibly dehydrated, head to a Complete Care emergency room to receive IV fluids for dehydration.
- Eat whole foods: Whole foods — foods that have not been processed — can help provide your body with a stable, more regulated source of energy. Fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, eggs, and beans are examples of whole foods.
- Exercise: Have excess energy from a sugar high? Feeling low from a sugar crash? Either way, the endorphins from a good workout can help see you through an upcoming sugar crash or help to lift you from the fog or overall grogginess you may be experiencing.
Complete Care is here for any and all medical emergencies
Sugar overload isn’t typically a medical emergency, but a lifetime of eating too much sugar can lead to health issues that occasionally become life-threatening. When that happens, our emergency room facilities are here to provide you with hospital-grade, patient-centered care without the typical wait of a standard ER.
For emergency medical assistance, we have ER locations all over Texas and Colorado Springs. We’re here to take complete care of you, so that you and your family can get in, get out, and get back to your life.
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