Pile of sugar

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What too much sugar can do

When we eat, the body breaks down sugar and starches from our food into glucose, which is the body’s energy source. Insulin carries the glucose to all of our cells. If you eat too much sugar, it can make your body demand more insulin, which can lead to a build-up of sugar in your blood. All that unneeded sugar can put you at risk of developing a host of health problems, including:

  • Joint pain
  • Cavities in your teeth
  • Mood swings
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney damage
  • Type 2 diabetes

Some sugar is naturally occurring in food, like fructose in fruit or lactose in dairy products. But a lot of products also have added sugars — high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, syrup, confectioner’s sugar, honey, maltose, dextrose, to name a few. Sodas, candy, and baked goods are some of the main sources of added sugar but you’ll also find it in unexpected items, such as bread and protein bars.

In the past, it may have been challenging to spot added sugar on nutrition labels. Now all added sugars are listed under total carbohydrates, so you can get a better handle on how much sugar you’re really consuming.

According to registered dietitian Ali Caron:
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming less than 10% of calories per day from added sugars. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends even less. The AHA recommends that women consume less than 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, of added sugars per day.  The recommendation for American men is less than 37 grams, or 9 teaspoons, of added sugar per day.

Type 2 diabetes risk factors

Unlike type 1 diabetes, which is caused by a malfunctioning pancreas, most cases of type 2 diabetes are related to weight and lifestyle.

Type 2 diabetes usually develops slowly — a decade or longer. It generally progresses from normal blood glucose to impaired fasting glucose (IFG) or impaired glucose tolerance (IGT) to diabetes. When the glucose level is slightly higher than normal, some people refer to it as prediabetes.

Although a high sugar diet can be a contributor it’s not the only risk factor. It’s usually caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors — some that can be controlled and some that can’t. Several risk factors increase a person’s chances of developing the disease.

  • Obesity — if you have a body mass index (BMI) greater than 29, your odds increase to one in four
  • Age — the risk increases with age, especially after 45
  • Inactivity — the less active you are the greater your risk
  • Family history — risk increases if one of your parents or siblings has type 2 diabetes
  • Diet —  high in sugar, cholesterol, and processed food
  • Diagnosis of heart disease or high cholesterol
  • Race — more prevalent in people of certain races, including African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, Asian-Americans, and Pacific Islanders
  • Gestational diabetes — if you had gestational diabetes during pregnancy or had a baby that weighed more than nine pounds, your risk is increased
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome increases the risk
  • Sleep — research suggests that regularly sleeping fewer than six hours or more than nine hours a night might increase your risk

If you have any of the above risk factors, it would be a good idea to get tested to see if your blood sugar is high. Even when it’s normal, if there are any risk factors on the list that you can change, you should get started.


In many cases, it takes only modest lifestyle changes to prevent or delay type 2 diabetes. Eat a healthy diet, maintain a healthy weight and move your body. For instance, research shows that people can prevent or delay type 2 diabetes if they lose 5 to 7 percent of their body weight and get at least one-half hour of moderate physical activity five days a week.

And take a good look at your sugar intake. Denial can be dangerous!  When you’re at the grocery store, check nutrition labels. “The dietary fiber, total sugars, and added sugars are all included under the total carbohydrate amount in grams,” says Ali. “It’s important to keep those added sugars in mind when choosing healthy foods. Aim for less than 5% of the Daily Value for added sugars per serving when looking at the nutrition label.”