What Happens to Your Body When You Eat Sugar, Exactly?
A primer on what sugar does in your body and ways to avoid the negative effects of excess sugar.
Sugar sure does taste good, but we know it’s not really doing our bodies any favors. Why? Excess sugar can spike blood sugar levels, it won’t offer any real valuable nutrition, and it can lead to an increase in cravings for more (yes, more) sweets as well as weight gain.
So, that’s why a healthy diet consists of just a little bit of natural sweetness (found in fruit, like berries or an apple, for example) as well as occasional indulgences—we are human—as opposed to making it the star of your daily meals and snacks. In fact, it’s best to pair that sweetness with some protein and good fats too, which will help stabilize blood sugar and fill you up, so you don’t crave another serving shortly afterwards.
You can do this by choosing foods that are known as better-for-you snacks and treats. These are foods that are sweet without loading up on the sugar content. They also have proteins and fats along with an ample amount of fiber – such examples would be (surprise) Quest Protein Bars and Cookies. There are also Quest Candy Bites and Quest Peanut Butter Cups, which have less of the protein and fiber than the bars or cookies, but still curb sugar to as little as 1g or less! By choosing these alternatives you’ll better your body and avoid all the pitfalls that come from eating excess and added sugars.
So, what exactly happens when you eat sugar? Here’s what’s going on, as explained by dietitian Ilyse Schapiro MS, RD, CDN.
What’s the deal?
“When we eat and digest food in the stomach, the carbohydrates found in sugar and starches are broken down into a simple sugar known as glucose,” she says. “Glucose then travels to the small intestine where it gets absorbed and is then released into the blood stream,” she adds. Once in the bloodstream, glucose can either be used immediately for energy or stored for later.
If you’re low in sugar, you’ll use that as fuel, but if you’re indulging in something that has many grams, those will be stored in the body (and can lead to weight gain, over time, since it’s stored as fat).
What happens ASAP?
“Simple, refined, and processed sugars are rapidly digested in the body and are our quickest source of energy,” she says. Dietary fiber, on the other hand, slows the absorption of sugar, delays gastric emptying and helps us feel fuller for longer. So, pairing fiber with sugar is great, as well as looking for natural sources of sugar, like fresh fruit, with skins that have fiber.
An apple’s skin has pectin, which is a fiber to counteract the sugar, so you’d keep those skins on when noshing on an apple with nuts for a snack. Plus the protein and fiber also add that boost in satiety and help stabilize blood sugar further.
Whole foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain dietary fiber, which is why these natural sugars don’t have as much of a negative impact on our body.
And how does it affect the body?
Sugar comes in various forms: monosaccharides (one sugar molecule), disaccharides (two sugar molecules), and polysaccharides (multiple sugar molecules).
Glucose and fructose are the main constituents of monosaccharides (simple sugars), while sucrose, lactose, and maltose make up disaccharides. Polysaccharides include starch, such as complex carbohydrates, and glycogen (stored glucose).
The effect that sugar has on the body depends greatly on its origin. “Food and beverages sweetened with table sugar, honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, high fructose corn syrup (and many more!) are the sugars that can wreak havoc on the body when consumed in excess amounts,” she says.
These sugars enter directly into the bloodstream, which causes sugar levels to spike. In a relatively short time, you may feel hungry or tired. Short-term it’s not so bad, “however, overtime these frequent spikes and crashes can increase the risk of overweight/obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, and Heart Disease,” she says, so it can pose a risk to your health long-term.
A tip: keep added sugars down
There is a major difference between natural sugars and added sugars. “Added sugars are sugars and syrups put into processed foods, or added on their own and many Americans over-consume added sugars compared to the daily recommended intake of 9 teaspoons for men and 6 teaspoons for women,” she says.
“Consuming too much of these sugars can lead to high blood pressure, weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease,” she explains. On the flip side, natural sugars are naturally occurring in whole foods, such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy. These foods contain fiber and antioxidants, which promote added health benefits, and in some cases are good sources of protein and healthy fats.
“These nutrients keep our body healthy and play a major role in reducing cholesterol levels, heart disease, and certain cancers,” she says. So, make sure to still enjoy them in your diet, but do so moderately to not exceed sugar intake for your day.