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What happens to your body when you eat too much sugar

Have you ever eaten a big slice of cake or bowl of pasta and then felt like you needed a nap afterward? If so, you’ve likely felt the effects of a blood sugar spike and crash. Sharon Mascoe-Maxwell, RDN, LD, a Piedmont dietitian, breaks down what happens in the body when you eat sugar and carbohydrates and how you can keep your blood sugar steady, so you feel energized and avoid long-term health issues.

How does sugar affect the body?

“The body uses glucose for energy,” Mascoe-Maxwell says. “Glucose is mainly derived from carbohydrates and sugar.”

When you consume sugar or carbohydrates, the pancreas releases insulin to help the body effectively use the glucose for energy.

“When you eat, food breaks down into glucose and then insulin takes the glucose to the cells, where it is used for energy,” she says.

But when you consistently overeat sugar and carbohydrates, that’s when problems can occur.

“At this point, the insulin is ‘overwhelmed’ and cannot do its job effectively,” she says. “This is called insulin resistance. When you have insulin resistance, the cells are starved of energy, so they will send a signal to the body that you need to eat, which leads to hunger and cravings. It can also lead to irritability, poor sleep and excess belly fat.”

Having insulin resistance increases the risk of chronic diseases like prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), to name a few.

To avoid these health issues, it’s important to consume sugar and carbohydrates in moderation and stick to whole-food, unprocessed sources when possible.

What foods and drinks contain the most sugar?

Sugar is found in many foods, including those that taste sweet and those that don’t. First, let’s talk about added sugar versus naturally occurring sugar. Added sugar has been added to food during processing or cooking. Naturally occurring sugar is found in fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy.

“You typically want to have less than 10% of your calories coming from added sugar,” Mascoe-Maxwell says.

The following foods and beverages often contain added sugar, so read your nutrition labels:

  • Baked goods, like cakes, muffins, cookies and pies

  • Candy

  • Ice cream

  • Granola bars

  • Cereal

  • Ketchup

  • Sauces

  • Salad dressings

  • Frozen pizza

  • Bread

  • Crackers

How to maintain healthy blood sugar levels

Mascoe-Maxwell says natural sources of sugar, like fruits, certain vegetables and dairy, are generally healthier options than foods with added sugar. But you still want to consume naturally occurring sugar in moderation and in combination with other foods containing nutrients like fiber and protein.

“Sugar is digested more slowly when you eat it with protein and fiber,” she says.

And while honey and maple syrup are natural sources of sugar, they are still highly concentrated sources of the sweet stuff, so consume these in moderation as well.

Also, keep in mind that while carbohydrates are part of a healthy diet, they can still spike blood sugar, so eat them in moderation with fiber, protein and healthy fats.

In addition to making healthy food choices, Mascoe-Maxwell recommends managing your blood sugar by:

  • Getting regular physical activity

  • Getting enough sleep

  • Practicing portion control

  • Eating your meals around the same time each day

  • Managing stress (too much stress can raise your blood sugar)

“Having healthy blood sugar levels isn’t just about your food,” she says. “It’s also about your mental health and activity level.”

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