The Link between Sugar Intake and Chronic Inflammation
Inflammation is part of the body’s natural healing process.
During injury or infection, the body releases chemicals to help protect it and fight off any harmful organisms. This can cause redness, warmth and swelling.
Some foods, like sugar, can also cause inflammation in the body, which is normal.
However, eating too many inflammatory foods may cause chronic low-grade inflammation. This can cause serious health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and allergies (1Trusted Source, 2Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source).
Too Much Added Sugar Is Linked to Inflammation
Several animal studies have shown that a diet high in added sugar leads to obesity, insulin resistance, increased gut permeability and low-grade inflammation (5Trusted Source).
Human studies confirm the link between added sugar and higher inflammatory markers.
A study of 29 healthy people found that consuming only 40 grams of added sugar from just one 375-ml can of soda per day led to an increase in inflammatory markers, insulin resistance and LDL cholesterol. These people tended to gain more weight, too (6Trusted Source).
Another study in overweight and obese people found that consuming one can of regular soda daily for six months led to increased levels of uric acid, a trigger for inflammation and insulin resistance. Subjects who drank diet soda, milk or water had no increase in uric acid levels (7Trusted Source).
Drinking sugary drinks can spike inflammation levels. Moreover, this effect can last for a considerable amount of time.
Consuming a 50-gram dose of fructose causes a spike in inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein (CRP) just 30 minutes later. Furthermore, CRP remains high for over two hours (8Trusted Source).
In addition to added sugar, eating too many refined carbohydrates has also been linked to increased inflammation in humans (9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source).
In one study, eating just 50 grams of refined carbs in the form of white bread resulted in higher blood sugar levels and an increase in the inflammatory marker Nf-kB (10Trusted Source).
Consuming too much added sugar and refined carbohydrates is linked with elevated inflammation in the body as well as insulin resistance and weight gain.
How Added Sugar Affects Your Body
Consuming excess added sugar and refined carbohydrates causes several changes in the body, which help explain why a diet high in sugar can lead to chronic, low-grade inflammation.
- Excess production of AGEs: Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are harmful compounds that form when protein or fat combine with sugar in the bloodstream. Too many AGEs leads to oxidative stress and inflammation (12Trusted Source).
- Increased gut permeability: Bacteria, toxins and undigested food particles can more easily move out of the gut and into the bloodstream, potentially leading to inflammation (5Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source).
- Higher “bad” LDL cholesterol: Excess LDL cholesterol has been associated with higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation (6Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source).
- Weight gain: A diet rich in added sugar and refined carbohydrates can lead to weight gain. Excess body fat has been linked to inflammation, partly due to insulin resistance (15Trusted Source).
It is important to remember that inflammation is unlikely to be caused by sugar alone. Other factors like stress, medication, smoking and excess fat intake can also lead to inflammation (15Trusted Source).
Excess consumption of added sugar and refined carbohydrates is linked to increased AGE production, gut permeability, LDL cholesterol, inflammatory markers and weight gain. All of these factors can trigger low-grade chronic inflammation.
Added Sugar Can Lead to Long-Term Health Problems
Observational studies in humans have linked high added sugar and refined carbohydrate intake to many chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and more.
Several studies have found a strong link between consuming sugary drinks and an increased risk of heart disease (16Trusted Source).
A large study involving more than 75,000 women found that those who consumed a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar had up to a 98% greater risk of heart disease, compared to women with the lowest intake of refined carbs (17Trusted Source).
This is likely due to the impact of sugar consumption on heart disease risk factors, such as increased LDL cholesterol, increased blood pressure, obesity, insulin resistance and increased inflammatory markers (16Trusted Source, 18Trusted Source).
Several studies show people with high sugar intakes may be at a greater risk of developing cancer (19Trusted Source, 20Trusted Source, 21Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source).
One study found that when mice were fed high-sugar diets, they developed breast cancer, which then spread to other parts of the body (3Trusted Source).
One study looking at the diets of over 35,000 women found that those who consumed the most sugary foods and drinks had double the risk of developing colon cancer, compared to those who consumed a diet with the least added sugar (20Trusted Source).
While more research is needed, it is thought that the increased risk of cancer may be due to the inflammatory effect of sugar. In the long-term, inflammation caused by sugar may damage DNA and body cells (23Trusted Source).
Some experts believe that chronically high insulin levels, which can result from consuming too much sugar, may also play a role in cancer development (24Trusted Source).
Studies link the increased consumption of added sugar to type 2 diabetes (25Trusted Source, 26Trusted Source, 27Trusted Source, 28Trusted Source).
A large analysis including over 38,000 people found that just one serving of sugary drinks daily was associated with an 18% greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes (26Trusted Source).
Another study found that increasing corn syrup intake was strongly associated with diabetes. In contrast, fiber intake helped protect against the development of diabetes (27Trusted Source).
Lifestyle Changes Can Reduce Inflammation
The good news is that certain lifestyle changes, such as reducing your intake of sugary and processed foods, can lead to lower inflammation levels in the body (41Trusted Source).
For example, consuming fructose has a dose-dependent impact on inflammation. This means the more you eat, the greater the inflammation in the body (42Trusted Source).
In addition, a sedentary lifestyle, smoking and high stress levels have also been associated with chronic low-grade inflammation (43Trusted Source, 44Trusted Source, 45Trusted Source).
However, regular physical activity has been shown to reduce belly fat and inflammatory markers in humans (46Trusted Source).
Therefore, it seems possible to reduce inflammation levels by making dietary changes.
One study found that replacing processed foods with whole, unprocessed foods improved insulin resistance, improved cholesterol levels and reduced blood pressure, all of which are related to inflammation (47Trusted Source).
Another study found that reducing fructose consumption improved inflammatory blood markers by almost 30% (41Trusted Source).
Below are some simple tips to help reduce inflammation:
- Limit processed foods and drinks: By reducing or eliminating these products, you’ll naturally exclude key sources of added sugar like soda, cakes, cookies and candy, as well as white bread, pasta and rice.
- Read food labels: If you are unsure about certain products, get into the habit of reading food labels. Look out for ingredients like sucrose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, maltose and dextrose.
- Choose whole-grain carbs: These include oats, whole-grain pasta, brown rice, quinoa and barley. They have lots of fiber and antioxidants, which can help control blood sugar and protect against inflammation.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, which can protect against and reduce inflammation in the body.
- Eat lots of antioxidant-rich foods: Fill your plate with foods rich in antioxidants, which naturally help counteract inflammation. These include nuts, seeds, avocados, oily fish and olive oil.
- Keep active: Regular physical activity, including both aerobic and resistance exercise, can help protect against weight gain and inflammation.
- Manage stress levels: Learning to manage stress levels through relaxation techniques and even exercise can help reduce inflammation.
Replacing foods and drinks high in added sugar and refined carbohydrates may help lower inflammatory markers. Including whole foods in your diet can also help fight inflammation.
The Bottom Line
The evidence suggests that eating too much added sugar and too many refined carbohydrates causes inflammation in your body.
Over time, the inflammation caused by poor dietary habits may lead to several health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, liver disease and cancer.
However, inflammation can also be caused by many other factors, including stress, medication, smoking and excess fat intake (15Trusted Source).
There are several things you can do to help fight inflammation, including exercising regularly and effectively managing your stress levels.
Furthermore, cut down on processed foods and drinks, choose whole foods, and limit your intake of added sugar and refined carbohydrates.
Acceptable Sugar Substitute
Stevia is a natural sweetener that’s extracted from the leaves of a South American shrub that’s scientifically known as Stevia rebaudiana.
This plant-based sweetener can be extracted from one of two compounds — stevioside and rebaudioside A. Each contains zero calories, can be up to 350 times sweeter than sugar, and may taste slightly different than sugar (9Trusted Source).
The leaves of Stevia rebaudiana are packed with nutrients and phytochemicals, so it’s not surprising that the sweetener is linked to some health benefits (9Trusted Source).
Stevioside, a sweet compound in stevia, has been shown to lower blood pressure, blood sugar, and insulin levels (9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source).
While Stevia is considered generally safe, more current research is needed to determine whether the natural sweetener brings sustained benefits for human health.
Stevia is 100% natural, contains zero calories, and has no known adverse health effects. It has been shown to lower blood sugar and blood pressure levels.
Avoid substituting sugar with these sweeteners
Some alternative sweeteners may cause more harm than good. Some may even be more dangerous than sugar.
Below are sugar substitutes you should try to avoid.
Agave nectar is produced by the agave plant.
It’s often marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar, but it’s probably one of the unhealthiest sweeteners on the market.
The liquid sweetener consists of 85% fructose, which is much higher than regular sugar (43Trusted Source, 44).
As previously mentioned, high amounts of fructose are strongly associated with obesity and other serious diseases.
Despite being marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar, agave nectar contains even more fructose than sugar and should be avoided.
High fructose corn syrup
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener made from corn syrup.
It’s commonly used to sweeten processed foods and soft drinks.
As its name implies, it’s very high in fructose.
Fructose can increase your risk of weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and other serious diseases like cancer (45Trusted Source, 46Trusted Source, 47Trusted Source).
One study found that HFCS supported tumor growth in mice, while another study suggests that a high fructose diet could accelerate the progress of breast cancer (47Trusted Source, 48Trusted Source).
It can be equally as harmful as sugar and should be avoided at all costs.
While you won’t typically use HFCS as an individual ingredient in your recipes at home, it’s commonly found in sauces, salad dressings, and other condiments that you may be cooking with.
High fructose corn syrup is also high in harmful fructose and should be avoided.
The bottom line
Eating too much sugar has been linked to several deadly diseases, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
The sweeteners in this article are good alternatives, though the key word here is alternatives, meaning they should be used instead of refined sugar — and in moderation.
Stevia is probably the healthiest option, followed by xylitol, erythritol, and yacon syrup.
Natural sugars like maple syrup, molasses, and honey are less harmful than regular sugar and even have health benefits. Yet, they should still be used sparingly.
As with most things in nutrition, moderation is key.
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