What are experts actually saying when they warn that sugar causes inflammation? And does it mean you need to swear off cookies… like, forever?
There are lots of good reasons to cut back on added sugar. Too much added sweet stuff can mess with your weight, turn your mood into an episode of “Jersey Shore,” and trigger a never-ending cycle of junk food cravings.
But even more important is the fact that eating too much added sugar can actually damage your body on a cellular level by causing low levels of harmful inflammation.
It sounds kinda concerning, sure, but what exactly does it mean? Here’s a look at the link between sugar and inflammation, how much added sugar is OK, and which sugars are better than others.
Before diving into the connection between inflammation and sugar, let’s do a quick recap. In general, inflammation is your immune system’s response to a stimulus. And though it’s usually talked about in a negative light, it can sometimes be helpful.
Acute inflammation develops rapidly in response to an injury or infection. This type of inflammation tends to be good: It’s your body’s way of trying to fight off further damage while jump-starting healing. It usually lasts a few days to a few weeks.
Chronic inflammation is long-term inflammation that occurs over months or years. It has several causes, including lifestyle factors like diet. Over time, chronic inflammation can increase your risk for serious diseases. (More on those later.)
It can. Diets high in added sugar are thought to signal the production of pro-inflammatory molecules in the body. Over time, that can create an environment of chronic, low-grade inflammation and lead to trouble in the future.
How much sugar does it take to cause problems, exactly?
Studies have found that people who consume around 40 grams of added sugar per day — roughly the amount in a 12-ounce can of cola or 6 fun-size candy bars — show an increase in inflammatory markers both immediately after consuming it and over time.
Does that mean you’re doomed if you occasionally eat something sweet? Probably not. Experts agree that a healthy diet can include some added sugar. The key is not overdoing it.
The American Heart Association recommends that men limit added sugar to 36 grams — which translates to 150 calories or 9 teaspoons — per day. For women, they recommend no more than 25 grams per day, which equals 100 calories or 6 teaspoons.
One important thing to keep in mind: When we talk about sugar causing inflammation, we’re talking about added sugar. Like, the sugar added to cookies or soda to make them taste sweet. (It goes by many different names, FYI, so read ingredient lists carefully!)
It’s a different story for natural sugars — the kinds that fruits, vegetables, or unsweetened dairy products naturally contain. Unlike added sugars, natural sugars don’t cause inflammation.
That’s because your body processes them differently: You consume natural sugars as part of whole foods that deliver beneficial nutrients like protein and fiber, which encourage the sugars to be absorbed by your bloodstream at a slow, steady rate.
That staves off blood sugar spikes and the inflammation that can come with them.
As mentioned, naturally-occurring sugars in fruits, veggies, whole grains, and dairy are not what we’re worried about. It’s the added sugars in processed foods that tend to be the inflammation trigger. Here are some popular foods you may want to limit:
1. Foods with secret sugar code names
Added sugar isn’t always just labeled as “sugar.” Sugar has lots of names that vary from chemical-sounding words to fancy-sounding words. Here are some of the most popular types of sugars you might find on a label:
- high-fructose corn syrup
- cane sugar or juice
- rice syrup
- invert sugar
2. Foods with hidden added sugars
Now that you know some code names for sugar, you may be surprised where those sneaky added sugars hide, even in savory foods. Having an Italiano feast? Tomatoes have natural sugar, but you may see even more added sugar on that sauce label. Here are some foods where you might find added sugar in unexpected places:
- salad dressings
- sauces (especially tomato-based ones like marinara, ketchup, and barbecue!)
- breakfast cereals and prepackaged oatmeal
- fruits in syrup (look for “no added sugar” on the label)
3. “Health” foods
Branding is sometimes a tricky business in food labeling. Foods labeled “healthy” or ones that just feel like they would be a more nutrient-dense option can be prime for added sugar. Granola bars, trail mixes, protein bars, protein powders, and even dried fruits can all contain loads of added sugar.
One trick with dried fruit (which can totally be a good way to satisfy a sweet tooth) is to look for a label free of anything other than 100 percent fruit.
Snacks like mixed nuts, fresh fruits, no added sugar trail mixes, and beef jerky are good alternatives to take on a hike.
4. Low fat foods
Wait, what? Why would we include fat in this sugary discussion? The real truth is that sometimes foods labeled “low fat” are supplemented with added sugar (and sometimes have more calories) to make up for the lack of fat. When in doubt, comparison shop those labels to see if a higher fat alternative is actually the more nutrient-dense than a lower sugar option.
Diets high in added sugars trigger chronic inflammation, which can wreak havoc on your body. Over time, inflammation leads to high levels of oxidative stress, which can cause damage to your tissues and DNA.
The result? In general, you feel like sh*t and up your risk for potentially serious diseases.
Research suggests that chronic inflammation from eating too much sugar could:
- make you more prone to body pain
- zap your energy or make it harder to fall asleep
- up your risk for depression or anxiety
- make you more prone to infections
- make you more prone to digestive problems like constipation, diarrhea, or acid reflux
Chronic inflammation is also tied to a greater likelihood for many medical conditions, including:
- type 2 diabetes
- heart disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- arthritis and joint diseases like rheumatoid arthritis
While not all chronic inflammation is avoidable (some causes are genetic or the result of conditions like psoriasis or type 1 diabetes), you can prevent sugar-induced inflammation. The first step? Yep: Stop eating as much added sugar.
You don’t have to swear off dessert for good — just stick to those guidelines from the American Heart Association (less than 100 calories from sugar daily for women and 150 calories daily for men).
Here are some other ways to keep chronic inflammation low:
Fill up on anti-inflammatory foods
Diets rich in fruits and veggies, healthy fats, lean proteins, and whole grains can have an anti-inflammatory effect.
The most potent foods to reach for include berries, avocado, green tea, peppers, broccoli, fatty fish, grapes, turmeric, extra virgin olive oil, dark chocolate, cherries, and tomatoes.
Limit inflammatory foods
Saturated fats, trans fats, highly processed foods, and foods high in refined carbohydrates (like white bread) are all linked to greater levels of inflammation, so try not to eat them too often.
Stress can trigger the same pro-inflammatory pathways as added sugar, as well as spark the urge to eat more of the sweet stuff. Find ways to manage it — like exercise, journaling, or yoga — and make time for them regularly.
Regular workouts don’t just help keep stress levels in check. Research shows that just 20 minutes of moderate exercise can stimulate an anti-inflammatory response in your body at the cellular level.
Get enough sleep
Logging less than 6 hours per night is tied to significantly higher levels of inflammatory markers, according to a 2018 study.
So set a reasonable bedtime and stick to it. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, practicing good sleep hygiene can help.
Eating too much added sugar can lead to unhealthy levels of chronic inflammation, which can negatively affect your health.
You don’t have to avoid the sweet stuff entirely, but women should limit their added sugar intake to 25 grams, and men to 36 grams.
You can take other steps to fight inflammation, too, like eating anti-inflammatory foods, managing your stress level, exercising, and getting enough sleep.