February 3rd, 2014
04:01 PM ET

Sugar not only makes you fat, it may make you sick

In recent years, sugar - more so than fat - has been receiving the bulk of the blame for our deteriorating health.

Most of us know we consume more sugar than we should.  Let's be honest, it's hard not to.

The (new) bad news is that sugar does more damage to our bodies than we originally thought.  It was once considered to be just another marker for an unhealthy diet and obesity.  Now sugar is considered an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease, as well as many other chronic diseases, according a study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“Sugar has adverse health effects above any purported role as ‘empty calories’ promoting obesity,” writes Laura Schmidt, a professor of health policy in the School of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, in an accompanying editorial. “Too much sugar doesn’t just make us fat; it can also make us sick.”

But how much is too much? Turns out not nearly as much as you may think.  As a few doctors and scientists have been screaming for a while now, a little bit of sugar goes a long way.

Added sugars, according to most experts, are far more harmful to our bodies than naturally-occurring sugars.  We're talking about the sugars used in processed or prepared foods like sugar-sweetened beverages, grain-based desserts, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, candy, ready-to-eat cereal and yeast breads. Your fruits and (natural) fruit juices are safe.

Recommendations for your daily allotment of added sugar vary widely:

- The Institute of Medicine recommends that added sugars make up less than 25% of your total calories
- The World Health Organization recommends less than 10%
- The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to less than 100 calories daily for women and 150 calories daily for men

The U.S. government hasn't issued a dietary limit for added sugars, like it has for calories, fats, sodium, etc.  Furthermore, sugar is classified by the Food and Drug administration as "generally safe," which allows manufacturers to add unlimited amounts to any food.

"There is a difference between setting the limit for nutrients or other substances in food and setting limits for what people should be consuming," an FDA spokesperson wrote in an e-mail to CNN. "FDA does not set limits for what people should be eating."

"With regard to setting a regulatory limit for added sugar in food, FDA would carefully consider scientific evidence in determining whether regulatory limits are needed, as it would for other substances in food."

There is some good news. While the mean percentage of calories consumed from added sugars increased from 15.7% in 1988-1994 to 16.8% in 1999-2004, it actually decreased to 14.9% between 2005 and 2010. But most adults still consumed 10% or more of their calories from added sugar and about 1 in 10 people consumed 25% or more of their calories from sugar during the same time period.

Participants in the study who consumed approximately 17 to 21% of their calories from added sugar had a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, compared with those who consumed approximately 8% of calories from added sugar, the study authors concluded.

“This relative risk was more than double for those who consumed 21% or more of calories from added sugar,” they wrote.

The Sugar Association said in a statement there "are a number of major flaws with this new study and the sensationalism associated with targeting sugar is fueling the media." The authors conclude that "an observational study like theirs is not proof of cause and effect," the association noted, and "extensive knowledge gaps exist."

"Bottom line: All-natural sugar has been consumed safely for centuries, and when consumed in moderation, has been and should continue to be part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle," the statement said.

Schmidt writes in the study that these new findings “provide physicians and consumers with actionable guidance. Until federal guidelines are forthcoming, physicians may want to caution patients that, to support cardiovascular health, it’s safest to consume less than 15% of their daily calories from added sugar.”

That’s the equivalent, Schmidt points out, of drinking one 20-ounce Mountain Dew soda in a 2,000-calorie diet.

“From there, the risk rises exponentially as a function of increased sugar intake,” she writes.

In a statement, the American Beverage Association said the study "shows that adult consumption of added sugars has actually declined, as recently reported by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

"A significant part of that reduction is from decreased added sugars from beverages due, in part, to our member companies' ongoing innovation in providing more low- and no-calorie options. Furthermore, this is an observational study which cannot - and does not - show that cardiovascular disease is caused by drinking sugar-sweetened beverages."

Despite our changing scientific understanding and a growing body of evidence on sugar overconsumption as an independent risk factor in chronic disease, sugar regulation remains an uphill battle in the United States.  This is contrasted by the increased frequency of regulation abroad, where 15 countries now have taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages.

“‘Sin taxes,’ whether on tobacco, alcohol, or sugar-laden products, are popular because they are easy to enforce and generate revenue, with a well-documented evidence base supporting their effectiveness for lowering consumption,” writes Schmidt.

But forget about the short-term monetary cost.  Before you reach for that next sugary treat, think long and hard about the long-term cost to your health.

soundoff (636 Responses)
  1. Peter

    Before starting any physical workout, we have to prepare a diet chart. Sugar is strictly prohibited during the dieting period. But I didn’t know that sugar also make you sick. Thanks for sharing such a valuable and informative post. I also found some good diet plan from this site, http://www.sizeandshapefitness.com

    March 27, 2014 at 03:08 | Report abuse | Reply
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  3. Elwyn Richards

    Frankly, I no longer believe anything the so called experts on health and diet tell us. With so many conflicting claims about foods and drink, I am now quite convinced that the "experts" haven't got a clue what they are talking about. We have been told that "superfoods " such as broccoli, garlic, blueberries, carrots,mushrooms, green tea and a plethora of other foodstuffs can destroy cancer cells, prevent the onset of Alzheimer's, and many other complaints. In the next breath they are telling us that there is no scientific evidence that these superfoods are of any benefit to our health. I would urge people to totally disregard everything those buffoons, who tell us what is and isn't good for us, say. I have been eating ALL the food they say is bad for me since I was 18, I am now 92. It's all bull***t, my friends.

    April 19, 2014 at 13:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. jward199

    All carbohydrates break down in your system into glucose (a simple form of sugar), producing a rapid increase in blood sugar levels. When your blood sugar is elevated, your pancreas secretes insulin to clear glucose (which is toxic in excess) from your blood and store it in liver, muscle, or fat cells. Once the liver and muscle glycogen cells are full – as they are nearly all the time in sedentary people – the remainder of the glucose is converted to and stored as fat.

    May 13, 2014 at 13:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ruth

      1. Your brain and nervous system work on glucose. glucose is NOT a toxin. Fructose is much more of a problem than glucose.
      2. Natural sugars from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are not the same as refined sugars.

      Stop spouting nonsense you don't understand just because someone told you, or you read about it somewhere.

      December 4, 2014 at 18:08 | Report abuse |
    • jward199

      Ruth, you misunderstood my comment. Insulin can be toxic. I didn't say that glucose was toxic. Perhaps you should read more carefully before you tell others to "stop spouting nonsense you don't understand just because someone told you, or you read about it somewhere."

      January 27, 2015 at 21:01 | Report abuse |
  5. Melody Gramer

    I do not even think a little bit of sugar is safe. I have kicked sugar for a few years now, not even indulging in a brown or piece of cake here and there because I know the stuff is just toxic. Plus it doesn't even taste the same to me now as it used to when my diet was full of high-glycemic carbs and dairy. It is better to just get rid of it from our diets because after a while our palate changes and we start to like other tastes better, but it is addictive which is why people can't.

    May 24, 2014 at 07:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Andy

      sugar is addictive because it feeds the bad fungus in the intestines that sends hungry signals to the brain. Probiotics, will stop this from occurring when you eat foods that convert to sugar in your body, like grains.

      June 21, 2014 at 17:16 | Report abuse |
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    June 14, 2014 at 21:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Andy

    Sugar is a death sentence that includes all grains.... however, you need some grains, like sweet potatoes, granola is good if you eat it with a pro-biotic yogurt l Limit your fruits. Protein and fats are the best to eat... meats, nuts, beans....

    June 21, 2014 at 17:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ruth

      Sweet potatoes are not grains.
      Granola has tons of refined sugar in it and is terrible for you. Muesli is much healthier. Fruits are healthier than most meats. Unless you are eating grass fed organic meat you are eating something that has very high concentrations of toxins in it.

      December 4, 2014 at 18:11 | Report abuse |
  8. R.B. Rambo

    I cannot speak for anyone else, but sugar does make me sick. I believe it fuels infection for me. When I was eating sweets, especially those with high fructose corn sugar, I experienced many skin infections. I also have been diagnosed with diverticulosis. The attacks of diverticulitis usually occurred in December and January for several years. I fueled my condition with halloween candy then on to the holidays with all the goodies. For the last year I have avoided as much sugar as possible, resulting in an infection free year. I think there is something to the claim that too much sugar is bad for health.

    January 4, 2015 at 11:26 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.