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How do our bodies get sugar?

Sweets, sugary carbonated and energy drinks are one way that our bodies get sugar. Sugar, in some form, is in many things we eat as well. It also comes from foods rich in carbohydrates, such as bread, potatoes, and fruits. Once it is passed into the bloodstream in the form of glucose, it is controlled via insulin secreted by the pancreas. It is sent to the cells as a source of energy, and the excess amounts are turned into fat and stored in the body. If for some reason there is no sugar or carbohydrates in our diet, the cells can turn fat and protein into glucose as a last resort, because they need glucose to survive.

Does too much sugar make us sick?

A high-sugar diet can lead to chromium deficiency. Chromium is a trace mineral that helps regulate blood sugar in the body. It has also been found that excess sugar accelerates aging. After sugar hits our bloodstream, it attaches to proteins. This mixture causes the skin to lose its elasticity, then leads to premature aging in the form of wrinkles and sagging.[i] Excess sugar has been known to cause tooth decay.[ii] Furthermore, sugar can cause gum disease, which can lead to heart disease.[iii]

 A systematic analysis that was published in The Lancet, looked at global and regional mortality from 235 causes of death for 20 age groups in 1990 and 2010, and found that chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes are among the leading causes of death worldwide.[iv] It appears that long-term overconsumption of sugars is linked to a set of issues that is called Metabolic Syndrome.

What is Metabolic Syndrome (MetS)?

MetS is a set of symptoms that increase the chances of developing a chronic disease, such as diabetes, heart disease and liver disease.  These are[v]:

  • Large Waist Size: 35” or more for women and 40” for men 
  • High triglycerides: 150 mg/dL or higher (or use of cholesterol medication)
  • High total cholesterol,  or HDL levels under 50 mg/dL for women, 40 mg for men
  • High blood pressure: 135/85 mm or higher
  • High blood sugar: 100 mg/dL or higher

The standard American diet – heavy in processed, packaged foods have a lot to do with this condition. According to the American Heart Association, 56 million Americans have metabolic syndrome, roughly one in five people (22.9%) over the age of 20, placing them at higher risk for chronic disease. The syndrome runs in families and varies across racial-ethnic groups.[vi]  One of the most obvious signs of metabolic syndrome is a “sugar belly,” a condition where the waist measurement is larger than the hips.

How does excess sugar consumption lead to MetS?

Consuming large quantities of sugar (or carbohydrates) stresses critical organs, such as pancreas and liver. When pancreas is overworked, it fails to regulate blood sugar properly. When liver is overwhelmed with excess sugar, it will convert excess sugar to fat, which is stored in the liver and is also released into the bloodstream, resulting in MetS symptoms (i.e. high blood fats or triglycerides, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and extra body fat in the form of a sugar belly). An individual does not have to be overweight to suffer from MetS, which means we are all at risk for MetS and for chronic disease.

What is the impact of MetS on our health?

As briefly stated previously, MetS is closely related to heart disease and diabetes. In the United States, there are 16 million people who have heart disease, and it is known that excess weight gain strains the heart.

Consuming too much sugar may also lead to diabetes, which affects 25.8 million Americans. Diabetes can cause kidney failure, lower-limb amputations, and blindness. It also doubles the risk of colon and pancreatic cancers.[vii] Diabetes is strongly associated with coronary artery disease and has also been linked to dementia.[viii]

Is there a relationship between cancer and excess sugar? 

Cancer cells usually grow quickly and multiply at a fast rate, which takes a lot of energy. Logically, this would mean that they need lots of glucose, and if we were to cut sugar out of our diets we should be able to stop the growth of cancer cells, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. All our healthy cells also need glucose, and there’s no way of telling our bodies to let healthy cells have the glucose they need, but not give it to cancer cells.

According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, there is no evidence that following a “sugar-free” diet lowers the risk of getting cancer, or boosts the chances of cancer survival.  In fact, following severely restricted diets with very low amounts of carbohydrate could damage health in the long term, which is particularly important for cancer patients, because some treatments can result in weight loss and put the body under a lot of stress. Therefore, poor nutrition from restrictive diets could also hamper recovery, or even be life-threatening. However, we should still be concerned about the amount of excess sugar people are consuming because there is an indirect link between cancer risk and sugar.  Excess sugar promotes weight gain, and being overweight or obese increases the risk of least 13 types of cancer.

Although there are some studies suggesting a close relationship between excess sugar consumption and cancer,[ix] evidence of the association of the intake of mono- and disaccharides with different types of cancer is insufficient or there is evidence of lack of association. However, there is possible evidence of a positive association between glycemic index (GI) and colorectal cancer and that there is no association between GI and the risk of endometrial cancer, breast cancer and pancreas cancer. Therefore, more research is needed to clarify this matter.[x]

What is Glycemic Index?

The Glycemic index (GI) is used to measure the effect of a particular carbohydrate on blood sugar levels. Itis measured by monitoring blood sugar levels in volunteers after they have eaten 50 grams of carbohydrate from a tested food. Blood sugars are checked every 15 minutes. The changes in blood sugar levels are compared with those from at standard reference, or comparison food. The increase in blood sugar from the test food is compared with that from the reference food, and the results are given as a percentage. This percentage determines the GI number. In general, lower is better! Keep in mind that processed foods will raise blood sugars and insulin levels more rapidly, especially when eaten alone.

[i] Sensi, M., Pricci, F., Andreani, D., et al., “Advanced Nonenzymatic Glycation Endproducts (AGE): Their Relevance to Aging and the Pathogenesis of Late Diabetic Complications.” Diabetes Research, 16(1), 1991, pages 1-9.

[ii] “Dental Caries and Its Complications: Tooth Decay.” In The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, edited by Robert Berkow, et al. Rahway, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories, 1992.

[iii] Geerts, S.O., Legrand, V., Charpentier, J., et al. “Further evidence of the association between periodontal conditions and coronary artery disease.” Journal of Periodontology, 75(9), 2004, pages 1274-80.

[iv] Lozano, R., Naghavi, M., Foreman, et al. (2013). Global and regional mortality from 235 causes of death for 20 age groups in 1990 and 2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. The Lancet , 380(9859), 2095-2128. Retrieved from

[v] Executive Summary of The Third Report of The National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, And Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol In Adults (Adult Treatment Panel III). JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, (2001). 285(19), 2486-2497. Retrieved from

[vi] Go, A.S., et al. (2014). AHA Statistical Update:Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics – 2014 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association . Circulation , 129, e28-e292. doi:10.1161/01.cir.0000441139.02102.80 . Retrieved from

[vii] Ben, Q., Xu, M., Ning, X., Liu, J., Hong, S., et al (2011). Diabetes mellitus and risk of pancreatic cancer: A meta-analysis of cohort studies. European Journal of Cancer (Oxford, England: 1990), 47(13), 1928 – 1937.     doi:10.1016/j.ejca.2011.03.003. Retrieved from

[viii] Crane, P.K., Walker, R., Hubbard, R.A., et al. (2013, August 8). Glucose Levels and Risk of Dementia. New England Journal of Medicine , 369(6), 540-548. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1215740. Retrieved from

[ix] Garcia-Jimenez, C., Garcia-Martinez, J.M., Chocarro-Calvo, A., & De la Vieja, A. (2014). A new link between diabetes and cancer: enhanced WNT/beta-catenin signaling by high glucose. Journal of Molecular Endocrinology , 52(1). doi:10.1530/JME-13-0152. Retrieved from:

[x] Aranceta Bartrina, J., & Perez Rodrigo, C. (2013). Association between sucrose intake and cancer: a review of the evidence. Nutr Hosp , 28(Suppl 4), 95-105. doi:10.3305/nh.2013.28.sup4.6802. Retrieved from

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