June 18, 2024

Does Eating Too Much Sugar Cause Diabetes?

It’s true that eating large amounts of added sugar can make you develop diabetes, but sugar intake is just one piece of the puzzle. Still, regularly eating lots of sugar can raise your risk.

Many other factors — including overall diet, lifestyle, and genetics — also affect your chance of developing diabetes.

This article reviews sugar’s role in developing diabetes and provides tips for preventing the disease.

Diabetes occurs when your body cannot effectively regulate blood sugar levels. This can happen when your pancreas stops producing enough insulin, your cells become resistant to insulin, or both.

Insulin is a hormone that moves sugar from your bloodstream and into your cells. If your body doesn’t make enough or you become insulin resistant, you can develop chronically high blood sugar levels.

High blood sugar levels over a long period can increase your risk of heart disease, nerve damage, and kidney damage.

There are two primary types of diabetes:

  Type 1: This autoimmune disease happens when your immune system attacks your pancreas, destroying its ability to produce insulin.

 Type 2: When the pancreas stops producing enough insulin, your body’s cells no longer respond to the insulin.

Type 1 diabetes is relatively rare, accounting for about 5–10% of diabetes cases worldwide.

Type 2 diabetes — the focus of this article — accounts for more than 90% of diabetes cases. It’s primarily triggered by diet and lifestyle factors.

According to research, regularly consuming sugar-sweetened beverages can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.

Data from 175 countries found that sugar intake was significantly correlated with diabetes risk. While high sugar intake increased the risk, low sugar intake reduced it.

Although these studies do not prove that sugar causes diabetes, the association is strong. Many researchers believe that sugar increases diabetes risk both directly and indirectly.

It may directly increase diabetes risk because of the impact fructose has on your liver.

Eating large amounts of sugar can also indirectly raise diabetes risk by contributing to weight gain and higher body fat — both of which are separate risk factors for developing diabetes.

To reduce the adverse effects of high sugar consumption, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 10% of your total daily calories come from added sugars.

While eating large amounts of added sugars has been linked to diabetes, the same is not true for natural sugars.

Natural sugars are found in fruits and vegetables and have not been added during manufacturing or processing. Because they’re combined with fiber, water, and other nutrients, they’re digested more slowly and are less likely to spike your blood sugar.

Fruits and vegetables also tend to contain far less sugar by weight than many processed foods, so it’s easier to keep your consumption in check.

Fruit juice

Research is mixed on whether drinking 100% fruit juice increases diabetes risk.

Even when natural juice is high in sugar and low in fiber, it can spike your blood sugar. However, combining it with fat, fiber, and protein sources may prevent blood sugar spikes.

The American Diabetes Association recommends replacing fruit juice with water or calorie-free beverages.

Natural sweeteners

Honey and maple syrup, although not as heavily processed as table sugar, are still relatively pure sources of sugar.

Many other sweeteners marketed as “natural” should also be considered added sugar. These include agave syrup, coconut sugar, and cane sugar, to name a few.

Artificial sweeteners are manufactured, sweet-tasting substances that cannot be metabolized for energy. They provide sweetness without any calories.

Though artificial sweeteners don’t spike blood sugar levels, they have still been linked to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. However, experts don’t fully understand why this is.

One theory is that artificially sweetened products increase cravings for sweet-tasting foods, causing you to eat more sugary foods.

However, it’s important to note that for people with diabetes, diet soda is still a better option than full-sugar soda.

When most people talk about sugar, they’re referring to sucrose, or table sugar.

Sucrose is composed of one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose bonded together.

When you eat sucrose, the glucose and fructose molecules are separated by enzymes in your small intestine before being absorbed into your bloodstream. This raises blood sugar levels and tells your pancreas to release insulin. Insulin carries glucose from the bloodstream and into your cells, where it can be used for energy.

While a small amount of fructose can also be taken up by cells and used for energy, the majority is carried to your liver. There, it’s either converted to glucose for energy or stored as fat.

Since fructose can be converted to fat, consuming a lot of it tends to increase triglyceride levels. This may increase your risk of heart disease and fatty liver disease.

A high fructose intake is also associated with higher uric acid levels in the blood. If these uric acid crystals settle in your joints, you can develop gout. This is a painful condition that causes soreness and swelling in the joints.

While consuming large amounts of added sugar is linked to an increased risk of diabetes, many other factors are at play, such as:

  Body weight: Research shows that obesity is one of the primary risk factors for type 2 diabetes, but losing weight can decrease your risk.

  Exercise: People who live sedentary lifestyles have nearly twice the risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who are active. Just 150 minutes of moderate activity and up to 3 sessions of resistance training per week can reduce your risk.

  Smoking: Smoking can significantly increase your risk of diabetes, but quitting brings the risk nearly back to usual.

  Sleep apnea: Sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing is obstructed during the night, is a unique risk factor for diabetes.

  Genetics: Experts don’t fully understand the role of genetics, but you’re more likely to develop diabetes if one or both of your parents have it.

In addition to cutting back on added sugars, there are many other dietary changes you can make to reduce your diabetes risk:

  Follow a whole-food diet: Diets rich in nuts, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, and whole grains have been linked to a reduced risk of diabetes.

  Drink coffee: Drinking coffee without adding anything to it may reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes. Many popular coffee drinks are high in added sugar, so be mindful of what you add to yours.

  Eat green leafy vegetables: Eating a diet rich in green leafy vegetables has been linked to a lower risk of diabetes.

If reducing your intake of added sugars feels overwhelming, you can start by simply reducing your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, which are the primary source of added sugars in the standard American diet.

This one small change could make a big impact.

Carefully reading nutrition labels is another must since there are over 50 names for sugar in food products. Learning to notice them is the first step in reducing your consumption.

There are many ways to reduce sugar while enjoying a flavorful and nutrient-dense diet so you don’t have to feel deprived.

Excessive amounts of added sugars have been associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, likely due to adverse effects on the liver and a higher risk of obesity.

Natural sugars like those found in fruits and vegetables are not linked to diabetes risk, unlike artificial sweeteners.

In addition to sugar consumption, overall diet quality, body weight, sleep quality, physical activity, and genetics all play a role in the development of the disease.

A diet rich in fruits, whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats, vegetables, nuts, and coffee is recommended. Consuming alcohol in moderation, maintaining the recommended body weight for your age and height, and exercising regularly can also help reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes.