The Harmful Effects of Sugar

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Is sugar really that bad
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When it comes to consumption and the effects of sugar, I often hear things like:

All things in moderation….

A little bit won’t hurt…

It’s fuel for the brain…

All justifications for consuming sugar in some amount. The question is: should sugar ever be consumed and if so, in what amount?

The Effects of Sugar…

Sugar exists in many forms besides just the white powdered (usually GMO) beet sugar we can pick up at the grocery store. There are effects of sugar in all of its forms (including corn syrup, honey, and maple syrup)  and we are consuming more of it now than ever before. For instance:

…Consumption of processed foods (which are laced with sugar) cost the American public more than $54 billion in dental bills each year, so the dental industry reaps huge profits from the programmed addiction of the public to sugar products. …Today we have a nation that is addicted to sugar. In 1915, the national average of sugar consumption (per year) was around 15 to 20 pounds per person. Today the average person consumes his/her weight in sugar, plus over 20 pounds of corn syrup. To add more horrors to these facts there are some people that use no sweets and some who use much less than the average figure, which means that there is a percentage of the population that consume a great deal more refined sugar than their body weight. The human body cannot tolerate this large amount of refined carbohydrates. The vital organs in the body are actually damaged by this gross intake of sugar.

I often hear the argument that sugar is ok in moderation and that eliminating any “food group” is dangerous. Certainly, avoiding an actual macronutrient category completely (carbohydrate, protein or fat) would be problematic, but sugar in itself is not a food group. Though sugar in some form is naturally present in many foods, by itself, it contains:

  • no nutrients
  • no protein
  • no healthy fats
  • no enzymes

Just empty and quickly digested calories that actually pull minerals from the body during digestion. It creates a hormone cascade when consumed that starts a positive feedback loop in the body to encourage more consumption. In a time when food was scarce and needed to be contained in large amounts in the summer when available to survive the winter, this was a good thing. In today’s world of constant access to processed foods, this natural biological purpose highlights one of the negative effects of sugar. Here’s why:

“Dr. David Reuben, author of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Nutrition says, “white refined sugar-is not a food. It is a pure chemical extracted from plant sources, purer in fact than cocaine, which it resembles in many ways. Its true name is sucrose and its chemical formula is C12H22O11. It has 12 carbon atoms, 22 hydrogen atoms, 11 oxygen atoms, and absolutely nothing else to offer.” …The chemical formula for cocaine is C17H21NO4. Sugar’s formula again is C12H22O11. For all practical purposes, the difference is that sugar is missing the “N”, or nitrogen atom.”

What’s in Sugar?

Most often, when we talk about sugar, we are referring to a mixture of glucose and fructose, both simple sugars that are contained in various amounts in different foods. As this article explains:

  • “Dextrose, fructose, and glucose are all monosaccharides, known as simple sugars. The primary difference between them is how your body metabolizes them. Glucose and dextrose are essentially the same sugar. However, food manufacturers usually use the term “dextrose” in their ingredient list.
  • The simple sugars can combine to form more complex sugars, like the disaccharide sucrose (table sugar), which is half glucose and half fructose.
  • High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose.
  • Ethanol (drinking alcohol) is not a sugar, although beer and wine contain residual sugars and starches, in addition to alcohol.
  • Sugar alcohols like xylitol, glycerol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, and erythritol are neither sugars nor alcohols but are becoming increasingly popular as sweeteners. They are incompletely absorbed from your small intestine, for the most part, so they provide fewer calories than sugar but often cause problems with bloating, diarrhea, and flatulence.
  • Sucralose (Splenda) is NOT a sugar, despite its sugar-like name and deceptive marketing slogan, “made from sugar.” It’s a chlorinated artificial sweetener in line with aspartame and saccharin, with detrimental health effects to match.
  • Agave syrup, falsely advertised as “natural,” is typically HIGHLY processed and is usually 80 percent fructose. The end product does not even remotely resemble the original agave plant.
  • Honey is about 53 percent fructose2, but is completely natural in its raw form and has many health benefits when used in moderation, including as many antioxidants as spinach.
  • Stevia is a highly sweet herb derived from the leaf of the South American stevia plant, which is completely safe (in its natural form). Lo han (or luohanguo) is another natural sweetener, but derived from a fruit.”

Fructose especially is harmful as Dr. Robert Lustig explains in this lecture and the effects of sugar on the body, especially the liver:

Is There Any Safe Amount of Sugar?

In my opinion, there is no safe amount of processed or refined sugar. Naturally contained sugars in fruit and vegetables are balanced by the fiber, vitamins, enzymes and other properties of the fruit/vegetable which slow sugar digestion and help the body deal with it more easily. Processed varieties, on the other hand, provide none of these benefits and instead create these harmful effects of sugar in the body:

  • Stresses the Liver: “When we eat fructose, it goes to the liver. If liver glycogen is low, such as after a run, the fructose will be used to replenish it (3).However, most people aren’t consuming fructose after a long workout and their livers are already full of glycogen. When this happens, the liver turns the fructose into fat (2). Some of the fat gets shipped out, but part of it remains in the liver. The fat can build up over time and ultimately lead to Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (4, 56).”
  • Increases Bad Cholesterol and Triglycerides (source)
  • Can contribute to Leptin Resistance (and then weight gain, cravings, sleep trouble, etc) – source
  • Creates an addictive sugar response in the brain (source)
  • Doesn’t fill you up and instead encourages you to eat more

Practically Speaking…

I realize that in today’s world, it can be tough to completely avoid sugar since it is so readily available. Unfortunately, the widespread availability doesn’t reduce the effects of sugar…

Especially for kids who are still developing their nutritional foundation, metabolism, and hormones, even a little sugar can be harmful. As hard as it can be sometimes, we try to stick to whole, real foods as much as possible and avoid any processed foods (especially those containing grains and sugars.

For us, this means cooking at home almost all the time. We work to teach our children about healthy eating at home and about the negative effects of sugar, but I also don’t completely restrict unhealthy foods if we are away from home for a few reasons….

  1. While they are young now and it is easy to make sure they are eating healthy foods, especially at home, they will one day grow up and be away from home and exposed to all types of foods. I think it is important to let them start to make food choices on their own (and they usually make healthy ones) while they are still young and I can still help guide their choices rather than completely restrict them.
  2. When kids are used to eating a really healthy diet, even a small amount of processed food will usually make them feel *yucky* and discourage them from eating it again.
  3. Exposure to other foods often leads to conversations about different types of foods and which are good/bad for the body.
  4. My kids typically make good food choices on their own and have become rather adventurous eaters since they aren’t restricted or expected to only consume chicken fingers or hamburgers when we aren’t at home. For instance, my two year old loves broccoli, olives, sardines and other healthy foods. Make the good foods readily available and make the unhealthy ones few and far between…

We also don’t consume sugary drinks – even juice. The only thing we use sugar for is making Kombucha, water kefir and homemade sodas, and the great majority of it is fermented out and converted to beneficial bacteria before we drink it.

Our breakfasts usually consist of eggs or leftovers, lunches are salads or soups and dinners are often a baked or grilled meat with many veggies.

Sounds like a lot of work? It certainly is more work than a meal-in-a-box meal, but so worth it! We haven’t had to take any of the kids to the doctor in years, all but one have never had antibiotics and they are happily active and fit naturally. My hope as they grow is to nurture their own healthy eating habits and develop a lifelong foundation for healthy eating.

Additional Reading

The Harmful Effects of Sugar on Mind and Body

Fructose: This Addictive Commonly Used Food Feeds Cancer Cells, Triggers Weight Gain, and Promotes Premature Aging

Sugar, not fat, exposed as deadly villain in obesity epidemic

What do you think? Is there ever a place for sugar? Do you consume it? Share below!

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


84 responses to “The Harmful Effects of Sugar”

  1. Anita Avatar

    I don’t by all the anti-sugar trend. Not all of it. Breast milk for example, I believe sugar is the #1 ingredient after water in the form of lactose. I would call breast milk a perfect food. I realize that it was made for a purpose, but that along with all the fruit in the world leads me to the common sense notion that our bodies are made to consume some amount of sugar. It seems I’ve been hearing lots of stories about people going completely off sugar and after a while having the same kind of issues you get with low blood sugar. Now, load up on sugar and I’m certain that you will have just as many issues, if not more. In our house, besides fruit, we use primarily date syrup or date sugar as it’s just fruit, and I’m good with that, or the occasional honey. I try to stay away sugar in all its other forms as much as possible.

  2. Linda Avatar

    Fascinating content and video. I am working on treating my body as my temple and sometimes I do get a sugar craving, so I have some fruit. I used to consume alot of ‘white death’ and honestly felt addicted. I gave up sugar, except in fruits, to counter my rheumatoid arthritis. Surprise! It is a lot better sine quitting sugar.
    Thank you so much for this educted, informed and well sourced article.

  3. Amy H. Avatar

    Yes Susan just to clarify my daughter is not sick. Those two times that she vomited had me concerned. It was because she didn’t have enough sugar to digest her last meal. Our bodies either burn sugar for energy or fat. Because people consume sugar daily we have lost the ability to burn fat instead of sugar. My daughter is now happily sugar free. She only vomited those two times and she never had any signs of illness. She has severe autism and since we eliminated sugar she is making a lot more eye contact and she’s a lot more engaged. She’ll even bring me books and sit on my lap and read together!! I posted on here because I wanted to know if other mom’s had experienced this when they eliminated sugar. But now I know it’s normal.

  4. Amy H. Avatar

    I eliminated sugar from my family’s diet but now my for year old has vomited twice both times in the middle of the night due to low sugar. Should I give her a bit of sugar? We are gluten free, soy free and dairy free. We don’t eat potatoes or corn or nightshades. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. I don’t want to give my kids sugar.

    1. Susan Avatar

      This site is not meant to replace the advice of a medical doctor. If I had a child throwing up in the middle of the night for unexplained reasons, I would seek medical attention immediately! (And it doesn’t have to be an MD, you could see a naturopathic physician.) Hoping your child is okay!!

  5. Emman Mwela Avatar
    Emman Mwela

    What about taking sugar that has been synthesized with vitamin A supplements, just how health is that

  6. nader Avatar

    Will we receive enough glucose from fruits and don’t need to eat any sugar meal in the day?

  7. Sierra Avatar

    Katie, I’ve read of many first hand accounts of stevia causing infertility and miscarriages. I would love to see that addressed in you blog. Sugar also contributes to stress, anxiety, and depression! Not to mention disrupted sleep and blotchy skin.

  8. Amy Avatar

    1) What did you mean when you said,
    “In a time when food was scarce and needed to be contained in large amounts in the summer when available to survive the winter, this was a good thing.”

    2) I thought that the bad/good cholesterol was a myth…

    1. Wellness Mama Avatar

      The sentence you quoted, in context basically is trying to convey that when there are large seasonal differences in food availability, a positive feedback loop (that is, cravings) that encourages massive consumption is a positive thing, since it means that you overeat and get fat when there is a lot of food so that when there is very little food, you can go without and have that fat to burn for energy. Nowadays that (seasonal food scarcity) is less of an issue. If you eat a lot of sugar and follow that feedback loop (cravings), you just get fat, end of story.

  9. Ariel Avatar

    A friend of mine found Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified pure cane sugar at Sam’s Club today. Wondering your thoughts on this? She says it is less sweet than traditional sugar (probably because it is not modified)

  10. Susan Mallett Avatar
    Susan Mallett

    Excellent article. Now that Halloween is just around the corner, people are gearing up to “treat” children with all kinds of pretty poison (sugar). Even well meaning churches hand out candy by the trunk-fulls. Sigh… We need a healthy revolution! 😀 Real food never tasted so good until I gave up refined sugar, processed and fast food.

  11. Brian Avatar

    Hi Katie, I’ve been doing some research on sugar free diets, not for being overweight, but other health reasons. Anyway, I’m getting ready to go buy the groceries. I haven’t found anywhere that says how much sugar is okay, if any. Do you have any suggestions? For example, I have a can of sweet peas that has 5g of sugar and 2 starch per serving. Peas are very good for your health, but they have that sugar. The actual ingredients are only peas and water. Whatcha think?
    Thanks for you help!

  12. Nana Avatar

    “The chemical formula for cocaine is C17H21NO4. Sugar’s formula again is C12H22O11. For all practical purposes, the difference is that sugar is missing the “N”, or nitrogen atom.”

    Sorry but this article lost its credibility here. One atom can make a substance have entirely different physical and chemical properties, and these two have much more than a one atom difference. CO, carbon monoxide, will kill you, yet it has only a one-atom difference to carbon dioxide, the waste product of respiration. Carbon dioxide in turn only has a one-atom difference to O2, oxygen gas, which is necessary for survival. Only someone who lacks a fundamental understanding of chemistry would make the claims listed above.

  13. Nana Avatar

    “The chemical formula for cocaine is C17H21NO4. Sugar’s formula again is C12H22O11. For all practical purposes, the difference is that sugar is missing the “N”, or nitrogen atom.”

    Sorry but this article lost its credibility here. One atom can make a substance have entirely different physical and chemical properties, and these two have much more than a one atom difference. CO, carbon monoxide, will kill you, yet it has only a one-atom difference to carbon dioxide, the waste product of respiration. Carbon dioxide in turn only has a one-atom difference to O2, oxygen gas, which is necessary for survival. Only someone who lacks a fundamental understanding of chemistry would make the claims listed above.

  14. Mikki Gilmore Avatar
    Mikki Gilmore

    I cut sugar out of my diet and I am a completely different person. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia 20 years ago along with being bipolar, clinically depressed (and suicidal), and having PTSD. Guess what? Not any more. It is like a light bulb was turned on. I can think clearly, have much less pain (I do have arthritis) but not like before. I have simple carbs once in a while but I do not crave them anymore. I am living proof that sugar can cause health problems that doctors give you more chemicals to ingest reaping more havoc on an already compromised system. Preach it to this sugar crazed population – SUGAR IS NOT JUST BAD, IT’S A KILLER.

  15. Haley Avatar

    I recently did the 8-week sugar detox using the book “I Quit Sugar” by Sarah Wilson. It was a great experience and has changed my diet and outlook on nutrition, especially regarding sugar. I would definitely recommend it to anyone trying to cut out sugar and have a better understanding of the foods it is present in. It is one of the best things I have done for my health and I am feeling so much more energized and healthy as a result of it. Thanks for the great post Katie!

  16. Glenn Johnson Avatar
    Glenn Johnson

    Great article. You clearly put a lot of time into it.
    I’m writing a speech right now about sugar and I’m talking about the villains, the forces that are pushing sugar on us. Even people that talk about how bad sugar is, turn around and give it to their kids, or their grand kids.

    This is evil stuff. A true definition of a devil – sweet on the outside, but causes harm to your insides.

  17. Liz Avatar

    It is really hard to bake certain recipes without sugar but a good alternative that is very similar in weight and has the same taste as cane sugar is xylitol.This is completely natural and has about 30-40 percent less calories than cane sugar so doesn’t spike your blood glucose levels like cane sugar does and is even suitable for diabetics!it is the same colour as cane sugar and may be slightly more expensive but I think you would find that people wouldn’t mind spending a little more on their “treats”ESP.if there are fewer calories involved……all the naturopaths and homeopaths that I know use xylitol as a sugar substitute if they consume sugar at all!

  18. Mel Avatar

    I am recently reading a lot about the negative affects of sugar. The problem is that I am a baker (as a hobby). Mostly cakes, and cake decorating, but cookies and other baked goods as well at times. I do try to experiment cutting back the amount of sugar in recipes, but if I want to completely eliminate sugar from our diets… what is your suggestion for how to bake cakes/cookies without the sugar? I guess the secondary question would be what flour to use as well to avoid the problems there? I started trying to use whole wheat flour, but am now finding out that can be just as bad. I have a cookie recipe that I use oat flour (that I make myself by grinding up oats) and use half the amount of sugar the recipe calls for. But in general, is it possible to bake cakes without sugar? Please help!

    1. Kathy Hart Avatar
      Kathy Hart

      Mel, I am between a vegetarian and trying to get full vegan. I am not a dessert person, but there are tons of ways to make sweets without any added sugars.
      I started subscribing (free and online) to Please check out their website.
      They have tons of great recipes including desserts, and a super easy recipe for making real chocolates. Healthy ones, and only using 3 ingredients! Organic Cacao Powder; organic, raw, cold pressed Coconut Oil, and organic, raw honey. All sorts of cakes, pies, just tons of desserts in general! Best to ya!

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