Sure, sugar is empty calories and devoid of nutrients, but that’s not the only reason to purge it from your diet and your life. Studies show that a diet high in sugar negatively affects at least 5 organs in your body, organs that have an important function that helps you stay healthy.
Here’s an eye-opening statistic. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average American consumes around 27 pounds of sugar each year. If that’s the case for you, several organs in your body are taking a beating. Let’s look at what body parts you’re doing damage to when you indulge in a high-sugar diet.
Some say the brain is the most important organ in the human body. Who can argue with that? Without it, you would have no identity and no consciousness. Plus, your brain coordinates the function of every organ in your body, so you’d be lost without it. You want the gray and white matter in your brain to stay healthy. Sugar can negatively affect brain function short-term by causing a rapid rise and fall in blood sugar. In response to blood sugar swings, you might feel tired, anxious, lightheaded, dizzy, or have brain fog.
But there are other negative effects of sugar on the brain. Animal studies show that animals that eat a diet high in sugar and fat have lower levels of a neurotrophin called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) that your brain needs for learning, memory, and to form new pathways and connections. Higher levels of BDNF are linked with better cognitive function and mental health.
If you’re eating a lot of sugar, rethink it, since BDNF naturally falls as you get older, which may explain why cognitive function declines with age. Fortunately, aerobic exercise also boosts BDNF.
Your heart isn’t immune to the effects of a high-sugar diet either. One study found that people who got 25% or more of their daily calories from sugar had double the risk of dying of cardiovascular disease relative to those who ate a diet with 10% or less of their calories from sugar. Other ways a diet rich in sugar affects heart health is by:
- Causing weight gain and contributing to obesity
- Contributing to insulin resistance
- Negative effects on blood lipids
- Boosting blood pressure by increasing sodium retention
Your pancreas is the organ that makes insulin, a hormone your cells need to take up glucose. Plus, it produces enzymes you need to digest your food. So, it plays a critical role in health and nutrition. Dietary sugar also affects the pancreas, although the link is indirect. People who eat a high-sugar diet can build up fat in the pancreas, and that negatively affects blood sugar control and the release of insulin.
The weight gain that goes along with a diet high in sugar also worsens insulin sensitivity and increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. Studies show that type 2 diabetics have more fat in their pancreas. When people with a “fatty pancreas” lose weight, it improves insulin function and can even reverse type 2 diabetes in some cases.
Your pancreas isn’t the only organ where fat builds up when you eat too much sugar. The liver has that distinction too. Experts called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a medical condition where fat accumulates in the liver, a “tsunami,” since so many people suffer from it, and many don’t know they have it. Obesity and consuming too much sugar, especially fructose, are two of the biggest contributors to NAFLD.
Why is NAFLD such a problem? Up to 10% of people with this condition will develop non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) where the liver becomes inflamed. In a small number of cases, this can progress to cirrhosis of the liver, where portions of the liver scar and lose their function. Research shows eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages, total sugar, and calories, along with weight loss helps reverse non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Yes, even your skin gets dinged when you consume too much sugar. A diet high in sugar, especially if you have an elevated blood sugar level, causes collagen and elastin, two proteins that keep your skin looking youthful, to form cross-links. These cross-links lead to skin laxity and wrinkles. Plus, sugar can worsen some skin conditions, including acne and rosacea. If you want your skin to look its best and age slower, cut back on sugar and ultra-processed carbohydrates. Choose more nutrient-dense carbohydrate sources that are high in fiber, such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and fruits.
The Bottom Line
Sugar doesn’t just add inches to your waistline, it also affects the function of many of the organs in your body. If you gradually cut back on sugar, you give your body a chance to adapt and you’re less likely to experience withdrawal cravings. So, why not start today by slowly cutting back on the amount of sugar in your diet? If you still need something sweet, reach for a piece of whole fruit rather than something sweetened with sugar, or its less healthy relative, high-fructose corn syrup. You have alternatives. Take advantage of those options and don’t fuel your body with sugar. Taper it back slowly if you can’t go cold turkey. It’s worth it!
- LiveStrong.com. “Is Eating Too Much Sugar Bad for the Pancreas?”
- ScienceDaily.com. “Type 2 diabetes reversed by losing fat from pancreas”
- J Hepatol. 2018 May;68(5):1063-1075. doi: 10.1016/j.jhep.2018.01.019. Epub 2018 Feb 2.
- Mackay CP, Kuys SS, Brauer SG. The Effect of Aerobic Exercise on Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor in People with Neurological Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Neural Plast. 2017;2017:4716197. doi:10.1155/2017/4716197.
- Jensen T, Abdelmalek MF, Sullivan S, Nadeau KJ, Green M, Roncal C, Nakagawa T, Kuwabara M, Sato Y, Kang DH, Tolan DR, Sanchez-Lozada LG, Rosen HR, Lanaspa MA, Diehl AM, Johnson RJ. Fructose and sugar: A major mediator of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. J Hepatol. 2018 May;68(5):1063-1075. doi: 10.1016/j.jhep.2018.01.019. Epub 2018 Feb 2. PMID: 29408694; PMCID: PMC5893377.
- UCSF.edu. “The Toxic Truth”