10 Things That Can Happen to Your Body When You Cut Out Sugar
Data suggests that daily sugar intake for 90% of Americans regularly exceeds the Dietary Guidelines' recommendation, a statistic that illustrates just how much sugar we consume. This intake contributes to obesity and can increase our risk for heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, depression and even some types of cancer.
Significantly reducing or cutting out sugar is a smart move for everyone, regardless of age and health status, but this doesn't mean cutting out all forms of sugar. Natural sugars found in fruit, some dairy products and some vegetables come packaged with other nutrients like fiber, vitamins and minerals, and foods with natural sugars aren't associated with the health risks above. In fact, they are considered important components of a healthy diet when consumed in appropriate amounts.
Instead, added sugars (the ones added to foods during processing, production or cooking) are the ones to target. Added sugars come in many forms, including refined versions like brown sugar or corn syrup and more natural-sounding versions like honey and maple syrup. But no matter the form, the result is the same. Added sugars contribute calories while providing few, if any, nutrients, which makes them unnecessary and harmful in excess. So, what happens when you cut out added sugars? Turns out, the effects go way beyond improvements to weight and blood glucose.
8 Things That Can Happen When You Cut Out Added Sugar
1. You'll lose a few pounds.
Eating the same foods, but without the added sugars normally in them, means your total caloric intake decreases. An analysis of dozens of trials and observational studies published in BMJ showed that reducing added sugar in the diet—by anywhere from 10 to 71 grams a day—decreased body weight. (As long as those calories weren't replaced with others.) Participants dropped an average of almost 2 pounds without changing anything else about their eating habits. In two other studies lasting 10 weeks and 6 months, subjects who consumed between 87 and 105 grams more added sugar daily gained 6 pounds on average. The researchers point out that there's probably nothing special about the effect of added sugars on body weight. It just comes down to excess calories—although the less-satiating nature of simple carbs may also play a role. Another study suggests this can mean a 14% decrease in total calories, which may mean you consume 280 fewer calories when based on a 2,000-calorie day. Keep this up for a month, and you may lose 2 to 3 pounds just by cutting added sugars.
2. You'll decrease your diabetes risk.
Studies have shown that high sugar consumption— especially of sweetened beverages—can increase the odds of developing the disease. Scientists explain this in large part by the weight that people gain when they consume lots of calories in the form of nutritionally empty sugar. Being overweight or obese is often accompanied by problems with blood sugar control and reduced sensitivity to insulin that leads to type 2 diabetes.
Cutting added sugars makes it easier to manage weight and to keep blood glucose levels within healthy parameters, both of which lower your diabetes risk. This stems from the fact that added sugars help to fuel a cyclical cascade of effects that cause metabolic and hormonal changes to increase risk of diabetes. Added sugars contribute excess calories; excess calorie intake leads to weight gain; weight gain, along with higher blood glucose levels from consuming added sugars, leads to insulin resistance; insulin resistance leads to more weight gain.
But the reverse is also true. In three large prospective observational studies of almost 200,000 American men and women published in the journal Diabetes Care, researchers found that people who replaced one daily sugary beverage or fruit juice with water or another type of unsweetened drink had up to a 10% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. So, cutting added sugars is a key factor in stopping this cycle and slashing your risk.
3. Your skin's aging process will slow.
Cutting out excess added sugar and keeping blood glucose within healthy parameters may slow the rate at which skin ages. A high-sugar diet leads to the production of AGEs (advanced glycation end products), and AGEs are associated with acceleration in the skin's aging process. In fact, research suggests that decreasing sugar intake may slow the aging effects that AGEs have on skin aging by up to 25%.
4. You'll be less likely to get sick.
Chronic, low-grade inflammation has been linked to nearly every major disease of lifestyle and aging, including arthritis, G.I. disorders and metabolic syndrome. Studies in mice have found that high sugar intake changes the balance of bacteria in the gut, increasing the type with pro-inflammatory properties. The evidence in humans is sparse and still emerging, but a 2018 systematic review of 13 studies with more than 1,100 participants showed that all types of added sugars (fructose, sucrose, glucose, HFCS) ratcheted up levels of C-reactive protein—a key marker of inflammation. Chronic inflammation is an unhealthy and abnormal immune reaction in the body that leads to an overworked immune system, and added sugars are a key diet component known to exacerbate this type of inflammation.
On the flip side, a study published in the journal Nutrition Research found that a decrease of around 23 grams in daily added sugar intake was associated with a significant reduction in C-reactive protein. Cutting out added sugars can help minimize existing inflammation, as well as preventing new inflammation. This improves overall immune function, so the body can effectively fight off pathogens, reducing your susceptibility to illness.
5. Sugar cravings will decrease.
Frequent intake of sugary foods and beverages fuels more cravings. This is because sugar triggers the release of dopamine, which stimulates the brain's reward center, similar to how addictive drugs impact the brain. Because of this, it's not unusual to experience mild withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, anxiety and greater-than-normal sugar cravings for a few days when you cut sugar out. Ride this out for a few days though, and cravings for sugary, high-carb foods will begin to decrease significantly. To minimize side effects, consider cutting added sugar intake back gradually rather than going cold turkey.
6. You'll lower your risk for depression and cognitive decline.
Improved psychological health is another perk to expect when you cut out sugar. This is because higher intakes of added sugar are associated with a significantly greater likelihood of experiencing episodes of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Researchers think this stems from inflammation in the brain that is triggered by sugar's higher glycemic index, but it's important to point out though that research suggests that the intake of added sugars, not natural sugars or total carbohydrates, appears to be the primary driver.
Cutting down on sugar can help keep your memory sharp as you age, too. In a 2020 cross-sectional study of 3,623 Americans 60 and older published in the journal Nutrients, researchers found an association between high sugar intake and the presence and severity of memory impairment. (A similar link was also made with diets high in total fat and carbohydrates.) Some research suggests this could be because of elevated inflammation in the brain, leading to memory problems in the hippocampus. Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease—two conditions sugar has also been linked to—have been tied to cognitive decline as well.
7. Appetite and hunger will decrease.
Leptin is a key hormone that regulates appetite. It tells the brain when to eat, when to stop eating and when to speed up or slow down metabolism. But when obesity and insulin resistance are present, research suggests the body produces less leptin and doesn't use it as effectively. Improving glucose management slowly restores leptin activity in the body, and cutting out added sugars is a key component for making this happen.
8. You'll have more energy.
An increase in overall energy is one of the more immediate perks you may notice and is largely due to experiencing fewer highs and lows in blood sugar. While sugar may give an initial rush and burst of energy, what follows is a major drop in glucose, leaving you tired, lethargic and a little hangry. Replacing those added sugar calories with complex carbs, as well as foods with natural sugars and fiber like fruit, provides a longer, steadier supply of energy. Also adding to this energy may be the fact that you're getting longer, more restful sleep, an effect seen in individuals who consume less added sugar and more fiber.
9. Your heart will be healthier.
Some observational studies have shown that people who over consume added sugar are at a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease, independent of other risk factors, like weight. And a key prospective cohort study of 31,147 American adults published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who consumed between 10 and 24% of their daily calories as added sugar (50 to 120 grams) were 30% more likely to die from heart disease than those who consumed less than 10%. A high-sugar diet may raise blood pressure, increase inflammation and cause the liver to pump harmful fats into the bloodstream—all of which can contribute to the development of heart disease.
10. You'll get fewer cavities.
You've heard it since you were a kid—sugar causes tooth decay. And studies have repeatedly proven it. The bacteria on your teeth metabolize sugar, producing an acid that takes minerals out of the enamel and can eventually create a hole. There's evidence that consuming less than 50 grams daily of added sugar is associated with far fewer cavities. And if you eat under 25 grams the number drops even more dramatically.
Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., R.D., is author to the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100 Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for her ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.
Some original reporting in EatingWell, September 2021.