Sugar, diabetes… these words are used almost synonymously in everyday instances. But does eating too much sugar cause diabetes? Research points out that this is just one part of the picture as there are other factors involved too. Here is what various scientific studies state about eating too much sugar and the risk of diabetes.
While diabetes being characterised by high blood sugar levels could be the reason behind the frequently asked question, it is essential to learn about the condition to understand the correlation better. Essentially, diabetes is divided into type 2 diabetes and type 1 diabetes. Type 2 is the most common variant found among around 90 per cent of the world population.
Diabetes: Breaking down the basics
Before understanding the causes of diabetes mellitus and analysing how processed sugar plays a part in its onset and progression, it is important to know what it is. Type 1 diabetes is when the immune system attacks the pancreas and it, in turn, stops making insulin. In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas stops producing enough insulin either because the body has developed resistance to it or it fails to respond to the insulin produced.
As explained in a 2010 National Library of Medicine (NLM) study, processed or table sugar enters the small intestine where the glucose and fructose molecules are segregated from sucrose and then absorbed into the blood. The high content of sugar in the bloodstream is a signal for the pancreas to start producing insulin. This leads the glucose and fructose molecules to the body cells where it is metabolised into energy for the body to use.
The additional molecules are deposited in the liver after being converted to blood glucose or stored as fat.
For people with diabetes, the sugar content remains in the bloodstream and the blood sugar levels become abnormally high, putting the heart and kidneys at risk, as explained by a 2013 review published in French journal, La Presse médicale.
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What causes diabetes?
For the uninitiated, fasting blood glucose levels in a healthy individual should be around 80–130 mg/dL and lower than 180 mg/dL about two hours after a meal. Anything higher than that is an indication of diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes occurs due to bad eating habits and lifestyle issues. A 2017 study published in The Lancet claims more than 90 per cent of the cases of type 2 diabetes are lifestyle induced.
In contrast, type 1 diabetes is a rare condition affecting just 5 to 10 per cent of people, mainly due to genetic reasons. There is gestational diabetes, too, that occurs only during pregnancy for some women.
The link between sugar consumption and diabetes explained
Does eating too much sugar cause diabetes? There are hard pieces of evidence that prove a strong relationship between diabetes and excessive sugar consumption. According to a report published in BMC Health Services Journal in 2014, countries with high consumption levels of table sugar have an increased number of diabetes patients as compared to the countries that don’t.
A 2015 study in the National Library of Medicine blames sugary beverages like soft drinks, canned juices etc. for the increased risk of diabetes in people.
Additionally, research published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology establishes that excess levels of sucrose put a strain on the liver, causing inflammation and also leading to insulin resistance.
So, do we shun the table sugar? Not exactly. Ideally, you should consume only up to 10 per cent sugar out of your total calorie count for the day, according to WHO recommendation.
Increased sugar intake also decreases the secretion of the hormone called leptin in the brain, which gives you a sensation of fullness — one of the major diabetes complications. Hence, one tends to eat more than required due to an increased and false sense of hunger. The British Journal of Nutrition explains in a 2011 research that consuming too much sugar can thus lead to putting on weight as a result.
Sugar alternatives: Natural sugars vs. artificial sweeteners
Whole fresh fruits and vegetables are the healthiest form of sugar to treat your body to. Eating fresh fruits can reduce the risk of diabetes type 2 by around 13 per cent, according to this 2015 study published in the NLM. It is recommended to go for whole fruit rather than juicing it as fresh fruit juices contain more sugar than fibre, which is an essential nutrient found in cut fruits.
While table sugar and other processed forms of it like corn and maple syrup should be replaced with alternatives such as agave, cane, date or coconut and other types of natural and unrefined sugars, the consumption should not exceed the 10 per cent limit.
When it comes to artificial sugar products, one must practise restraint too. Even though they are marketed as zero-sugar edibles and do not increase the sugar levels in the bloodstream, they are known to cause insulin resistance. However, further research is needed to explain the exact cause of this impaired glucose tolerance.
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So the answer to the question of whether eating too much sugar cause diabetes lies in selective consumption. One should avoid white sugar or table sugar as much as possible for a better quality of life. Opting for a healthy diet including whole foods, fruits, nuts and green leafy vegetables along with proteins like lean meat and fish is the best way to decrease the risk of diabetes.
Making lifestyle changes like maintaining a disciplined routine, avoiding smoking and drinking alcohol in moderation can help you, in the long run, to combat the increased risk of diabetes and regulate your blood sugar level.
Hero and featured image: Courtesy Towfiqu barbhuiya/Unsplash
This story first appeared on Lifestyle Asia India
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: No, it is highly unlikely that you could get diabetes by eating too much sugar just once. This is a lifestyle disease, which is caused by overeating sugar for long periods causing insulin resistance in the body.
Answer: Fasting blood glucose levels in a healthy individual should be around 80–130 mg/dL and lower than 180 mg/dL about two hours after a meal. Anything higher than that is indicative of diabetes.
Answer: People get diabetes due to a sedentary lifestyle, excessive consumption of sugary drinks, imbalanced diet and genetics.
Answer: High blood pressure, frequent infections, slow healing of injuries, increased thirst, increased urination, dizziness, increase in appetite but no weight gain, dropping down from healthy weight, numbness and digestive and kidney diseases are warning signs of diabetes symptoms.