MedicNews: Can you get diabetes from eating too much sugar?

Sugar is irresistible to most people. So irresistible, in fact, that sugar cravings might be rooted in evolution. Craving sugary foods, or so the theory goes, could help prevent starvation.

In a modern world, however, where food is often plentiful, sugar consumption is linked to diabetes, obesity, and other health problems.

Research into the connection between sugar consumption and diabetes is ongoing. Most doctors argue that sugar alone does not trigger diabetes. But some emerging research suggests a closer link between sugar consumption and diabetes than was previously thought.

Contents of this article:

  •     Can people get diabetes from eating too much sugar?
  •     Other sugar-related health risks
  •     Sugar intake recommendations
  •     Type 2 diabetes risk factors

Can people get diabetes from eating too much sugar?

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes affect the body's ability to regulate blood glucose levels. But eating sugar will not cause type 1 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition, which causes the body to attack cells that produce insulin. Damage to these cells undermines the body's ability to manage blood glucose.

Type 2 diabetes is more complex. Sugar consumption will not directly cause diabetes. However, excess sugar consumption can cause weight gain. Obesity increases the risk of diabetes.

Once a person has diabetes, eating too much sugar can make symptoms worse, since diabetes makes it more difficult for the body to manage blood sugar levels.

Understanding the link between sugar and diabetes

Although eating sugar is not directly linked to developing diabetes, some evidence suggests that increased overall availability of sugar makes diabetes more common. A 2013 study that looked at 175 different countries found that more sugar in the food supply increased diabetes rates.

Specifically, for every additional 150 calories of sugar available per day per person, diabetes levels rose 1 percent. This change continued even when researchers controlled other factors linked to diabetes, such as obesity, exercise, and overall calorie consumption.

This research suggests that sugar consumption does affect diabetes, at least on a population level.

The study did not look at individuals, so does not support the claim that individual sugar consumption causes diabetes. Despite this, it gives people who eat a lot of sugar something to consider, especially if they have other diabetes risk factors.

A 2012 review of previous research suggests that some forms of sugar consumption could increase the risk of diabetes. Drawing upon previous research, the study suggested that sugary drinks were likely to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Research on the link between other forms of sugar intake and diabetes, as well as sugar and other health risk factors, did not reach any firm findings.

Other sugar-related health risks

Though the link between sugar and type 2 diabetes is uncertain, the link between sugar and other health conditions is not.

Research published in 2014 linked excessive sugar consumption to an increased risk of dying of cardiovascular disease. People who got more than 25 percent of their daily calories from sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as participants who got 10 percent or less of their calories from sugar.

Other risks associated with eating too much sugar include:

  1.     tooth decay
  2.     liver disease, including non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  3.     cancer
  4.     hormone changes
  5.     high cholesterol
  6.     weight gain and obesity
  7.     chronic illnesses, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
  8.     chronic inflammation and immune dysfunction

Sugar intake recommendations

The body needs glucose to function. Widely present in food, glucose is therefore impossible to avoid. However, there is no need to add sugar to foods, and sweetened sodas, candies, and processed foods are particularly unhealthful.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommend the following limits on added sugars each day:

  •     For the average man: No more than 9 teaspoons, 36 grams, or 150 calories from sugar.
  •     For the average woman: No more than 6 teaspoons, 25 grams, or 100 calories from sugar.

Rather than focusing on any specific type of sugar, such as high-fructose corn syrup, the AHA advise limiting all added sugars.

Limiting sugar intake to less than 10 percent of daily total calories is another way to keep sugar consumption under control. This prevents excessive sugar consumption regardless of daily caloric needs.

The American Diabetes Association offer additional food recommendations. They suggest that people with diabetes should do the following:

  •     Eat carbohydrates with a low or medium glycemic index, such as whole wheat bread, oatmeal, or fruit.
  •     Eat foods rich in fiber to provide more sustainable energy for the body and help control blood glucose.
  •     Eat lean proteins and choose healthful fats to reduce food cravings. This will help people feel fuller for longer.
  •     Choose non-starchy vegetables, such as artichokes, broccoli, eggplant, mushrooms, okra, and turnips.
  •     Limit or avoid sugary snacks and alcoholic drinks.
  •     Avoid processed foods, which can be high in sodium, added sugars, unhealthful fats, and low in nutrients.
  •     Limit sodium consumption to 2,300 milligrams or less per day.
  •     Eat smaller meals more frequently. Large meals can cause blood sugar spikes, and hunger in between meals can lead to unhealthy snacking.

Type 2 diabetes risk factors

Researchers are still working to understand type 1 diabetes. Risk factors for type 2 diabetes include:

  •     being overweight, or having a high waist circumference
  •     being 45 years old or older
  •     having a family history of diabetes
  •     experiencing gestational diabetes during pregnancy
  •     having high blood glucose levels, or being insulin resistant
  •     having high blood pressure
  •     not getting much exercise
  •     having high levels of fats called triglycerides in the blood, or low HDL cholesterol
  •     blood vessel or circulatory issues in the brain, legs, or heart

Race and ethnicity are other risk factors. Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, Latinos, and African-Americans are at a heightened risk of diabetes.