Added Sugars v. Natural Sugars – Effects on the Body and Hormone Balance

Many of us love sweets and sugar cravings are totally normal – in fact, its hardwired into us as a survival mechanism. Our bodies know it’s an energy source. However, due to this attraction, sugar can become an addictive substance if we’re not aware of it. – especially with added sugars. However, even if you feel called by your sweet tooth regularly, you don’t have to feel guilty. It’s no fault of yours that our bodies send us signals to pursue certain foods. You CAN find a balance with your eating- part of that is through intuitive eating practices and the other part is being informed.

If you’d like to learn intuitive eating and re-frame how you think of food – check out our EMPOWER program. Or schedule a free 1:1 consult with me to explore further. To help you right now, though, we’re going to talk about how sugars effect the body- which includes our body’s hormone balance. Keep reading to learn more!

Is Sugar Bad for You?

Well, sugar – like any food – isn’t “good” or “bad”. Food just IS. Food is neutral. All nutrients are important, just in different amounts and frequencies.

The sugar topic can be a bit tricky, so let’s talk about what sugar is. Sugars are a kind of carbohydrate, which is the primary energy source for our body. Think of carbohydrates as being similar to the fuel a car needs to run. Our bodies rely on carbohydrates for energy. However, not all sugars are created equal, and in fact, some have positive health benefits. There are two main types of sugars: natural sugars and added sugars.

Knowing the difference between natural sugars (found naturally in foods, like fruit) and added sugars (put into foods and dishes to make them taste better, like baked goods) helps you make healthier choices for yourself and better understand your own bodies needs and wants.

Natural Sugars

Natural sugars are in things like fruits, veggies, and dairy products. These sugars come with fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are good for us. The fiber in natural sugars helps slow down how our bodies digest and absorb them. That’s why they have a low glycemic index, meaning they don’t cause big spikes in our blood sugar levels.

Added Sugars

Added sugars are the ones you find in sugary drinks, sweets, candy, sugary cereals, and things like ketchup or salad dressing. They’re also sneaky and hide in foods you might not expect, like yogurt, pasta sauce, bread, and granola bars. These sugars are processed, so they lose nutrients and can cause big, quick jumps in your blood sugar levels. Too many refined carbs can harm your health in various ways, as we’ll discuss later in this post.

How Does it Effect Our Hormones?

Hormones are part of our body’s internal communication channels and command system. Our bodies manage sugar with two main hormones: insulin and glucagon. Insulin, the key player, is made by the pancreas. It lowers our blood sugar, the amount of sugar in our bloodstream at any given moment. On the other hand, glucagon, also from the pancreas, raises our blood sugar by releasing stored glucose from the liver or muscles into the bloodstream. Our body does this constantly throughout the day and in response to eating, stress, and other factors, to help get our cells, organs, and muscles the energy they need to function and tries to keep the level of sugar in our blood stable throughout the day.

When we eat a lot of sugar at once, it causes a “spike” followed by a “dip” in our blood sugar levels. The graph below illustrates the difference between a high-sugar diet (high glycemic) and a lower sugar diet (low glycemic). The green line is what our body wants- it likes stability. But eating a lot of sugar at once throws it off and causes it to go too high or possibly too low, as it releases insulin and may “overcorrect” it, kind of like a see-saw.

As you can see, eating lots of foods with added sugar can really shoot up your blood sugar, and we want to steer clear of that to keep our insulin in balance. Remember, both natural and added sugars increase blood sugar, but the deal-breaker is that added sugars cause faster and bigger spikes because they’re low on fiber and nutrients. That’s what makes them more likely to mess with your hormones. So, while insulin and glucagon try to keep your blood sugar steady, too much sugar over time can really mess with your hormones.

How much sugar should we aim to eat?

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest limiting added sugars to less than 10% of your daily calories. For example, on a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s 200 calories, or 50g, from added sugars to reduce health risks. Most people doesn’t need or eat exactly 2000 calories, so that amount will vary from person to person. To find your recommended added sugar limit, multiply your daily calorie intake by 0.10 (10%) and then divide that umber by 4, as sugar provides 4 calories per gram, to know how many grams of added sugar is your personal threshold. Everyone has different health goals, so customize it to your needs. You can reach this goal by swapping out added sugar sources for natural sugars in your diet- here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Choose whole fruits over sugary drinks.
  • Plan your meals in advance to avoid buying snacks with added sugars.
  • Cook at home to have better control over your meals.
  • Check food labels when shopping for products.
  • Include more fiber in your diet to stay full longer and reduce sugar cravings.
  • Swap soda for sparkling water, unsweetened iced tea, or infused water.

These are just a few ways to cut down on sugar. These small, simple dietary changes can make a big difference in reducing your risk of chronic diseases and improving your health. And don’t forget, it’s perfectly fine to enjoy your favorite treats, even if they have added sugar. All foods can fit in a balanced diet. If you feel like you want more support with this, don’t hesitate to reach out– I’d be happy to help you!

How does this impact my health long term?

Now that we’ve got a basic understanding of how sugar affects the body, let’s talk about what happens when you eat too much sugar. Since insulin’s job is to lower blood sugar, what do you think happens when you overdo it?

You got it right—hormone imbalance! Your pancreas has to work extra hard to produce more insulin to bring down the high blood sugar levels. Over time, going through this reaction repeatedly can lead to something called insulin resistance, where your body’s cells don’t respond as well to insulin. Kind of like the boy who cried wolf – over time, the body’s cells slow or stop being receptive to insulin. If insulin resistance continues, it can increase the risk of:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Inflammation
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart problems (cardiovascular diseases)
  • Excess weight
  • Hormonal issues (endocrine disorders)
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
  • Mood problems
  • Cognitive function difficulties

Other hormones that are effected by eating sugar

Insulin imbalances can seriously impact both our physical and mental well-being, which, in turn, affects our overall quality of life. Insulin interacts closely with various other hormones in our body, including sex hormones (like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone), hormones that control our appetite (ghrelin and leptin), thyroid hormones, cortisol, and others.
Here’s how insulin affects these other hormones:

  • Estrogen, Progesterone, and Testosterone: In women, insulin resistance can boost testosterone levels and disrupt the balance of estrogen and progesterone. This can lead to irregular menstrual cycles, conditions like PCOS, and reproductive health problems.
  • Leptin and Ghrelin: Leptin is the “fullness hormone,” while ghrelin is the “hunger hormone.” Insulin resistance can increase leptin levels, affecting appetite and possibly making you feel hungrier due to an imbalance in these cues.
  • Thyroid Hormones: Insulin resistance can mess with thyroid hormones, causing either low (hypothyroidism) or high (hyperthyroidism) levels. These imbalances can lead to weight changes and mood disturbances, like anxiety and depression.
  • Cortisol: Insulin resistance can mess with cortisol, the “stress hormone,” raising cortisol levels. This can disrupt stress responses, sleep patterns, and lead to chronic stress and sleep problems. It can also drain your energy levels, making you feel sluggish throughout the day.

These chronic conditions and hormone imbalances aren’t just about physical health; they can also increase the risk of anxiety, depression, and chronic stress, affecting your mental health. Understanding the power of sugar on our hormones helps us take steps to prevent these chronic diseases through better nutrition!

You don’t have to figure it out alone

Reaching your nutrition goals might not always be easy, but I’m here to help you on your nutrition journey. If you’re prepared to boost your health and well-being, improve your eating habits and cooking skills, and gain the confidence to make the right nutrition and health choices for yourself, consider joining my EMPOWER program or Wellness Mastermind. And if you’re unsure of what you want, let’s just talk it out and see if we are a good fit for each other.

Content prepared by Savanna Malki, Dietetic Graduate Student; Revisions and review by Melanya Kushla, Registered Dietitian

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  • Insulin Resistance. National Library of Medicine. Updated August 17, 2023.
  • Kleinridders A, Cai W, Cappellucci L, et al. Insulin resistance in brain alters dopamine turnover and causes behavioral disorders. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015;112(11):3463-3468. doi:10.1073/pnas.1500877112 
  • Hormonal Imbalance. Cleveland Clinic. Updated 2023.
  • Kim TW, Jeong JH, Hong SC. The impact of sleep and circadian disturbance on hormones and metabolism. Int J Endocrinol. 2015;2015:591729. doi:10.1155/2015/591729 

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