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What does science say about sugar? And can sugar really make you look old?

Halloween is fast approaching, and children will trick-or-treat while we all indulge in candies, spider-muffins, finger-cookies and brain-cakes. Eating sugar during holidays is generally not a major issue – it is our daily consumption of sugar that is – and the increase of sugar during the holidays.

We all know that sugar is bad for us, but in what way is it affecting our aging processes, risk of developing diseases and how is it affecting how old we look?

In this article, we discuss how sugar consumption affects longevity and aging. You will learn about the differences between the sugars, and what effects added sugar has on your health and longevity. It is getting spooky …

Sugar classification

We know it can be confusing and overwhelming when it comes to sugars, so before we proceed, we wanted to provide clarification on the different types of sugars.

Sugars are types of carbohydrates. Not all sugars (carbohydrates) are bad. The body needs carbohydrates, and they are vital for human nutrition as they provide the primary source of energy needed for physiological function (1).

Sugars can be classified based on their chemical composition and based on their occurrence.

Based on their chemical composition sugars are:

  • Simple carbohydrates- Single sugars (monosaccharides) such as glucose, fructose and galactose or double sugars (disaccharides) such as sucrose (table “added” sugar), lactose and maltose.
  • Complex carbohydrates- known as polysaccharides such as starches found in potatoes, rice, and whole grains.Complex carbohydrates contain at least three linked sugar molecules, and they take longer to absorb and break down. Thus, nutritionists usually recommend eating complex carbohydrates, not simple carbohydrates (i.e. eat apples not muffins) (2).

Based on their occurrence sugars are:

  • Naturally occurring sugars- found in fruits (fructose or “fruit sugar”), vegetables, and milk (1).
  • Added sugars – added at the table or used as ingredients in processed or prepared foods and drinks (3).

Based on the evidence, added sugars have been considered worse compared to the naturally occurring sugars because they come from foods or drinks that are energy-dense and nutrient-poor. These foods and drinks are low in nutrients but high in fat, added sugars, sodium and alcohol. Additionally, scientists believe that naturally occurring sugars may be metabolised differently compared to the way the added sugars are metabolised (3). One reason is that the added sugars are in high concentration or free in solution (in drinks) whereas the naturally occurring sugars are built into the cellular structure and accompanied by micronutrients and bioactive compounds, such as fibers and proteins (4). Because of that, the natural sugars are absorbed slowly, and that steady absorption prevents the sugar spikes associated with added sugar. Therefore, below we will discuss the effect of the harmful “added sugar” but refer to it as “sugar”.

Sugar consumption and longevity

Although different scientists are suggesting different hypotheses on the exact mechanism of action between added sugar consumption and the aging processes, most seem to agree that added sugar makes you age faster and may reduce your life span. One of the earlier hypotheses (2003) proposed a relationship between sugar consumption and longevity (4). It has been suggested that restricting foods with a high glycemic index and foods containing saturated or hydrogenated fats can prevent or delay many of the diseases of old age and extend lifespan (4).

Sugar and increased risk of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease

Other studies have shown that people with high intakes of sugar, especially from sugar-sweetened beverages, tend to gain weight and are at increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia, and hypertension, and are shown to be at high risk of cardiovascular disease (1). Excess sugar intake increases the risk of death from cardiovascular disease (1).
Similarly, another study investigated the link between telomere length (Read more about telomeres here) and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and the risk of cardiovascular metabolic disease (5). Shortening of telomere due to oxidative stress and other stressors is considered one of the hallmarks of aging (which can be read here). The study surveyed 5309 healthy US adults aged 20 to 65 years with no history of diabetes or cardiovascular disease (5). The study suggested that increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages leads to shorter telomeres, therefore leading to a risk of chronic disease and aging.
Another study also suggested that telomeres were significantly shorter in the arteries of diabetic versus non-diabetic patients. In all study groups, good glycemic control reduced the shortening of the telomeres (6).

Sugar consumption may lead to an increased risk of cancer

Several studies have shown that sugar consumption may lead to an increased risk of cancer (7, 8). For example, a study of 35,000 women in Iowa (USA), investigated the association between sugar, meat and fat consumption and the risk of developing colon cancer. Researchers found that people who ate mostly sugary foods and drinks had twice the risk of developing colon cancer than those who ate diets with the least amount of added sugar (9).

Sugar consumption may lead to inflammation

Finally, excess added sugar has been linked to inflammation (10, 11, 12). Several human studies have confirmed a link between increased sugar consumption and increased inflammatory markers. Inflammatory markers are blood tests that show inflammation in the body. For example, one study investigated the effect of five different sugar-sweetened beverages on lipid and glucose metabolism with a focus on inflammatory markers (11). The study was done on healthy young men for a period of 3 weeks. The study concluded that the consumption even of one soda can (375 ml) with 40 g of added sugar has negative effects on lipid and glucose metabolism as well as inflammatory markers (11).

Is sugar making us look older?

Various researchers have studied the relationship between the effects of sugar on aging skin. It is not only that sugar is harmful and accelerates aging at a cellular level. The studies suggests that eating sugar is also making us look older (13, 14).
One study investigated the relationship between how sugar produces glycation in the body (13). Glycation is a reaction between sugars and other molecules. When glycation occurs, collagen in the skin is damaged. This process is accelerated in all body tissues when sugar is increased and further stimulated in the skin by UV light. That results in sagginess, wrinkles, and skin discoloration which are the classic signs of skin aging (13).
A Dutch study examined how glucose levels are related to perceived age. The researchers took photographs of 602 subjects and measured their non-fasting blood glucose and insulin levels. The photographs were then presented to a panel of 60 independent reviewers who were asked to rate the age of the subjects. This study showed that higher glucose levels are associated with older perceived age (14).

Sugar consumption should be limited

The Swedish Food Agency Livsmedelsverket does not provide a specific amount of sugar as a daily value recommendation (15). Instead, the Agency recommends that sugar consumption should be limited particularly from sweet drinks.
However, avoiding sugar completely is very difficult in our society and our lifestyles. Most of us have probably tried staying off sugar for weeks, months, or even years, to later find ourselves back to eating sugar on a regular basis. The risk of developing age-related diseases varies highly between individuals and is based on both genetics and lifestyle. Through tailored health screenings you can learn more about your personal risk factors of sugar-related diseases and how you can mitigate them. Your personal physician will also help you create long-lasting habits that keep you on track to reaching your personal health goals.

Silviya Demerzhan, Ph.D.

Chief Scientific Officer, Nordic Executive Medicine
Medical review by: Dr. Mahir Vazda MD


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