Let’s face it: sugar, although a natural substance, isn’t really good for our bodies. In terms of nutrition, it offers nothing aside from simple carbohydrates. Added sugar can rack up excess calories and contribute to weight gain, and it’s also linked to chronic inflammation.
For people with diabetes, avoiding added sugar and limiting even naturally occurring sugar may be necessary. That doesn’t mean, however, that sugar is necessarily the cause of their disease.
In this article, we’ll discuss what the body does with sugar and why sugar and diabetes often wind up in the same conversation.
How Do We Digest Sugar?
Even though there are numerous different types of sugar you can buy at the local market like coconut sugar, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and more, there are only two real categories of sugar: monosaccharides and disaccharides.
- Monosaccharides are glucose, fructose, and galactose. These are found naturally in fruits and some root vegetables.
- Disaccharides include maltose, lactose, and sucrose. These can be found in sprouted grains, dairy products, and peas.
The difference between monosaccharides and disaccharides is the structure of the molecule. Disaccharides are a blend of two monosaccharides together.
Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar
If you have type 2 diabetes, your healthcare provider may stress the importance of watching your added sugar intake. While natural sugar is the sugar found organically in foods like fruits and vegetables, added sugar is added to a product during manufacturing.
Eating an apple over a slice of cake is a healthier choice, but your body breaks down the sugar similarly. The difference is that the cake offers little other nutritional value to your body, but the apple offers vitamins, nutrients, water, and fiber.
How Does the Body Use Sugar?
When we eat food, our bodies break the food down into glucose, a simple sugar that the body uses for energy. When glucose enters the bloodstream, the blood glucose levels rise, signaling the pancreas to produce insulin.
Insulin is a hormone that helps transport glucose to the cells that need it. Excess glucose is stored in the liver for use later or in muscle or adipose tissue.
When a person has diabetes, the body either does not produce enough (or any) insulin to keep up with the glucose in the bloodstream, or the cells become resistant to taking in glucose. In some cases, both conditions are true.
What Are the Types of Diabetes?
Let’s look at the four types of diabetes: type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes, and prediabetes.
Type 1 Diabetes
Those with yype 1 diabetes have an autoimmune disorder that prevents their bodies from producing insulin. This type of diabetes is often referred to as insulin-dependent diabetes because type 1 diabetics must take insulin daily to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
A type 1 diabetes diagnosis usually happens in childhood or early adolescence, but not always. There is no cure for type 1 diabetes, but the disease is manageable with blood sugar testing and insulin.
Type 2 Diabetes
About 95 percent of people with diabetes have type 2 diabetes. This type of diabetes occurs over time. The symptoms of type 2 diabetes may go unnoticed, and a blood test is required for diagnosis.
Type 2 diabetes occurs when the pancreas cannot keep up with the glucose in the bloodstream or when the cells of the body that need glucose develop insulin resistance, making it harder for them to use glucose.
Although you’ve probably heard type 2 diabetes referred to as “sugar diabetes,” this is largely a misnomer. Sugar does not cause any type of diabetes, but once you have been diagnosed with diabetes, it is important to maintain a healthy diet and limit your carbs.
When a woman is pregnant, the placenta can produce hormones that cause glucose to be stored in the blood. If the body can’t produce enough insulin to keep up with the added glucose, the pregnant woman may be diagnosed with gestational diabetes.
Most of the time, gestational diabetes goes away as soon as the baby is born, but the woman is at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
If your doctor has told you that you have prediabetes, your blood sugar levels are high but not high enough to be considered diabetic. The good news is that prediabetes is considered a completely reversible condition.
With proper diet, exercise, and healthy weight maintenance, you can lower your risk factors of developing type 2 diabetes and get your blood sugar levels under control.
What Causes Type 2 Diabetes?
Researchers aren’t sure what causes type 2 diabetes. Still, two factors almost always precede a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes: excess body weight and a sedentary lifestyle.
If you are inactive and overweight, your risk of type 2 diabetes is greater than someone who exercises regularly and maintains healthy body weight. However, you do not need to be obese or sedentary to receive a type 2 diagnosis.
Understanding Sugar’s Role
Remember that sugar is overall void of nutrition. Sugar is considered an empty calorie, which means that when you ingest it, your body immediately converts it to glucose and either delivers it to cells that need it (via insulin) or stores it for later use.
The problem is that our bodies don’t require added sugar to survive, and many foods we eat contain large quantities of added sugar. For instance, the sugar in a regular 12-ounce can of cola is approximately 44 grams or roughly 10 teaspoons. That’s a lot of sugar, considering no vitamins or minerals are fueling your system alongside it.
What Are the Side Effects of Too Much Sugar?
Although our bodies need carbohydrates to survive, we naturally get the ones we need from whole fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Added sugar can cause health problems over time, such as:
- Increased risk of heart disease
- Chronic inflammation
- High blood pressure
- Excess weight gain and obesity
- Insulin resistance
Although sugar does not directly cause diabetes, it does contribute to excess weight gain, one of the two major precursors of type 2 diabetes. In addition, numerous studies link excessive sugar consumption to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
How Can I Achieve Healthy Blood Sugar Levels?
Whether you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, prediabetes, or just want to avoid unhealthy blood sugar levels, you can make a few lifestyle changes to stay healthy. The American Diabetes Association recommends these five tips for reducing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
1. Lose Weight
A BMI over 30 is considered obese and increases your risk of many negative health conditions, including diabetes. Part of diabetes care and prevention includes maintaining a healthy weight.
2. Stop Smoking
People who smoke are 30 to 40 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than people who don’t smoke or who quit.
3. Get Physical
A sedentary lifestyle is one of the major precursors of type 2 diabetes. Reduce your risk by increasing your physical activity to at least 150 minutes per week or 30 minutes five times weekly.
4. Manage Your Blood Pressure
High blood pressure can lead to heart disease and stroke and is more prevalent in people with type 2 diabetes. Managing your stress and ensuring your blood pressure is within a healthy range can reduce your risk of developing diabetes or help you lead a healthier lifestyle if you’ve already been diagnosed.
5. Adopt a Healthy Diet
It’s not about eating sugar or not eating sugar; it’s about ensuring the calories you eat are beneficial to your body. Remember that sugary foods are usually void of nutritional value.
Healthy eating habits avoid processed foods like cereals and sodas and opt for meal plans that revolve around vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy. Portion sizes are also important. Eating enough healthy foods will keep you satisfied and decrease your risk of diabetes.
Although sugar isn’t one of the causes of diabetes, eating too much can lead to weight gain and unhealthy sugar spikes that cause you to feel tired later. When you feel tired, you may be more likely to eat foods that contain added sugar.
Avoid the spike-and-crash cycle by choosing foods rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals to stay satisfied longer.
Healthy Living Made Easy
If you’re looking for ways to stay healthy, regulate your blood sugar, or find information about making lifestyle changes to improve your overall wellness, check out more information at Diabetic.org.
You’ll find this information along with medically reviewed articles to help you live your healthiest life.
References, Studies and Sources:
Disaccharide – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics
The sweet danger of sugar | Harvard Health
Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, artificially sweetened beverages, and fruit juice and incidence of type 2 diabetes: systematic review, meta-analysis, and estimation of population attributable fraction | PubMed
Smoking and Diabetes | Overviews of Diseases/Conditions | Tips From Former Smokers | CDC
Fact Checked and Editorial Process
Diabetic.org is devoted to producing expert and accurate articles and information for our readers by hiring experts, journalists, medical professionals, and our growing Diabetic.org community. We encourage you to read more about our content, editing, and fact checking methods here. This was fact checked by Camille Freking and medically reviewed by Dr. Angel Rivera.
Owner, entrepreneur, and health enthusiast.
Chris is one of the Co-Founders of Diabetic.org. An entrepreneur at heart, Chris has been building and writing in consumer health for over 10 years. In addition to Diabetic.org, Chris and his Acme Health LLC Brand Team own and operate Pharmacists.org, Multivitamin.org, PregnancyResource.org, and the USA Rx Pharmacy Discount Card powered by Pharmacists.org.
Chris has a CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) designation and is a proud member of the American Medical Writer’s Association (AMWA), the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP), the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the Council of Science Editors, the Author’s Guild, and the Editorial Freelance Association (EFA).
Our growing team of healthcare experts work everyday to create accurate and informative health content in addition to the keeping you up to date on the latest news and research.