Eating too much sugar can cause inflammation, which increases the risk of disease – 28/08/2021

Physical well-being is largely associated with what we consume as food. The human body demands a lot of energy, which can be found mainly in carbohydrates, including sugars, foods that bring great pleasure and energy to the body. However, if consumed in excess, they end up causing a reverse effect, leaving the body heavier and more tired, and triggering harmful inflammatory processes.

A study published in the journal Nutrients in 2018, investigated whether the consumption of sugars contributes to the increase in inflammatory processes and levels of inflammation biomarkers. “Although it was not possible to determine whether fructose/sucrose caused more damage than dietary glucose to promote inflammation in human studies, the authors discuss, from the published literature, some probable mechanisms related to the consumption of these components with inflammation “, says nutritionist Clarissa Hiwatashi Fujiwara.

Inflammation occurs in response to aggressive stimuli, caused by foods that alter metabolism and increase the release of inflammatory substances. These are several biochemical mechanisms, with changes in the microbiota and intestinal wall, leading to an increase in the release of inflammatory cytokines (proteins that regulate the immune response). There is also a reduction in insulin sensitivity, which causes serum levels to increase, in addition to an increase in iron reserve levels and changes in coagulation functions. “We call this condition subclinical or low-grade inflammation, which increases the risk of metabolic, cardiovascular, degenerative and neoplastic diseases”, informs the nutritionist Marcella Garcez. “Usually asymptomatic, chronic inflammation is capable of generating substances responsible for the deterioration of various tissues in the body”, he says.

In fact, chronic low-grade/subclinical inflammation (unlike acute inflammation) is a key factor in the study of cardiovascular disease and is related to an increased risk of mortality. “Therefore, the identification of modifiable risk factors — such as diet — can contribute to reducing the risk of these diseases”, he says. Fujiwara.

Among the main foods that contribute to the development and maintenance of the inflammatory state are sugars, excessive consumption of meat, especially processed meat, ultra-processed industrialized foods — which bring large amounts of sugar —, salt, modified fats and chemicals, deep fried foods, in addition to soft drinks and alcoholic beverages.

Sweets, fried foods, soda - iStock - iStock

It is important to be careful with “hidden” sugars in processed foods

Image: iStock

Are all types of sugar harmful in excess?

There is no denying that refined sugar is one of the main villains of health. Extremely caloric, it leads to weight gain and predisposition to cardiovascular events. “This happens for two reasons: first, the increase in obesity, which in itself is an inflammatory process. Furthermore, sugar increases the production of fatty acids in the liver. The metabolism of these substances leads to the creation of chemical compounds that induce the inflammatory process in the whole body”, highlights Airton Golbert, professor of endocrinology at the Federal University of Health Sciences of Porto Alegre.

The most harmful sugars that should be reduced or avoided are those found in sweets and treats, but also those found in many processed and ultra-processed foods. They appear under various names, such as corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, maltose, galactose, maltodextrin, sucrose, glucose, evaporated cane juice, caramel, carob syrup, rice syrup, molasses, nectar, agave syrup, sugar extract. malt, mannitol, starch, corn glucose, invert sugar, lactose, glucose syrup, malt syrup, among others. So keep an eye on the label.

According to Fujiwara, table sugar (sucrose) consists of 50% glucose and 50% fructose (this includes not only refined sugar but less processed sugars such as brown and demerara). Corn syrup, which is rich in fructose and used by the food industry, generally contains about 42 to 55% fructose and the rest glucose.

“Both sucrose and high fructose corn syrup are the two main types of sugars used in cooking and in the candy industry, and they are distributed in a wide range of industrialized products, such as sugary drinks such as soft drinks, soft drinks and fruit nectars and energy drinks. They are also present in foods, such as cookies, pasta, sweetened cereals, candies, ice cream and ready-to-eat sauces such as ketchup”, points out the nutritionist.

If industrialized sugar is the great villain, natural sugars are also not far behind. Garcez points out that brown, demerara, agave, carob, coconut and honey are also sugars and, if consumed in excess, cause an increase in inflammatory profiles in the body.

What is the consumption limit?

For a rich and healthy diet, it is not necessary to cut sugar completely, and although there are no hard limits established, you can ingest around 55 to 60% of carbohydrates in the caloric value of the diet, most of which should be from complex carbohydrates such as starch and others that exist in cereals and flours.

The current recommendation is that the consumption of sugars, added to foods and beverages, does not exceed 10% of the total calories ingested daily. Furthermore, greater health benefits can be obtained if the consumption limit is reduced to up to 5% of the calories ingested. “In a 2,000 kcal daily diet, for example, the sugar limit of 10% and 5% of intake, respectively, represents 50 and 25 g, or 10 and five teaspoons of sugar,” notes Fujiwara.

A survey by the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), from 2008-2009, estimates that in Brazil excessive sugar consumption is presented by about 61.3% of the population. In other words, according to the maximum sugar consumption limit established by the WHO (World Health Organization), especially from sugar-sweetened beverages.

Golbert, however, points out that refined sugar and sweets made from it are not necessary foods for human beings. “We can live without sugar. This means that when we cut this food we will have a significant improvement in health, with weight loss, better metabolic rates, decreased inflammatory substances circulating in the body. Along with sugar, processed meats such as sausages, such as sausage, sausage and salami are foods that can increase cholesterol and cardiovascular risk. Therefore, they should be consumed in moderation”, he points out.

Cream ice cream cone - LauriPatterson/iStock - LauriPatterson/iStock

The recommendation is that the consumption of sugars, added to foods and beverages, does not exceed 10% of the total calories ingested daily

Image: LauriPatterson/iStock

How to reduce or prevent inflammation

Low-grade inflammatory state is usually not noticed, but can be diagnosed through clinical and laboratory examination. “If subclinical inflammation is diagnosed (or to prevent it), the ideal is to avoid the consumption of sugars, modified fats, processed meats, deep fried foods, ultra-processed foods, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages in excess”, advises Garcez.

A balanced, varied and as natural diet as possible helps to reduce inflammatory markers. However, there are numerous foods and food ingredients that have anti-inflammatory properties among their properties and can be included in everyone’s eating habits, among them Garcez highlights:

  • Cold-water fish rich in omega 3 such as tuna, sardines, mackerel and salmon;
  • Flaxseed, chia, pumpkin or sesame seeds;
  • Walnuts, almonds and chestnuts;
  • Fresh fruits such as citrus, avocado, berries, grapes, tomatoes;
  • Probiotic foods such as fortified yoghurts, kombucha and kefir;
  • Vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, lettuce, carrots, onions;
  • Olive oil;
  • Aromatic herbs such as oregano, thyme, coriander, parsley, mint and rosemary;
  • Spices like turmeric, cinnamon, garlic, cloves, ginger, paprika and peppers.

Until now, science has shown that foods rich in polyphenols (olive oil, for example) have anti-inflammatory properties. “It is a fact that there are a number of foods that propose to play this role as well, but it is important that research is carried out to prove the effectiveness of the beneficial effect of these foods”, warns Golbert.

It is important to note that chronic subclinical inflammation is a consequence of several everyday causes to which the body is exposed. Undoubtedly, bad eating habits are the main cause, but stress, pollutants and toxins are important factors.

Sources: Airton Golbert, professor of endocrinology at the Federal University of Health Sciences of Porto Alegre and former president of the SBEM (Brazilian Society of Endocrinology and Metabolism); Clarissa Hiwatashi Fujiwara, nutritionist and master of science from USP (University of São Paulo) and nutrition coordinator of the Infantile Obesity League at HC-FMUSP (Hospital das Clínicas of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of São Paulo); Marcella Garcez, Nutrologist physician and professor and director of the Brazilian Association of Nutrology.