Does Sugar Really Make You Fat?

Dr. Christopher McGowan
November 5, 2020

Prior to the last few decades, Americans were blissfully unaware of the impact of added sugar on their health. It wasn’t until the 1970s that nutritionists (and creators of low-carb diets like Dr. Robert Atkins) began to alert the public to the potential dangers of high sugar consumption, but it didn’t permeate the public’s consciousness as much as hoped. In recent years, though, nutritional scientists have learned a lot more about how the body processes sugar and the impact it has on blood sugar and weight gain. These days, sugar may not exactly be perceived as “the enemy,” but more people seem to be conscious of their sugar intake than ever before. But it begs the question: does sugar really make you fat?

Sugar, Defined

The term sugar is actually fairly broad and can encompass a number of different substances; for instance, the table sugar we use in our coffee and tea is actually chemically different than the natural sugars contained in a piece of fruit. Understanding these differences can be pretty helpful in the quest to reduce the amount of sugar in one’s diet, because not all sugars are processed by the body in the same way and not all sugars have the same effect on blood sugar levels. 

In the simplest terms, sugar is a sweet-tasting type of carbohydrate that is usually categorized as either simple or complex. Simple sugars are also known as monosaccharides, and that essentially means that they are a base unit that cannot be further broken down. The most abundant type of simple sugar is glucose, and it represents one of the most common sources of energy used by our cells. Fructose is another simple sugar that is found in fruits and fruit juice (and is unsurprisingly known as “fruit sugar”); like glucose, fructose can also be absorbed directly into the bloodstream and used as energy without having to be further broken down. 

The other category is called complex sugars; these disaccharides are larger, more complex molecules that include sucrose and lactose. Lactose (as anyone with lactose intolerance will know) is the type of sugar contained in milk and dairy products. Sucrose is actually a combination of glucose and fructose, and it is found in many types of plants. Sucrose is most familiar to us as table sugar and the kind of sugar that is used in our favorite sweet foods and beverages. Because it is a disaccharide, the body can’t break it down into usable components as easily. 

How Does the Body Process Sugar?

Glucose is one of the most important substances in terms of how cells get the energy they need to perform essential bodily functions. When we eat foods with glucose in them, the glucose makes its way into our bloodstream via the small intestine; it is then either used right away for energy or is stored for later use. The process is similar with sucrose, but first the body breaks it down into its constituent parts: glucose and fructose. The glucose gets absorbed as normal, but the fructose goes to the liver where it is further broken down into either glucose or glycogen (that then enters the bloodstream) or stored as fat cells. 

The other important component involved in the digestion of sugar is a person’s insulin levels. Every time glucose enters the bloodstream, the pancreas triggers the secretion of insulin, a hormone that regulates metabolic activity. When in the bloodstream, insulin enhances the uptake of glucose so that it is more easily absorbed by cells all over the body; this activity acts in part as a way of leveling off blood glucose levels and returning them to normal. This interplay between insulin and blood sugar levels is at the center of conditions like type 2 diabetes. 

How Does Sugar Make You Fat?

What wasn’t understood fully until more recently is that the process described above is one of the main ways people put on extra weight. Anything other than trace amounts of sugar will cause insulin to be secreted into the bloodstream, but this really becomes a problem when we consume excess sugar—especially sucrose. As noted earlier, the nature of sucrose means that it gets sent to the liver to be broken down there so that it can be used by cells. But it also means that especially high sugar intake involves the liver processing a lot more of it. 

So, if you were to eat, for instance, a really big ice cream sundae loaded with sugary goodness, both the liver and the pancreas have to work harder to process it. Most of the body’s needs would be met by the ample glucose available after such a meal, and a majority of the excess sugar would then be stored as fat in the form of lipids. After only one sundae, it wouldn’t be that much of a concern; however, if large amounts of sugar become a regular part of your diet, fat storage eventually leads to the adipose tissue that so many of us long to be rid of.

What About Alternatives to Sugar?

For decades now, various food companies have developed artificial sweeteners in an effort to reduce sugar intake while still enjoying many of the foods and beverages we love. Aspartame, saccharine, and sucralose are some of the best known examples of chemically derived sweeteners. While approved for use by the FDA, some research has led to concerns about the long term effects of using these substances. More recently, artificial sweeteners based on sugar alcohols have come into being. Sugar alcohols are derived from plant extracts and are actually not considered sugar on a molecular level, but they have a recognizable sweet flavor. One of the newest examples of this is erythritol, a naturally occuring food additive made from corn. 

The idea of natural replacements for sugar is an appealing thought for anyone with a sweet tooth, but the full story is more complex. With erythritol (a main component of Truvia) and many of the other artificial sweeteners, the molecular structure makes them essentially indigestible; this means that the impact on blood sugar level and weight gain should be essentially non-existent. Some studies, however, have shown the opposite: that using the substance may actually be related to gaining weight. Research is still ongoing, but many nutritionists recommend moderation for artificial sweeteners just as there should be moderation with natural sugar.

The Benefits of Reducing Sugar Intake

As obesity, heart disease, fatty liver disease, and other diseases related to having too much dietary sugar have continued to be significant problems for people all over the country, it’s worth pointing out that losing weight isn’t the only benefit to curbing one’s intake of carbs. Studies continually show that even a partial reduction in the amount of sugar consumed can have substantial long term benefits for overall health.

Freedom is Waiting

If you’re in a place where you’re thinking about sugar and body fat, you may be just like millions of other Americans looking to lose weight. Cutting out or reducing sugar is an excellent place to start, but many people find that restrictive diets alone don’t provide the results they desire. It’s for this very reason that we at True You Weight Loss are passionate about offering weight loss options that are demonstrably more effective than traditional methods. The non-surgical procedures we perform are designed to help you finally find the freedom from the old way of dieting. If you’d like to learn more about our cutting-edge procedures, request a consultation today!

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan

Dr. Christopher McGowan, MD, a leader in endobariatrics, specializes in non-surgical obesity treatments and is triple-board-certified in Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and Obesity Medicine. Renowned for pioneering endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG) with over 2,000 procedures, his global influence and research contributions define him as a top expert.

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