And too much added sugar in your diet can damage your liver, similarly to the way that alcohol can. About a third of American adults and 13 percent of children have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition linked to added sugar consumption that is on the rise and that can progress to serious, even deadly, liver illness.
We’ve all seen the beer belly associated with drinking too much alcohol. Consuming too much added sugar can lead to a similar condition called “sugar belly,” in which your waist is bigger than your hips. Sugar belly can arise when the liver repeatedly detects more fructose, a form of sugar found in fruits that is also added to many processed foods, than our bodies can use. To deal with it, the liver breaks down the extra fructose and changes it to fat globules, which are then exported into the bloodstream and deposited around your internal organs and your midsection.
Fruit vs. Fructose
But isn’t sugar a natural food? That’s a counter argument often promoted by the sugar industry, but there is nothing natural about the way most of us eat added sugar. When you eat a strawberry or other fruit, you are eating fructose in its natural state, and it comes with a number of micronutrients plus fiber, which slows absorption and the rate at which sugar enters your bloodstream. So yes, it’s O.K. to eat fruit! Your body can handle fructose when it’s eaten as whole fruit.
But the fructose found in ultraprocessed foods and beverages is concentrated from corn, beets and sugar cane, and much or all of the fiber and nutrients have been removed. Without the fiber to slow it down, your body gets a big dose of fructose that can wreak havoc.
High consumption of processed fructose also can dull your body’s reaction to the brain hormone leptin, which is a natural appetite suppressant. A condition called “leptin resistance” can develop among high-sugar eaters, and the brain stops getting the message to stop eating, leading to weight gain.
And increasingly, the scientific community is acknowledging the addictive nature of the fructose in processed foods and beverages. Brain scan studies show that fructose affects the dopamine system, a messenger center in the brain that controls how we experience pleasure. Eating lots of added sugar can create changes in the brain similar to those found in people who are addicted to cocaine and alcohol, and it’s one reason so many of us find ourselves craving sweets.
Cutting sugar is a simple concept, but it can be challenging when a majority of foods available in supermarkets contain added sugar. Gary Taubes, author of “The Case Against Sugar” and an advocate of low-carb eating, scoffs at the food industry recommendation that added sugars be consumed in moderation. Mr. Taubes has built a career touting the deleterious effects of processed food and added sugar. Just a few bites of a food like banana bread, he says, leave him wanting more.