How Sugar Causes Inflammation—and What You Can Do About It

When it comes to chronic inflammation, sugar is one of the worst offenders.

Inflammation is a hot topic, especially in relation to our diet. We know fresh, unprocessed foods—like berries, olive oil, salmon, and leafy greens—help our body stave off chronic inflammation (aka what happens when our body's "fending off" response persists and leaves us in a constant state of alert). And it's no secret that chronic inflammation can be detrimental to our health: It's been linked to many diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression, arthritis, and Alzheimer's.

There are a number of foods that can heighten inflammation, and one ingredient near the top of that list is sugar. "Excess sugar in the diet can definitely lead to chronic, low-grade inflammation, which can cause chronic disease," says registered dietitian Samantha Bartholomew, MS, RDN.

There are several ways sugar causes inflammation in the body, says Bartholomew. Here are the top four detrimental responses:

  1. When protein or fat combine with sugar in our blood, it results in harmful compounds called Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs). Too many of these lead to health issues.
  2. Our guts become more permeable, which allows bacteria and other inflammatory particles into our blood more easily.
  3. Sugar and other inflammatory foods cause our "bad" (LDL) cholesterol to rise, which leads to more C-reactive protein. This has been shown to cause inflammation.
  4. Sugar can cause weight gain, which leads to excess body fat, which can lead to insulin resistance. The result? Inflammation.

Yes, RDs and MDs suggest that we help solve the vicious cycle of inflammation by cutting back on sweets. But that's easier said than done: We're human beings with taste buds, after all. And more importantly, sugar isn't just found in sweet treats like desserts, soda, and candy—it sneaks into endless foods. Many sauces, dressings, functional beverages, yogurts, and even seemingly healthy snack bars or cereal are filled with it.

According to Bartholomew, the key to avoiding inflammation is to educate yourself on your daily sugar intake (particularly when it comes to foods that don't actually need it), curtail it, and find suitable replacements. "Start by reading ingredient's labels," she says. The FDA has implemented a new Nutrition Facts label that now includes a separate line item for added sugars.

"According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we should keep our intake of added sugars to less than 10 percent of our total daily calories as part of a healthy diet." When it comes to cutting back, Bartholomew recommends swapping sugar for a natural replacement (we're partial to Swerve). "Added sugars can be more easily avoided when you have the right tools." This way, when your sweet tooth strikes, you'll be armed with an ingredient that won't leave your palette feeling deprived.

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  1. Pahwa R, Goyal A, Jialal I. Chronic Inflammation. National Library of Medicine. Published August 8, 2022. Accessed November 5, 2022.

  2. Vlassara H, Uribarri J. Advanced glycation end products (AGE) and diabetes: cause, effect, or both? Curr Diab Rep. 2013;14(1):453. doi:10.1007/s11892-013-0453-1

  3. Shrivastava AK, Singh HV, Raizada A, Singh SK. C-reactive protein, inflammation and coronary heart disease. Egypt Heart J. 2015;67(2):89-97. doi:10.1016/j.ehj.2014.11.005

  4. Chen L, Chen R, Wang H, Liang F. Mechanisms linking inflammation to insulin resistance. Int J Endocrinol. 2015;2015:1-9. doi:10.1155/2015/508409

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