What Does Sugar Do To The Body?

How does the body process sugar? Find out how carbohydrates and sugary foods affect your blood sugar balance.

What Does Sugar Do To The Body? photo

Have you ever wondered what happens to the carbohydrates or sugary foods you eat? This article will provide a summary of how the body processes these foods.

Carbohydrate foods provide an accessible source of energy for the body. They may be in the form of simple sugars such as glucose, fructose, lactose, sucrose or maltose, or more complex carbohydrates made up of longer chains of sugar molecules.

Examples of complex carbohydrates include brown rice, beans, lentils, wholegrain pasta, starchy vegetables and fibres. Simple sugars are found in foods such as table sugar, milk, honey and fruit juice. Some carbohydrates are indigestible fibres that cannot be broken down into simple sugars. Instead, these are fermented by bacteria in the colon into various compounds such as butyrate that help to support a healthy gut.

When carbohydrates are consumed, digestive enzymes in the gut break the digestible parts down into their simplest units such as fructose and galactose, or glucose which is the body’s preferred source of energy. These sugars are absorbed in the small intestine and are then transported to the liver. The glucose is either used by the liver or it is released into the bloodstream to fuel other cells in the body.

Does Sugar Make You Fat?

When there is sufficient glucose (sugar) in the blood to maintain stable levels, glucose is converted to glycogen and stored in the liver and muscles for future energy requirements. The liver and muscles have limited capacity for storing glycogen, therefore any excess glucose available is stored as fat. This is how excess sugar in the diet can increase body fat. The hormone insulin is involved in making sure blood glucose levels do not get too high by encouraging the uptake of sugar into cells, muscles and fat stores.

When the body requires energy or blood sugar levels get too low, the pancreas releases glucagon, a hormone that stimulates the breakdown of glycogen in the liver so that energy (glucose) can be released into the bloodstream. Glucagon also stimulates glucose synthesis from protein tissues and encourages fat cells to release fatty acids for energy.

What causes blood sugar imbalances?

If your blood glucose levels are very low, you are in a hypoglycaemic state. If your blood glucose is high you are in a hyperglycaemic state.

Blood glucose levels can fluctuate according to the following factors:

  • Types of carbohydrates eaten - Simple sugars and carbohydrates will cause blood glucose levels to increase more rapidly than complex carbohydrates due to the time it takes for them to be broken down and absorbed in the gut.
  • Protein and fat content of meals - proteins and fats take longer to digest, therefore consuming simple sugars or refined carbohydrates with protein-rich or fatty foods will prevent dramatic spikes in blood glucose levels.
  • Portion size - larger portions tend to cause larger spikes in blood glucose.
  • Stress - hormones released when stressed such as adrenaline and cortisol triggers the release of glucose into the blood.
  • Insulin sensitivity - cells contain insulin receptors that are triggered by the presence of insulin circulating in the blood. These can become less responsive over time if insulin is produced too frequently due to a diet high in sugar.

Clemens, Jones, J., Kern, M., et al., 2016. Functionality of sugars in food and health. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 15(3), pp. 433-470.

Titchenell, P., Lazar, M., Birnbaum, M., 2017. Unraveling the Regulation of Hepatic Metabolism by Insulin. Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, 28(7), pp. 497-505.