Too Much Can Make Us Sick

Eating too much added sugar doesn't just expand our waistlines

Heart disease. Diabetes. These chronic conditions are among the leading causes of death worldwide.1 Increasingly, scientists are focusing on a common set of underlying metabolic issues that raise people's risk for chronic disease. It turns out that the long-term overconsumption of added sugars is linked to many of these dysfunctions.

Making sense of metabolic syndrome

The broad term for those dysfunctions is metabolic syndrome (MetS). MetS involves a cluster of symptoms that, when present together, increase the chances of acquiring a chronic disease, such as diabetes, heart disease and liver disease. MetS has been a topic of active study in medicine since the 1980s,2 in part due to the increasing impact of these diseases on health worldwide. Today, research is increasingly focused on how the standard American diet – heavy in processed, packaged foods – impacts MetS and chronic disease.

MetS is composed of the following five symptoms:3

 - Large Waist Size: 35” or more for women and 40” for men 

 - High triglycerides: 150 mg/dL or higher (or use of cholesterol medication)

 - High total cholesterol, or HDL levels under 50 mg/dL for women, 40 mg for men

 - High blood pressure: 135/85 mm or higher

 - High blood sugar: 100 mg/dL or higher6, 7

According to the American Heart Association, 56 million Americans have metabolic syndrome, or roughly one in five people (22.9%) over age 20, placing them at higher risk for chronic disease. The syndrome runs in families and varies across racial-ethnic groups.

"Sugar belly" may be a warning sign

One of the most obvious signs of metabolic syndrome is a “sugar belly.” This is the “apple” body shape, in which the waist measurement is larger than the hips. If you or a family member tend to carry extra weight around the waist, it’s especially important to discuss metabolic syndrome with a health provider, so they can take the blood-pressure and blood tests needed to confirm it. 

How does added sugar lead to MetS? Over time, consuming large quantities of added sugar can stress and damage critical organs, including the pancreas and liver. When the pancreas, which produces insulin to process sugars, becomes overworked, it can fail to regulate blood sugar properly. Large doses of the sugar fructose also can overwhelm the liver, which metabolizes fructose. In the process, the liver will convert excess fructose to fat, which is stored in the liver and also released into the bloodstream. 

This process contributes to key elements of MetS, including high blood fats or triglycerides, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and extra body fat in the form of a sugar belly.8

Many, but not all, people with metabolic syndrome are overweight or obese. People who consume too many added sugars are more likely to become obese9,4 and to get MetS. But you don't have to be overweight to have metabolic syndrome. This puts all of us at risk for MetS and for chronic disease.

MetS is linked to heart disease and diabetes

Sixteen million Americans have heart disease,11 which is the #1 killer in the United States. Growing scientific evidence is helping identify the various ways that sugar is implicated. We know that metabolic syndrome is a strong predictor of heart  disease.12,5,6,7 Consuming too many added sugars also can lead to excess weight gain, which strains the heart.

Diabetes, which affects 25.8 million Americans, is of equal concern to public health. Diabetes can cause kidney failure, lower-limb amputations, and blindness, and doubles the risk of colon and pancreatic cancers.8,9,10 Diabetes is strongly associated with coronary artery disease and Alzheimer's disease. It's also a discriminatory disease: compared to white adults, the risk of being diagnosed with diabetes is 18% higher among Asian Americans, 66% higher among Hispanics and 77% higher among African-Americans.

Emerging areas of research

Scientists are actively studying a wide range of health problems that may be linked to the overconsumption of added sugars, including the following:

- Cancer: High intakes of sugars and refined carbohydrates have been linked to increased risk of some cancers, as well as to higher rates of recurrence and lower rates of survival after cancer therapy.11,12

 - Alzheimer's disease and memory loss: Excess sugar consumption was linked to deficiencies in memory and overall cognitive health.13,14

 - Aging: Scientists have observed links between sugar consumption and the aging of our cells, as well as skin wrinkling. 23,15,16

While it is still too soon to confirm whether these are also linked to the overconsumption of added sugars, new findings are being published all the time. Stay tuned to SugarScience for the latest research as it emerges.

  • [1]Lozano, R., Naghavi, M., Foreman, K., Lim, S., Shibuya, K., Aboyans, V., & Ahn, S.Y. (2013). Global and regional mortality from 235 causes of death for 20 age groups in 1990 and 2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. The Lancet , 380(9859), 2095-2128. Retrieved from
  • [2]Sarafidis, P.A., & Nilsson, P.M. (2006). The metabolic syndrome: a glance at its history. Journal of Hypertension , 24(4), 621-626. doi:10.1097/01.hjh.0000217840.26971.b6. Retrieved from
  • [3](2001). Executive Summary of The Third Report of The National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, And Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol In Adults (Adult Treatment Panel III). JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association , 285(19), 2486-2497. Retrieved from
  • [4]Go, A.S., et al. (2014). AHA Statistical Update:Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics - 2014 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association . Circulation , 129, e28-e292. doi:10.1161/01.cir.0000441139.02102.80 . Retrieved from
  • [5]Tadic, M., Ivanovic, B., Celic, V., & Cuspidi, C. (2013). Are the metabolic syndrome, blood pressure pattern, and their interaction responsible for the right ventricular remodeling?. Blood Pressure Monitoring , 18(4). doi:10.1097/MBP.0b013e3283631af4
  • [6]Vyssoulis, G., Karpanou, E., Adamopoulos, D., Kyvelou, S.-M., Tzamou, V., Michaelidis, A., & Stefanadis, C. (2013). Metabolic syndrome and atrial fibrillation in patients with essential hypertension. Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases : NMCD , 23(2), 109-114. doi:10.1016/j.numecd.2011.03.011
  • [7]Ben, Q., Xu, M., Ning, X., Liu, J., Hong, S., Huang, W., & Li, Z. (2011). Diabetes mellitus and risk of pancreatic cancer: A meta-analysis of cohort studies. European Journal of Cancer (Oxford, England : 1990) , 47(13), 1928-1937. doi:10.1016/j.ejca.2011.03.003. Retrieved from
  • [8]Aranceta Bartrina, J., & Perez Rodrigo, C. (2013). Association between sucrose intake and cancer: a review of the evidence. Nutr Hosp , 28(Suppl 4), 95-105. doi:10.3305/nh.2013.28.sup4.6802. Retrieved from
  • [9]Garcia-Jimenez, C., Garcia-Martinez, J.M., Chocarro-Calvo, A., & De la Vieja, A. (2014). A new link between diabetes and cancer: enhanced WNT/beta-catenin signaling by high glucose. Journal of Molecular Endocrinology , 52(1). doi:10.1530/JME-13-0152
  • [10]Linden, G.J., Linden, K., Yarnell, J., Evans, A., Kee, F., & Patterson, C.C. (2012, October). All-cause mortality and periodontitis in 60-70-year-old men: a prospective cohort study. J Clin Periodontol , 39(10), 940-6. doi:10.1111/j.1600-051X.2012.01923.x. Retrieved from
  • [11]Meyerhardt, J.A. (2013). The impact of glycemic levels in patients with colon cancer. Clinical advances in hematology & oncology , 11(2), 93-94.
  • [12]Agrawal, R., & Gomez-Pinilla, F. (2012). The Journal of Physiology , 590(10), 2485-2499. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2012.230078. Retrieved from
  • [13]Crane, P.K., Walker, R., Hubbard, R.A., Li, G., Nathan, D.M., Zheng, H., & Larson, E.B. (2013, August 8). Glucose Levels and Risk of Dementia. New England Journal of Medicine , 369(6), 540-548. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1215740. Retrieved from
  • [14]Cassidy, A., De Vivo, I., |Liu, Y., Han, J., Prescott, J., Rimm, D.J., & Hunter, E.B. (2010, March 10). Associations between diet, lifestyle factors, and telomere length in women. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition , 91(5), 1273-1280. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.28947. Retrieved from
  • [15]Danby, F.W. (2010, July). Nutrition and aging skin: sugar and glycation. Clinics in Dermatology , 28(4), 409-411. doi:10.1016/j.clindermatol.2010.03.018. Retrieved from
  • [16]Mikulikova, K., Eckhardt, A., Kunes, J., Zicha, J., & Miksik, I. (2008). Advanced glycation end-product pentosidine accumulates in various tissues of rats with high fructose intake. Physiological Research / Academia Scientiarum Bohemoslovaca , 57(1).

Heart disease

A broad term for a group of chronic diseases of the heart, these diseases include problems with blood supply to heart muscle, problems with heart valves and the electrical system of the heart. Another term you will see used to mean the same thing is cardiovascular disease.

SugarScience Glossary

Metabolic syndrome

Also called Syndrome X is a group of body abnormalities that go along with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. The definition of this syndrome varies a little worldwide.

SugarScience Glossary

Metabolic syndrome

Also called Syndrome X is a group of body abnormalities that go along with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. The definition of this syndrome varies a little worldwide.

SugarScience Glossary

Liver disease

A broad term meaning any bodily process in which the liver is injured or does not work as it is supposed to. In this website we focus on liver diseases in which the diet hurts the liver

SugarScience Glossary

Added sugar

Any sugar added in preparation of foods, either at the table, in the kitchen or in the processing plant. This may include sucrose, high fructose corn syrup and others.

SugarScience Glossary

Diabetes mellitus

Usually shortened to just diabetes. Sometimes called sugar diabetes. Look at Type 1 Diabetes and Type 2 Diabetes for more information

SugarScience Glossary


The most common type of fat in our body and in our food. We can eat triglycerides, our bodies can make triglyceride, and our livers can turn excess sugar into triglycerides. If we do not burn triglycerides as fuel, they are stored as fat in the liver and elsewhere in the body.

SugarScience Glossary


Abnormal, uncontrolled cell growth in a part of the body, many types. Another of the chronic diseases.

SugarScience Glossary


Sugars are chemicals made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen found which taste sweet and are found in food. They are an important part of what we eat and drink and of our bodies. On this site, sugar is used to mean simple sugars (monosaccharides) like fructose or glucose, and disaccharides like table sugar (sucrose). Sucrose is two simple sugars stuck together for example (see Table sugar). Sugars are a type of carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are energy sources for our bodies Sugars enter the blood stream very quickly after being eaten.

SugarScience Glossary


The pancreas is an internal organ that helps us digest our food by making insulin and other chemicals.

SugarScience Glossary


One of the three major groups of nutrients we eat. Much of this website is related to problems associated with too much fat storage in the body. Each gram of fat produces 9 calories of energy if burned by the body as fuel. Fat can be stored in many places in the body. We generally think of fat as under the skin (subcutaneous), but the fat that may be most damaging to us is the fat stored in the liver and around the organs of the abdomen (intrahepatic and visceral or abdominal or intra-abdominal)

SugarScience Glossary


A sugar that we eat. Also called fruit sugar. Most fructose comes in sucrose (table sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar), or from high-fructose corn syrup.

SugarScience Glossary


The largest internal organ. It weighs about three to four pounds and is located under the lower edge of the ribs on the right side. It helps us digest our food and remove toxins from our blood. "Hepat" in a word means liver, so an "hepato-toxin" is a liver poison or something that can cause damage to the liver

SugarScience Glossary


Insulin is a messenger released from the pancreas after eating, which shunts energy (glucose or triglycerides) from the blood into fat cells for storage. Insulin is given to some people with diabetes to lower the blood glucose; it leaves the blood and enters the fat cell for storage.

SugarScience Glossary

SugarScience Facts

MetS, linked to sugar overconsumption, is a strong predictor of heart disease.

SugarScience Facts

Too much fructose in added sugar can damage your liver just like too much alcohol.

SugarScience Facts

Drinking just one 12-oz. soda every day can increase your risk of dying from heart disease by almost 1/3. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.

SugarScience Facts

Overconsumption of added sugar is linked to type 2 diabetes, a disease affecting 26 million Americans.

SugarScience Facts

The aging process: Scientists have observed links between sugar consumption and the aging of our cells, as well as skin wrinkling.

SugarScience Facts

Consuming too many added sugars can make you overweight, which strains the heart.

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