Sugar – It Might Be Your Liver’s Worst Enemy
Sugar: Is it Your Liver's Worst Enemy?
The simple answer is, “Yes, like alcohol, sugar is toxic to the liver.” Sugar, however, is more dangerous than alcohol. Why? Your body needs sugar in the form of glucose to produce energy. Your brain alone can burn up to 120 grams of glucose every day.[i] So how can sugar be the worst enemy? It has to do with balance.
Your body needs sugar, but only so much every day. Eat too much sugar and it quickly taxes the liver. Consistent overconsumption of sugars will ruin the liver and set off a cascade of health conditions. We can see those effects today in the widespread prevalence of Type II Diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, obesity, and heart disease.
So how much sugar is too much? And why is it so bad for the liver? Let’s answer those questions, without overcomplicating it.
How Much Sugar is Too Much?
There are two ways to get too much sugar:
Eat more calories than you need.
Eat too many added sugars.
So how do you know how much sugar you need? Well, you only need enough sugar everyday to fuel your body. On the surface, that answer might seem vague. The reality is, it’s exceptionally specific.
It’s specific to your own personal daily needs. For example, if you’re active, you may need more; if you sit in front of a computer working all day, probably less. The amount of sugar you need directly relates to your own personal activity level and requires personal awareness.
So, the first step you need to determine is how many calories you need daily. Do you need 2,000? Maybe you only need 1,800? If you only need 1,800 calories a day but stick to a 2,000-calorie diet, you will get too many sugars.
Next, you need to look at your diet. Do you eat only natural foods? If so, you’re not likely to get too much. (Natural in this instance means made by nature, not packaged as all natural.) If you eat processed foods, then you can very quickly get too much sugar from added sugars.
Recommendations for How Much Added Sugar is Safe to Eat
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee says added sugars should make up no more than 10% of a person’s daily caloric intake.[ii] The American Heart Association offers the following recommendation[iii],[iv]:
- Men should consume no more than 150 calories, or 37.5 grams. This is equal to 9 teaspoons of sugar.
- Women should consume no more than 100 calories, or 25 grams. That’s 6 teaspoons of sugar.
- Children should get no more than 100 calories, 25 grams or 6 teaspoons per day, with the additional recommendation of no more than 8 ounces of sugary drinks per week.
To determine your own personal number, you can use the rule of 4’s. First, determine what 10% of your daily calories would be. If it’s 2,000, that would be 200. Then divide that by 4 to find out your daily grams. For a 2,000-calorie diet that’s 50 grams of sugar. To determine the number of teaspoons, divide by 4 again which would give you about 12.
If you’re daily calories are only 1,500, then you would want no more than 37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons of sugar.
Of course, you don’t need any added sugars in your diet. And the less you get, the more your liver will thank you, which bring us to the second question.
Why Is Sugar Bad for the Liver?
Not all sugar is bad for your liver, you might hear. Yes and no. As is so often the case, it depends on the amount.
You might also hear that some sugars are good, and some are not. This too depends entirely on the amount.
All sugars in excess are bad for the liver. Some just do more harm faster.
For example, your body burns glucose for energy. When you eat, glucose enters your system. Every cell in your body can process glucose, so your liver isn’t doing all the work. However, extra glucose goes to the liver and is converted into glycogen. The liver can hold about 100 grams of glycogen. The rest of your body can hold up to 500 grams of glycogen.
More than this and your liver converts the glycogen into triglycerides for storage in fat cells. Some of these fat cells are in the liver; 5-10% of the liver can be fat. Beyond this, the liver sends the fat to other areas of the body – often the fat cells in the waist and hips. While the body has a limit on how much glycogen it can store, it has no limit on the amount of converted sugar can be stored as fat.
Fructose and the Liver
Fructose is the most common form of added sugar. Sure, fruits also provide fructose, but there is a difference. In fruit, fructose is attached to fiber which slows down digestion and absorption of the sugar.
Added sugars are refined sugars. As such, they do not contain any fiber. This means they get absorbed quickly. Where refined glucose floods the blood stream and body immediately (boosting insulin levels), refined fructose goes straight to the liver.
In the liver, fructose gets metabolized into glucose, lactose and glycogen. If the body has no space to store additional glycogen, the liver converts the fructose directly into liver fat. As liver fat builds up, the liver sends fat around the body for storage, but large amounts of fructose can exceed the liver’s ability to store it in other fat cells, leading to an increase in liver fat.
Is Sucrose a Good Sugar to Eat?
Sucrose, also known as table sugar, consists of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule. So, eating sucrose boosts insulin levels and sends fructose to the liver, boosting fructose levels throughout the body.
How Sugar Damages the Liver
Excess sugar consumption leads to fat build-up in the liver, and throughout the body. Fat build-up increases the chance the liver will swell. This can develop into a condition called NASH, or non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, which leads to the death of liver cells and scarring.
Fat build-up in the liver also disrupts the liver’s ability to efficiently perform it’s more than 300 tasks which include the removal of toxins from the blood, hormone regulation and antioxidant production. This increases the risk of damage to liver cells, and all cells in the body, from free radicals.
How to Eat Less Sugar and Still Enjoy Sweet Treats
According to the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 74% of packaged foods contain added sugars.[v] A can of soda contains as much as 12 teaspoons of sugar, well over the recommended daily intake of added daily sugar. And even if you decide to avoid packaged foods that include sugar, food manufacturers can label refined sugars under 61 different names![vi]
So how can you reduce your sugar intake and protect your liver?
Before deciding on sweeping lifestyle changes, identify your needs. Determine how many calories you need daily. Then, review your daily diet. Does it include processed foods with added sugars? If so, do the added sugars make up more than 10% of your daily caloric intake?
Then you need to make a plan. Adding more natural, non-processed foods is a good start. Perhaps it’s all you need to do. For more advice, a conversation with your healthcare provider or a nutritionist can go a long way to help.
Regardless of how you decide to address your sugar consumption, make managing your sugar intake a priority. Your liver will thank you.
[iii] Johnson RK, et al. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2009 Sep 15;120(11):1011-20. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.192627. Epub 2009 Aug 24.
[v] Ng SW, Slining MM, Popkin BM. Use of caloric and non-caloric sweeteners in US consumer packaged foods, 2005–9 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2012;112(11):1828-1834.e6. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2012.07.009.
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