Will sugar make you old?

Does sugar really speed up the ageing process, and what can we eat to improve our skin? Dr Marilyn Glenville answers your questions on sugar...

Woman using a sugar scrub on face

High intakes of refined sugar has been linked to accelerated skin ageing, says Dr Marilyn Glenville. She explains how we can counteract the effects of sugar and what to look out for on labels...

Q: Does sugar age you?

A: Yes, it is ageing. It reacts with protein, creating advanced glycation end-products (AGEs). These substances cause skin to be wrinkled and cell structures to harden. If you think of the way arteries harden to cause coronary heart disease, a similar process takes place in the cells of the skin. 

Q: Are some sugars worse for you than others?

A: When sugar is contained naturally within food, such as in fruit, you’re also usually taking in a lot of fibre, which slows the digestion of the sugar and causes less of an impact on blood sugar. Refined sugars are where the problems are.

A woman holding slices of orange and smiling

Q: Is it ever too late to make a difference to your skin?

A: I would always say it’s never too late for lifestyle changes. While sugar speeds up ageing, adopting healthier habits will in turn start to slow this process, whatever your age. Our bodies are really adaptable in that way.

Q: Are there any foods that help to counteract the effects of excess sugar?

A: Yes, the thinking now is that we should eat a rainbow. It’s the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables that protect us from free radical damage. Our bodies are oxidising all the time – it’s like we’re rusting! In different colours of fruit and vegetables you'll find different antioxidants. For example, beta-carotene in carrots, lycopene in tomatoes – the more variety we have across both fruit and veg, the more protection we provide our bodies.

Find out how to reach your five-a-day.

Q: How does sugar impact the body?

A: We have to think of sugar as being empty calories with no nutritional value. As well as the increased risk of weight gain and type 2 diabetes, eating too much refined sugar creates more inflammation in the body, which can increase the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Three cans of fizzy drinks surrounded by sugar cubes

Q: What is your opinion of artificial sweeteners such as stevia and xylitol?

A: Fructose (found in many natural sweeteners) tends to have a greater impact on the liver and, instead of causing an insulin spike, sits in the liver and may lead to other health issues such as high cholesterol.

Artificial sweeteners are often used to cut calories and won’t cause an insulin spike. However, research has shown that they can actually increase appetite and therefore lead to weight gain. This is because when the body receives a sweet hit we are expecting calories, so when they aren’t delivered we seek out more food to satisfy our energy needs.

With natural sweeteners like xylitol or stevia you have to be careful as they can be heavily processed with added ingredients. For example, stevia may contain added fructose (fruit sugar) so it’s very important to read the labels.

Q: Are there any buzz words people should look for on the labels?

A: Yes, look out for any kind of extra sugars, so for example fructose or maltodextrin are common additives. If you’re buying something like stevia that’s all you want to see in the ingredients list.

Like this? Now read...

10 things you should know before giving up sugar
All you need to know about sugar
Our favourite lower sugar recipes
How to eat a balanced diet

​This article was last reviewed on 25 June 2019 by Kerry Torrens.

Dr Marilyn Glenville is a leading nutritionist specialising in women’s health. She is the former President of the Food and Health Forum at the Royal Society of Medicine, a registered nutritionist, psychologist, author and popular broadcaster. Visit her website and events page to find out more.

A qualified nutritionist (MBANT), Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Are you concerned about sugar or have you kicked the sweet stuff for good? Read more about sugar and tell us what you think below...


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24th Jul, 2014
Is agave a better substitute than stevia?
24th Jul, 2014
Hello, I have now been hooked on healthy living for about 10 years. I am now off sugar in my hot drinks, but use a teaspoon of honey each beverage, accept hot choclate at 11-30 each morning. I am male, 63, slim at 9.5 stones approx. The more I read (in context) the more I experiment. I have added 16 herbs and spices to my breakfast for about 1.7years. My skin is much better texture, cuts heal up in 2-3 days, my last opticians test revealed no prescription change at all over the last 2 years, that was last Oct 2013. I used 5 spices for the first 5 months, Cumin (40 ingredients), corriander, cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric; by the December - 2 months after starting, my hearing was challenged through a science TV programme which a lecturer had setup an audio oscillator in the studio that the audience could listen to each of 7Khz; 10; then lastly 13Khz. Each time the participants would sit down if they could not hear the tone, gradually more sat down the higher up the scale he went. At 10 Khz I knew that I would not hear above this but then at 13 Khz I screamed "I can hear that"! Since then, as I further added more herbs and spices there was not a discernable difference except the skin tone improvement. I do the Luminosity brain exercises, and this may help me to fine tune what I eat as new theories are tried. Next, a nutritionist (in his late 80's) came up with: 'Italians have a life expectancy of 62 years (mediterainian diet? and they use a lot of olive oil) well, there are some people group that live on the north African coast, with a life expectancy of 91 years, and they do not have Olive groves or wheat! - bye.
16th Jul, 2014
A good article, easy to understand and improve knowledge regarding SUGAR. I read another article related to sugar previously and it made me stop to consume a ready to go tea drink (traditional jasmine tea with sugar served in a glass bottle - a famous local brand ), remove refined sugar from my kitchen and replace by palm sugar or brown sugar if it's necessary. Natural sugar taste better and more safe (in relation to production process) compared to refined sugar
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