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.
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.
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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.
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.
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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).
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