The Link Between Sugar and Aging

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We all want to look good, don’t we? We want the fountain of youth! Unfortunately, the juice you had with breakfast or the dessert you snuck before bed might be doing just the opposite. Andrew Nish, MD, UnityPoint Health, explains the link between sugar and aging, including steps you can take to start slowly removing sugar from your diet.

Sugar and Aging

When asked does sugar age you, Dr. Nish says the short answer is yes. Sugar ages us in many ways, both internally and externally, including our skin. Dr. Nish breaks down the science with a simple analogy.

“If you put a banana out on the counter and unpeel it, what happens in 24-48 hours? It gets brown,” Dr. Nish says. “What’s happening is the sugars in that banana are reacting with proteins, causing cross-linking and the brown color (browning reaction). The exact same reaction is happening in our bodies. We’re browning from the inside out.”

Table sugar is made of a glucose and fructose molecule, and it’s the fructose in sugar that accelerates the “browning” reaction by seven times. Skin is composed of collagen and elastin, which make our skin supple and soft. Sugar causes cross-linking of collagen, resulting in stiffening and loss of elasticity of our skin. The more sugar we have, the more our skin starts to suffer.

Dr. Nish lists the following as ways sugar takes its toll on the skin:

  • Increased acne
  • Appearance of wrinkles
  • Sagging in neck and chin
  • Development of dark spots
  • Slower healing of cuts, scraps, etc.

“Aging is part of growing older, but it’s accelerated by sugar. Without getting too technical, at the end of each strand of our DNA is a little cap, called a telomere, which protects our DNA from damage. Every time our DNA is read and duplicated, those telomeres shorten. While our bodies normally replace those telomeres, sugar quickens that shortening, and thereby, advances the aging process,” Dr. Nish says.

Dr. Nish says research on telomeres and aging is just beginning to come out. Though it’s unclear how much sugar causes this reaction, what is known is the more sugar that’s in the body, the worse it is. 

“Men and women continue to process sugar the same as they age. What does change is how many calories our bodies may use in a certain amount of time. Kids have a higher metabolic rate than someone older, but as far as how sugar is processed, it’s the same whether you’re 4 years old, 40 or 80,” Dr. Nish says.

To reverse the effects of sugar, Dr. Nish says we can reduce the metabolic consequences of sugar (diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome) and possibly some of the aging aspects. But, unfortunately, we’ll be stuck with some of the skin changes associated with ingested sugar.

“We really want to encourage people to start getting rid of sugar early in life. This is particularly important in pregnant mothers. Remember, what’s going on in your skin is going on everywhere in your body. Our skin is just an external display of everything that’s happening in our bodies,” Dr. Nish says.

How to Eat Less Sugar

It’s never too late to start removing sugar from your diet, as it contributes to your risk for developing chronic diseases, like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, dementia, cancer and more. Dr. Nish’s first piece of advice is to start by looking at beverages.

“The average person gets about 30-40 percent of sugar from drinks. Stick to water, tea or coffee. If you need to sweeten it, don’t. If you need to flavor your water, try adding fresh fruit, like lime or lemon. That’s it. No fruit juice, no sports drinks, no energy drinks or pop,” Dr. Nish says.

His second tip is to take a hard look at food labels and packaging on processed foods. Roughly 80 percent of processed foods have sugar.

“Sugar comes with about 50 different names. You can look for processed sugar, raw sugar, brown sugar, maldextrose. My favorite is concentrated fruit juice – it’s nothing but sugar. You really have to educate yourself on how sugar is labeled in different ingredients,” Dr. Nish says.

Fruits and vegetables contain sugar in its natural form, and Dr. Nish says you shouldn’t worry about those. Lastly, try combating your sweet tooth.

“There’s no such thing as a good dessert in the American culture. If you must have dessert, do what the Europeans do: have fruit, cheese and nuts. Or, have a little fruit with some yogurt on it for dessert. Natural foods are always best.”