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How sugar is wreaking havoc on your skin

On average, Americans consume way too much sugar — 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, the equivalent of 465 calories. The American Dietary Guidelines of 2015 recommend that this number should be less than 10 teaspoons a day, the equivalent of 160 calories, because a diet high in sugar consumption has deleterious effects on our heart health and waistline, and is also an enemy to our skin.

Our skin is our largest organ, our protective shell (we are waterproof). Equally, it provides us the wonderful and pleasurable sensation of touch, plays a protective role against the environment and germs and regulates our body temperature. It is important to keep our skin healthy so it can continue providing these important functions. Our skin is vulnerable to damage from the environment — ultraviolet rays from the sun and other sources — and lifestyle choices such as smoking cigarettes and the food and beverages we consume. Let’s take a closer look at the impact on our skin from our sugar intake.

Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Sugar and Our Skin’s Health

How does sugar damage our skin?

The tautness and elasticity of our skin is mostly due to the proteins collagen and elastin. If you were to examine these proteins under a very powerful microscope, the structure resembles a slinky. When we smile or move, our skin moves in concordance — the “slinky” pulls apart allowing our skin to “stretch.” And when the movement is done, it then retracts to its original “slinky” position.

Processed sugars trigger the release of inflammatory messengers called cytokines. These in turn break down collagen and elastin, and result in sagging skin and wrinkles. In addition to damaging collagen, a high-sugar diet also affects what type of collagen you have — another factor in how resistant skin is to wrinkling. And, too, inflammation can provoke acne breakout.

Researchers have also found that sugar attaches to proteins in our body to form harmful new molecules called Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs for short). AGEs deactivate our body’s natural antioxidant enzymes, leaving us more vulnerable to sun damage — the main cause of skin aging and skin cancer.

How do we identify sugary items?

Become familiar with reading the nutrition label. Many prepared foods contain hefty amounts of sugar, including salty items such as red pasta sauce and bread. Sugars may also be listed in the ingredients under aliases such as high fructose corn syrup, barley malt, corn syrup, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, maple syrup and molasses. High fructose corn syrup extends the shelf life of foods and is sweeter and cheaper than other sugars. As a result, it is a popular ingredient in soda, fruit-flavored drinks, and packaged foods. So watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing!

The amount of sugar in a serving size is listed on the nutrition label in grams under total carbohydrates. However, grams are a unit for weight, and do not provide information on the volume. In order to convert grams to teaspoons, check the label for sugars, which are listed under total carbohydrates, and then divide the number by 4 (each teaspoon of sugar is equal to 4 grams). For example, if there are 12 grams of sugar in a serving, then that equates to 3 teaspoons per serving.

Is all sugar created equal?

Sugars are found not just in junk or processed foods, but also in whole grains, fruit, veggies and legumes — items that are good for us and we are encouraged to consume. However, these foods are jam packed with nutrients — vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals (disease fighting agents), and fiber. Additionally, when they are consumed, blood sugar levels do not spike as quickly as they would when we eat a slice of cake because (1) they contain complex carbohydrates (sugar molecules that are strung together in long, complex chains) that our body has to break down and (2) the fiber content also slows down absorption from our gut like a speed bump (fiber is a gel-like material that soaks up sugar).

What are some strategies to limit added sugar intake?

Limiting added sugar to no more than 10 percent of total calories — less than 10 teaspoons, 40 grams, or 160 calories, can be challenging, but not impossible. It requires that we are familiar with how to read nutrition labels and some key understandings:

  • Soda, energy, and sports drinks are the largest food group sources of added sugar. A single 12-ounce can of regular soda contains approximately 10 teaspoons of added sugar!
  • Reach for a piece of fruit to satisfy that sweet craving
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners. They are up to 600 times sweeter than sugar, and can grossly distort our sweet expectations.
  • Inject bursts of flavor into our foods with flavorful spices and herbs such as cinnamon, vinegar, cocoa powder, vanilla bean or nutmeg
  • Eat breakfast so our hunger hormones do not wreak havoc on our discipline
  • Stay hydrated. Sometimes what we perceive as a sugar craving may really just be thirst. Inadequate water intake makes our skin appear duller and wrinkles and pores more prominent.

In addition to curbing our sugar intake, applying broad-spectrum SPF sunscreen daily, getting plenty of sleep, managing chronic stress, and consuming a diet rich in antioxidants are keys to keeping our skin healthy. Understanding and having clarity about the food – and beverages – we consume is a powerful health booster and can keep our skin radiant!!

This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional. Dr. Nina has used all reasonable care in compiling the current information but it may not apply to you and your symptoms. Always consult your doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions or questions.

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