We've all been there: after a holiday or maybe just because you were craving something sweet, you've overindulged in sugar. Energy levels drop a few hours later (or even the next day), and you feel cranky and uncomfortable, wondering if you can do anything to feel better.
There's nothing inherently wrong with enjoying treats as a balanced diet. Still, if sugar binges become a regular pattern, it can make you feel crummy and detract from other healthy habits you're trying to cultivate.
This guide will help you pinpoint how much sugar you should eat, the effects of overeating sugar, and how to feel better afterward.
How Much Sugar is Really Too Much?
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that women limit sugar intake to no more than 25 grams or six teaspoons of added sugar per day and men no more than 36 grams or nine teaspoons. For reference, a 12-ounce soda contains about 36 grams of sugar.
Added sugar does not include naturally occurring sugar in foods like fruit or milk. Instead, it refers to sugar added to the product, such as cane sugar, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, honey, agave, and maple syrup. Added sugar sneaks into many foods like dressings, ketchup, coffee, and teas, so checking labels is necessary.
Each of us responds to sugary foods differently. Some people are more sensitive to even small amounts of sugar and feel terrible right after eating, while others may not notice a difference even when blood sugar is spiking through the roof. Paying attention to how you feel after eating sugar can help you decide what's best for your body.
What Happens If You Eat Too Much Sugar?
Let's look at what happens in the short and long term after overeating sugar.
Short-Term Side Effects Of Too Much Sugar
After eating a lot of sugar, you may feel a little anxious or even jittery. Insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas, soon kicks in to help regulate blood sugar levels after eating sugar and carbohydrates to drive glucose out of the bloodstream and into cells.
If blood glucose levels are too high, insulin works overtime to move it where it needs to go, which can lead to an even more extreme sugar crash. Sometimes, this quick rise and fall of blood sugar can leave you exhausted and even moody. Some research suggests a close connection between excess sugar consumption and anxiety or depression.
Since sugar and carbs are the easiest way for your body to get energy when you're feeling low, guess what your body craves? More sugar! Plus, if your mood is low, sweets also hit the pleasure and reward center of the brain, making you want even more.
Long-Term Health Impacts of Overeating Sugar
Long-term, excess sugar consumption is linked to inflammation, weight gain, obesity, and increased risk for metabolic health conditions. The reason sugar intake isn't great for us isn't only about the sugar itself; it's also a problem when sugar takes the place of other nutrient-dense foods that make us feel good and benefit our long-term health.
Sugar is problematic because it contributes to a surplus of energy consumption—aka too many calories. Over time, taking in more energy than you need leads to excess weight and adipose (fat) tissue stores. Adipose tissue is metabolically active, which means it can secrete hormones and metabolites associated with inflammation, insulin resistance, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
What To Do After Overeating Sugar?
We've established that overeating sugar isn't great for you, but that doesn't mean it will never happen again. If you've overindulged and aren't feeling so great, here are some tips to get you back on track:
- Start with Self-Compassion
Don't write off affirmations and kindness to yourself as cliche; self-love is essential for breaking negative thought patterns. The average person says hundreds of negative messages to themselves every day without even realizing it. The food you eat doesn't make you a "good" or "bad" person, and science suggests that when we are kind to ourselves, our health behaviors improve.
- Stay Hydrated
Most of the time, drinking a big glass of water just makes us feel good, but drinking even more water than usual after sugar-binging may actually help you feel better. Hydrating can support the natural detox process (meaning you'll use the bathroom more often) so you don't feel so puffy or bloated. Plus, if you have post-sugar headaches or fatigue, water may help.
- Move Your Body
You may feel sluggish and puffy post-sugar binge, but it's time to get moving. Heart-pumping activity (vigorous walking works, too) helps in a few ways. First, exercise makes your cells more glucose-sensitive to absorb glucose more efficiently. Next, physical activity helps use extra energy instead of storing it. Finally, movement is scientifically backed to help improve your mood and stress levels.
- Eat Plenty of Protein and Fiber
Protein and fiber are your friends when trying to get back on track. These two are a dynamic duo when it comes to blood sugar. Both help slow down digestion to help regulate your blood sugar levels and keep you more full and satisfied between meals. Aim for at least one fiber-rich (beans, whole grains, veggies, or fruit) and protein-rich food (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, tofu) at each snack or meal to help keep your blood sugar levels regular.
- Plan Regular Meals
It's tempting to think that skipping a few meals after overeating sugar is a good idea, but it's actually the opposite. Planning a nourishing meal every three to four hours will keep you more satisfied and regular. When hunger sets in, reaching for a sugary snack feels easy, leading to an endless cycle of sugar cravings. Eating whole foods like protein, fiber, and healthy fats helps break the cycle, so you don't feel tempted to reach for a quick fix.
- Remember Health is Not All or Nothing
If you have one day when you overeat sugar, it does not mean your whole health journey is derailed. Health, wellness, and even weight loss are not always a linear path because life is unpredictable. Living in a way that feels good and nourishing to your body also leaves room for treats and celebrations—it's not all or nothing. Falling into that mentality opens room for guilt and shame, which have no place in your health journey. Instead, commit to food and activities that feel good in your body and move forward with intention.
How to Stop Overeating Sugar
Many tips that can help you feel better after overeating are also helpful to follow daily to help you make healthy choices. Dietary strategies like eating regular meals with protein and fiber, staying hydrated, and moving your body all help your body stay in balance.
People who tend to overeat sugar often fall into two groups: those who can never have sugar in the house because they are simply too tempted or those who do better with moderate amounts because restriction triggers the desire to eat even more. Discovering which of these groups you fall into so you can plan accordingly is critical to helping you avoid situations where you overeat.
Learn More About Healthy Nutrition with Signos' Expert Advice
Signos provides personalized advice based on how your body responds to sugar and other foods. By wearing a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) with SIgnos' real-time guidance, you can see exactly how your blood sugar levels change with your food choices. You can even experiment with varying amounts of sugar compared to a balanced diet rich in protein and fiber so you can adjust accordingly to improve your diet and metabolic health.
You can find out if Signos is a good fit for you by taking a quick quiz. Or, for a deep into the ways your diet and lifestyle choices impact blood sugar and overall health, check out the Signos' blog.
Topics discussed in this article:
- American Heart Association. (2020, April). How too much added sugar affects your health. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/how-too-much-added-sugar-affects-your-health-infographic
- Jacques, A., Chaaya, N., Beecher, K., Ali, S. A., Belmer, A., & Bartlett, S. (2019). The impact of sugar consumption on stress driven, emotional and addictive behaviors. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 103, 178-199. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.05.021
- Rippe, J. M., & Angelopoulos, T. J. (2016). Relationship between Added Sugars Consumption and Chronic Disease Risk Factors: Current Understanding. Nutrients, 8(11), 697. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8110697
- Chait, A., & Den Hartigh, L. J. (2020). Adipose Tissue Distribution, Inflammation and Its Metabolic Consequences, Including Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease. Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, 7, 522637. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcvm.2020.00022
- Homan, K. J., & Sirois, F. M. (2017). Self-compassion and physical health: Exploring the roles of perceived stress and health-promoting behaviors. Health psychology open, 4(2), 2055102917729542. https://doi.org/10.1177/2055102917729542
- Bird, S. R., & Hawley, J. A. (2017). Update on the effects of physical activity on insulin sensitivity in humans. BMJ open sport & exercise medicine, 2(1), e000143. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjsem-2016-000143
- Basso, J. C., & Suzuki, W. A. (2017). The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review. Brain plasticity (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 2(2), 127–152. https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040
- Mao, T., Huang, F., Zhu, X., Wei, D., & Chen, L. (2021). Effects of dietary fiber on glycemic control and insulin sensitivity in patients with type 2 diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Functional Foods, 82, 104500. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jff.2021.104500