People with diets rich in refined sugar may be increasing their risk of chronic inflammation. Research suggests that when people eat and drink less sugar, inflammatory markers in their blood decrease.

A high sugar diet can have harmful effects on health, such as increasing the risk of chronic diseases, weight gain, and tooth decay. It can also result in chronic inflammation, where the body's immune system activates, resulting in damage to healthy cells.

Inflammation resulting from lifestyle factors, such as obesity, smoking, and a sedentary existence can contribute to a range of diseases. These include heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer's.

In this article, we review the research on sugar and chronic inflammation. We also discuss ways to reduce inflammation naturally.

A woman putting Sugar in a cup of tea and wondering if it will cause inflammationShare on Pinterest
A diet high in sugar may have an impact on inflammation.

Research suggests that diet can have a significant impact on inflammation in the body — some foods increase inflammation, while others reduce it. A diet high in sugar might be a key factor contributing to chronic inflammation.

A systematic review from 2018 reported that several studies have linked consuming more dietary sugar — especially from sugary drinks — with chronic inflammation. People with higher sugar diets have more inflammatory markers in their blood, including a marker called C-reactive protein.

A 2014 study showed that people who reduced their intake of sugar sweetened drinks had lower inflammation factors in their blood. These findings support the theory that sugar consumption can cause inflammation.

Researchers have tried to determine how sugar causes inflammation. Sugar stimulates the production of free fatty acids in the liver. When the body digests these free fatty acids, the resulting compounds can trigger inflammatory processes.

Different kinds of sugar may contribute more or less to inflammation. For instance, some research has suggested that fructose may cause more inflammation than glucose. However, a systematic review found no difference in inflammation from fructose and glucose, so more research is needed.

Also, the researchers saw no differences in inflammatory factors between the groups that consumed high fructose corn syrup vs. sucrose. The sample sizes were small, and the quality of the studies was low, so more research is necessary to confirm these findings.

People may develop the following common signs and symptoms from chronic inflammation:

People with chronic inflammation may have an increased risk of diabetes, depression, and dementia.

Chronic inflammation in older adults may also have links with a higher risk of death. Doctors are working on how to reduce chronic inflammation.

Along with sugar, other foods can also increase inflammation in the body.

Researchers suggest that diets high in saturated and trans fats can lead to a higher risk of chronic inflammation.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, foods that cause inflammation include:

  • sugary foods, including desserts, pastries, chocolate, and sodas
  • saturated fats, such as in red meat, full fat dairy products, and many rich desserts
  • trans fats, including in fast food, fried foods, cookies, and donuts
  • excess omega-6 fatty acids that are in corn oil, sunflower oil, and vegetable oil
  • refined carbohydrates, including some breads, white rice, and white potatoes
  • alcohol
  • MSG in prepared Asian foods, soy sauce, and many prepared soups and deli meats

Having diabetes, being overweight, having obesity, and eating high levels of saturated fats, trans fats, and refined sugar are all risk factors for chronic inflammation.

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Consuming high sugar drinks may not be very filling.

Sugar has many long term effects on the body, including increasing the risks of chronic inflammation, obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.

Sucrose and fructose can lead to plaque formation on a person's teeth, decay, and cavities. Bacteria that cause cavities use sugar as food. Diets rich in sugars allow the bacteria in the mouth to grow and erode tooth enamel.

Drinking sugar sweetened drinks can add a lot of calories to the diet but do not make the person feel full. This short term increase in calories can lead to long term weight gain. Instead, calories from solid foods make people feel fuller and reduce overeating.

Studies have shown that eating less sugar can reduce inflammation, so people should aim to limit their sugar intake. The World Health Organization (WHO) strongly recommend a maximum sugar intake of less than 10% of daily energy intake.

Eating only 5% of daily calories from sugar may have added health benefits, the WHO say. For someone eating 2,000 calories per day, the maximum from sugar would be 100 to 200.

Ways to reduce inflammation in the body include:

  • Getting enough sleep. Improving sleep hygiene and getting better sleep may decrease the risk of developing chronic inflammation.
  • Quitting smoking. Smoking is a risk factor for many chronic diseases, including chronic inflammation.
  • Following an anti-inflammatory diet. Read about foods that reduce inflammation here.
  • Maintaining a healthful weight. Obesity is another risk factor for chronic inflammation. Excess fat tissue may increase inflammatory factors. The most effective strategy for reducing chronic inflammation is weight loss.
  • Trying supplements. Read about supplements that could help with inflammation here.

Sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone, can slow down the production of inflammatory factors. For some people, testing and correcting hormonal imbalances could reduce chronic inflammation.

The following table lists diet and lifestyle changes that may help reduce chronic inflammation.

Dietary and lifestyle changesReasons
Adopt a low glycemic dietHigh sugar intake links to chronic inflammation, stroke risk, coronary heart disease risk, and type 2 diabetes risk. Soda, refined carbohydrates, and high fructose corn syrup are foods that can promote inflammation.
Try a low fat dietSaturated and trans fats worsen inflammation. People should try to reduce or eliminate processed and packaged foods that have trans fats from processed vegetable or seed oil, and baked goods with soybean or corn oil.
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetablesThese foods are high in antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory compounds that can help reduce the risk of chronic inflammation.
Get enough fiberResearchers have shown an association between high fiber diets and lower inflammatory factors, such as TNF-alpha and interleukin-6.
Eat more nutsAlmonds and other nuts may help to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Cardiovascular diseases, such as atherosclerosis, are pro-inflammatory states. Diabetes is a chronic inflammatory disease.
Drink green and black teasScientists have associated compounds found in green and black teas with lower C-reactive protein in the blood.
Add curcumin to foodA component in turmeric called curcumin improves several inflammatory diseases.
Add fish oil to the dietOmega-3 fatty acids positively affect lower levels of inflammatory factors in the blood, such as C-reactive protein, interleukin-6, and TNF-alpha.
Eat more mung beansThese beans may have anti-inflammatory properties.
Get more micronutrientsMagnesium, vitamin D, vitamin E, zinc, and selenium all have anti-inflammatory effects and may lower inflammation factors in the blood.
Add sesame lignans to the dietSesame oil contains sesame lignans, which people associate with decreasing inflammatory factors and improving blood pressure.
Exercise regularlyBurning calories through exercise lowers inflammatory factors even if people do not lose weight.

According to the Nationwide Food Consumption Surveys in the United States, the amount of high fructose corn syrup people consume increased from 1978 to 1998 and then stabilized. With greater awareness of the risks of added sugar, sugar intake in the U.S. has been declining. However, people are still consuming too much sugar.

Research suggests that eating lots of sugar can lead to chronic inflammation. Other effects of consuming too much sugar include a greater risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and tooth decay.

Other factors may also cause inflammation. People who eat less saturated and trans fats, stop smoking, and exercise may lower their risk of chronic inflammation.

Doctors suggest that lifestyle and dietary changes can help people reduce their risk of chronic inflammation and reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes.