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Why is sugar so bad for your skin?

School Of Nutrition Posted Sep 22, 2014 Future Fit Training

We all know that too many treats add to your waistline and can lead to diabetes, but did you know that chocolate cake is just as damaging for your skin?

Why is sugar so bad for your skin?

According to dermatologists, too much sugar can make you look up to 10 years older. Here is how...

How does sugar age skin?

In a nutshell, sugar speeds up the degradation of elastin and collagen, both key skin proteins. When sugar enters the body it causes a sudden spike in your insulin levels which causes inflammation within the skin and kick-starts a process known as glycation. This is when the absorbed sugars (glucose, fructose and galactose) attach themselves to protein molecules within the bloodstream, most notably collagen and elastin, which are responsible for the strength and suppleness of the skin. Glycation is the first step in the evolution of these molecules through a complex series of very slow reactions which lead to a new type of molecule known as advanced glycation end products (AGEs).

These new molecules accumulate and cause further inflammation and damage to your collagen and elastin. AGEs downgrade the type II and type III collagen (the strongest and most flexible) to a type I (the most fragile and easily destroyed) and, as a result, the skin is unable to bounce back following facial movement. When that happens, your skin looks and feels less supple and is more prone to wrinkling. Aside from causing wrinkles and sagginess, this process also affects skin clarity so you may notice that your complexion doesn’t look as naturally radiant as it used to.

It comes as no surprise then than people with diabetes often show early signs of skin ageing. According to Karyn Grossman, a chief dermatologist at St John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, “Depending on how well their condition is controlled, diabetics can have up to 50 times the number of AGEs in their skin as those who do not have diabetes”.

But it is not just the sugar that we eat, but the way we eat it that harms our skin. Cooking and caramelising our food at high temperatures, such as when barbecuing or cooking on a griddle, creates AGEs which, once consumed, bind to our collagen and elastin fibres. Basically AGEs form when any food that is made up of sugar, protein and/or fat is cooked to a high heat and the higher the temperature and the longer the cooking process, the more AGEs form.

What can you do to stop this process?

The good news is that there are ways you can slow down the rate of glycation, which will help to prevent the degradation of collagen and ultimately keep the skin looking youthful for as long as possible.

Work from the outside in

Something you can do straight away is to use topical products that target AGEs and work from the outside in. By preventing AGEs from binding to collagen and elastin in your skin, they help repair and strengthen the skin. Products that increase the production of collagen are also effective, as they will help to reverse any damage done by glycation and will give your skin a more plumped appearance. Significantly more AGEs occur in sun-exposed skin, so wearing a broad spectrum sunscreen every day is highly recommended.

Top up your anti-oxidant supply

Anti-oxidants help slow down the glycation process by neutralising AGEs, so replenishing their supply is a real skin saver. You can do this by drinking and eating more antioxidant rich drinks and foods, such as green and white tea, cranberries, walnuts, and red bell peppers, and also by applying topical products containing vitamins C and E and extracts of blueberries or green tea.

Cut back on the sweet stuff on your diet

The most drastic and effective way to de-age your skin is to cut down on sugar by following these 4 simple steps:

1. Cut back on added sugar. Avoid adding refined sugar, honey, maple syrup or fructose to your tea, coffee, cereal or in cooking. As a general guideline, try to keep added sugar to no more than 10% of your total daily calories.

2. Watch out for hidden sugars. Many prepared foods contain large amounts of sugar hidden under aliases in the list of ingredients. These include barley malt, corn syrup, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, and turbinado. The key is determining how much sugar each serving contains by checking the nutrition label for sugars, which are listed in grams under total carbohydrates.

3. Avoid high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Alarmingly, this type of sweetener is believed to produce more AGEs than any other types, with the rate of AGE formation occurring up to 10 times faster in the presence of fructose compared with glucose. Because HFCS extends the shelf life of foods and is sweeter and cheaper than other sugars, it is a popular ingredient in soda, fruit-flavoured drinks and packaged foods such as breakfast cereals, breads, crackers, and other snacks. You can spot it in the list of ingredients on the nutrition labels. 

4. Replace sugary foods with complex carbohydrates. Foods such as brown bread, whole grain cereals and brown rice have a lower glycaemic index which means that they convert into glucose at a slower rate.


The bottom line is that a diet high in sugar and, in particular, foods with the sugar-protein-heat combination, can cause premature ageing. Topical application of scientifically validated compounds can help rejuvenate the skin by protecting against glycation and rebuilding collagen. However, the best thing you can do is avoid sugars and refined carbohydrates. So next time you feel like indulging in that rich and creamy chocolate cake, remember how all that sugar can and will age your skin. Not so tempting now is it?

You can learn more about the effects of sugar on our interactive online Nutrition and Weight Management course here

Written by Victoria Trowse 


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