Does sugar cause diabetes?


Diabetes and sugar

When someone has diabetes, their body can’t maintain healthy levels of glucose in the blood. Glucose is a form of sugar which is the main source of energy for our bodies. Unhealthy levels of glucose in the blood can lead to long term and short term health complications. It’s true that if you over consume sugar, in particular foods and drinks with added sugars, it can increase your risk of developing diabetes. But the reason has more to do with impacts on your waist-line and body fat rather than the sugar itself.

In a healthy body, the foods containing carbohydrates like sugar and starches get broken down into the simplest form of energy known as glucose. This signals your pancreas to produce insulin, which signals your muscles, fat and liver to absorb the glucose, so it can be used for energy or stored for later use. Diabetes happens when your pancreas stops producing enough insulin or your cells become resistant to the insulin or both. This means the body is no longer able to regulate blood glucose levels.

There are two main types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes occurs when your immune system attacks the cells in your pancreas that are responsible for producing insulin. Type 1 Diabetes is relatively rare, accounting for only 5 – 10% of all diabetes cases. Type 1 diabetes isn’t caused by lifestyle and so sugar doesn’t directly cause the condition.  

Type 2 Diabetes occurs when your pancreas stops producing enough insulin, or when your body no longer responds to the insulin it produces, or both. Type 2 Diabetes is much more common, and accounts for more than 90% of diabetes cases. According to the 2017-2018 Australian Bureau of Statistics self-reported National Health Study, one million Australian adults had type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes also isn’t directly caused by eating high amounts of sugar, however, being overweight is a risk factor for the condition.

How to reduce your added sugar intake

The following foods are generally high in added sugars so it’s a good idea to avoid them or consume them in small amounts to help manage a healthy weight:

  • energy drinks
  • fruit drinks
  • honey
  • jams and marmalade
  • some sauces / condiments
  • confectionary or lollies
  • sweetened soft drinks and cordials, mixers
  • sweetened waters
  • syrups

You can also make some of the following small changes to your diet to reduce the amount of added sugar you’re consuming:

  • avoiding adding sugar to tea and coffee
  • using cold infusion tea bags with no sugar to add flavour to sparkling water instead of choosing soft drinks
  • choosing yoghurts with no added sugar and add fresh fruit
  • choosing whole fruit over sugary snacks like banana bread or biscuits
  • using herbs, garlic and ginger to add flavour to meals instead of sugary sauces
  • checking the sugar content of packaged foods

Added sugars always need to be included in the ingredient list and the list always starts with the largest quantity of ingredient first. If sugar is towards the start of the list, you know the product will be high in sugar. Sometimes other words are used to describe added sugars, so it’s a good idea to look out for the following words on the ingredients list as well:

  • sucrose
  • glucose
  • fructose
  • maltose
  • hydrolysed starch
  • invert sugar
  • corn syrup
  • honey
  • concentrated fruit juice

It’s important to remember that even though a product may state that it has “no added sugars”, it could still contain high levels of naturally occurring sugars like fructose or lactose.

More information


All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.

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