Added Sugars and Heart Health

For decades, Americans – and people around the world – were led to believe that fats were the true evil behind cardiovascular disease. Doctors preached that a protein-packed breakfast of eggs and meat should be replaced by whole grain cereals and other carb-based choices. But now JAMA Internal Medicine, the American Heart Association and the British Heart Foundation report that it is actually added sugars, not fats, that contribute to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Many people don’t realize how much sugar they’re ingesting on a daily basis, mainly because they’re used to unhealthy choices being a regular part of their lives, they don’t realize how much added sugar is in the products they’re eating, or because of hidden sugars in some products. But when all of these commonplace or seemingly small everyday choices are added together, the amount of sugar being consumed by most people is staggering. JAMA reports that most adults consume 10% of their calories from added sugar, and 10% of adults get a whopping 25% or more of their calories from added sugar. When researchers compared these two groups to people who get less than 10% of their calories from added sugar, there was a significant difference in cardiovascular disease rates and mortality.

Just how serious are these numbers? The study showed that adults who consumed 21% of their caloric intake from added sugars had more than twice the risk of a heart attack; those with the highest sugar intake raised their risk of cardiovascular disease by 400%. Those are some pretty serious numbers.

Sweetened drinks like sodas, sports/energy drinks, bottled iced tea drinks, specialty coffees and others top the list of the most heavily consumed sugar-added products. For perspective, a 12-oz. soda can contain anywhere between 9-1/2 to 12-1/2 teaspoons of sugar – if you drink a 16 oz., 20 oz. or larger container or if you have more than one soda per day, you can see how quickly your sugar intake increases just from soda alone. Then add in even more sugar from these commonly consumed culprits (and many others):

  • Sweetened breakfast cereals and oatmeal mixes
  • Jams, jellies, preserves, honey, spreads, syrups
  • Cakes, candy, cookies, etc.
  • Yogurts with sweetened fruit added
  • Other processed foods like packaged meals, frozen waffles, etc.

Naturally occurring sugars found in the structure of fruit isn’t the same as “free sugars” that are added to products, and the study found fruits did not contribute to heart disease. In addition, fresh fruit offers many other important nutrients that benefit good health.

There are a few different ways that sugar takes a toll on heart health. First and most obviously, an excess of sugar can lead to becoming overweight or obese, both of which are known to increase the risk of heart disease. But regardless of weight, sugar also raises blood pressure and creates inflammation in the body, which is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other health problems.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have any sugar in your diet, but less is more when it comes to your health. The American Heart Association has revised its recommendation for sugar consumption, stating that women should have less than 6 teaspoons of sugar per day and men should consume less than 9 teaspoons per day. One small 12 oz. soda already exceeds both of those numbers.

The majority of children, teens and adults are consuming far more added sugar than is considered safe, but the good news is that it’s easy to find healthy alternatives that will benefit you in multiple ways and begin to reverse the effects of added sugars. Replace sugary snacks with fresh fruits, seeds, nuts and the like, squeeze citrus fruits into sparkling water or cold still water to replace soda and “enhanced” waters, and use fresh vegetables, rice and meats rather than frozen or prepackaged products. You’ll be surprised how many health improvements these simple dietary changes can make.

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