Not Too Sweet: Added Sugar May Be Dangerous for Your Heart

Too much added sugar in the diet is often linked with weight gain and diabetes, but it can also take a toll on your heart health.

Added-Sugar-May-Be-Dangerous-for-Your-Heart-722x406 Limiting sugar intake may be even more important than avoiding salt.

Most people think of salt as the heart’s main dietary enemy. But mounting evidence suggests that added sugar might be just as dangerous.

Limiting the amount of sugar you consume daily can help you maintain a healthy weight. But it may also help you live a healthier, longer life, according to John Day, MD, a cardiologist at Intermountain Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“When it comes to sugar, the toxicity is in the dose,” Dr. Day says.

The average American consumed nearly 152 pounds of sugar annually, or 42 teaspoons a day, according to 2014 data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Can Sugar Really Make Your Heart Sick?

Heart health should be on your radar because heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Although many public health programs target salt intake as a major cause of high blood pressure, researchers suggest the focus is “on the wrong white crystal.”

The real culprit is added sugar, which, like salt, is found in many pre-packaged or processed foods, argues their study published in Open Heart in December 2014. The new research and another study published in May 2014 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, both found that added sugar intake is associated with multiple heart disease factors.

Too much added sugar in the diet is linked to:

  • High blood pressure
  • High LDL, the “bad” cholesterol
  • Reduced HDL, the “good” cholesterol
  • Inflammation
  • Insulin resistance

People who got 25 percent or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as were those who consumed less than 10 percent added sugar, reported another study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Researchers found that the more sugar people consumed, the greater their risk for death from heart disease. And this held true even after the researchers took the participants’ age, gender, level of physical activity, and body mass index (BMI) into account.

How Much Sugar Is Too Much?

The average healthy woman should consume no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day, equal to about 100 calories, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). That’s about 25 grams of added sugars, notes Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, an adjunct professor in nutrition at Georgia State University and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Meanwhile, healthy men should take in no more than 9 teaspoons of sugar, the equivalent of about 150 calories a day, the AHA says. This is about 38 grams of added sugar, says Moore.

To put this into perspective, one 12-ounce can of soda contains about 11 teaspoons of added sugar, according to HHS. To keep tabs on your sugar, check nutrition facts in your meals with our free online calorie-counter tool.

Tips on Limiting Added Sugar in Your Diet

Cutting back on sugar means more than avoiding sweetened juices and sodas. Unlike naturally occurring sugar found in fruit (called fructose) and milk (lactose), added sugars are incorporated into many foods when they’re prepared.

Desserts and other sweets are one main source, but you may be surprised to find added sugar lurking in items that aren’t even considered sweet — breads, pasta sauces, dressings, and condiments, Moore says.

Counting added sugars is one way to limit your intake, but that’s not always easy, she adds.

“It’s important to understand the different ways you might find sugar in food,” Moore says. Some foods with added sugar may not even have the word “sugar” listed on their nutritional labels. Ingredients like fructose, fruit juice concentrate, molasses, organic cane juice, honey, corn syrup, and agave nectar are all essentially the same thing: added sugar, Moore says.

To address this, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed future updates to the Nutrition Facts label found on most packaged foods, including requiring specific information on the amount of “added sugars” foods contain.

RELATED: Our Year of No Sugar: One Family’s Grand Adventure

In the meantime, a good way to limit your added sugar intake is to remove the guesswork by preparing your own food, Moore suggests. “Instead of using a packet of chili seasoning or gravy mix, make your own,” she says. “This way you have control.”

Moore also offers the following tips to cut back on added sugar:

  • Instead of drinking sweetened juice, eat the whole fruit.
  • Buy plain foods — like cereal, oatmeal, or yogurt — and add your own fruit.
  • If you need to satisfy your sweet tooth, opt for fruit that’s in season.
  • If you use preserved fruits, choose products packed in water, not sugary syrup.

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