Heart-Healthy Nutrition

Is Sugar Bad for Your Heart?

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

If you’re trying to eat heart healthy, you probably know to stay away from the salt shaker. Same goes for food from the fryer. The connection between cardiovascular health and a diet that is high in sodium and saturated fat is well established in both health research and our public consciousness.

Not as commonly considered harmful to your heart is how much sugar you consume in your diet. Is there a strong link between sugar consumption and heart disease?

The short answer: You better go easy on the sweets, too.

“Added (refined) sugars, known as simple carbohydrates, are broken down quickly by the body and cause a spike in blood sugar,” says Andrea Thelen, a registered dietitian at Henry Ford Health System. “This spike causes the body to release the fat storage hormone insulin. The more refined sugars you eat, the more insulin your body releases and the greater your risk of obesity – and in turn, cardiovascular disease.”

A recent study in the JAMA Internal Medicine showed that a sugar-laden diet may raise your risk of dying of heart disease even if you aren’t overweight. Sugar also increases the likelihood of developing diabetes, prevents triglycerides (a type of blood fat associated with cardiovascular disease) from being broken down and lowers the level of HDL cholesterol – the “good” cholesterol – in the body while raising LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.

“In the 1990s, we focused on sodium and saturated fat as the culprits of cardiovascular disease,” Thelen says. “So we turned to low-fat products that replaced the fat with sugar. We now know this didn’t address the issue, because obesity and heart disease have continued to rise.”

The Limit on Sugar Consumption

Refined sugars are found in all of your favorite sweet treats – from ice cream and cookies to cakes and candies. They’re also in soda, many packaged goods and even in items you may not expect – like yogurt, condiments and salad dressing. This is why it’s crucial to look at labels.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends added sugars should not take up more than 10 percent of daily caloric intake based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. Per day, women should not consume more than 24 grams of sugar. For men, that number is 36 grams.

Quick tip: When looking at food labels, keep this in mind: Just 4 grams of added sugar is equal to 1 teaspoon.

It’s important to note that natural sugars found in vegetables, fruits and complex carbohydrates are better choices for your health. Not only do these foods help regulate blood sugar, but they are high in dietary fiber which actually removes cholesterol from the blood stream.

Related Topic: 4 Unexpected Things That Can Affect Heart Health

Decreasing Sugar Intake

Sugar is a powerful substance. It’s often the root of food cravings, and tough to avoid – especially at social outings and celebrations. But it’s important to limit your intake of this harmful substance.

“We get addicted to sugar, and even fat, because the foods that contain these items are pleasurable to eat,” Thelen says.

Here are a couple of ways to kick your sugar consumption to the curb:

  • Don’t keep sugar-laden foods in the house.
  • Replace sugary drinks like soda with carbonated water with a squeeze of lemon or splash of fruit juice.
  • Keep healthy treats readily available. Fresh fruit and dark chocolate are good examples. For a frozen treat, try freezing grapes or making your own frozen yogurt berry bites.

With self-discipline, overcoming the urge to eat sugar gets easier with time, Thelen says. Our taste buds replace themselves about every two weeks, and you may find you start to crave it less. And when you do eat sugar, it may taste much sweeter than what you once thought.

How healthy is your heart? Take the heart risk quiz to find out. Then, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or find a heart expert at henryford.com or by calling 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Andrea Thelen is a registered dietitian nutritionist for the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.