A recent study that links added sugars in the diet to heart disease is bad news for your sweet tooth. However, the new data empowers doctors and patients with solid information about how the sugars added to many foods – and especially soft drinks – take a toll on heart health.
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The study’s conclusion sums it up this way: “Most U.S. adults consume more added sugar than is recommended for a healthy diet. We observed a significant relationship between added sugar consumption and increased risk for CVD [cardiovascular disease] mortality.”
Researchers at the Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta conducted the study. Results appear in the February 3, 2014 edition of JAMA Internal Medicine.
Sugar’s role in health
It’s well known that consuming too many calories leads to weight gain and many other health problems including obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood sugar and heart disease.
Endocrinologist Betul Hatipoglu, MD, did not participate in the recent study, but says it addresses an important public health issue. “As diabetes increased 200 percent in some states and the number one reason behind this being obesity, calories overall and calories from sugars become very important,” she said.
Added sugars can hide in plain sight. You might not expect to find a lot of sugar in a can of soup, frankfurters or whole grain bread. But it’s often in there.
Increasingly, manufacturers add sugar to savory foods, hoping to sweeten the appeal of the product and their bottom line. These so-called added sugars (sugar occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables) add calories but no nutrients. Some foods, especially sugary sodas, offer only empty calories.
Studying years of data
Researchers examined extensive data collected from three different sets of National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey questionnaires (dating from 1988 to 2010). They looked for links between dietary habits and rates of heart disease and mortality.
From 1999 to 2004, added sugar comprised 16.8 percent of the average American’s daily diet. Consumption dropped a little from 2005 to 2010, on average to 14.9 percent.
The study found a strong association between sugar consumption and cardiac disease, though it didn’t prove cause and effect.
How much sugar is too much?
A diet containing more than 15 percent added sugars can increase your risk of death from cardiovascular disease, according to the study.
That isn’t very much sugar; in fact, one 20 oz. sugary soda a day in a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet puts you over the limit.
Dr. Hatipoglu explains that added sugars in drinks can sneak up on patients. “Drinks are not perceived as food, not even calories by many. It is so easy to stack up on ‘empty’ calories with sugar-loaded drinks that some of my patients live on them without knowing it. I have seen patients losing 20 to 30 pounds by only stopping the drinks and replacing them with healthier versions,” she said.
Focus on whole, fresh foods
Currently, the American Heart Association has some of the strictest recommended restrictions regarding added sugars in the diet, saying that the ideal upper limit for women is 5 percent of total calories per day, and less than 8 percent of total calories per day for men.
Experts advise a focus on whole, fresh foods with an emphasis on fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean protein. Whole foods often taste better and they can also be economical if you cook from scratch.
Nutritionists have expertise in helping you create meals that leave added sugars out of the equation for heart health.