Is Sugar Really Bad for Your Heart?

Sugar has gained a reputation as a “bad guy” in the food chain, and for good reasons. It has long been associated with type 2 diabetes, tooth decay and obesity.

Sugar has gained a reputation as a “bad guy” in the food chain, and for good reasons. It has long been associated with type 2 diabetes, tooth decay and obesity. According to two recent studies, there is also a direct connection between sugar and heart disease. 

A 2011 study by Northwestern University’s Department of Preventive Medicine revealed that women who drink sugar-sweetened beverages increase their risk for developing cardiovascular disease. It might seem logical that people who consume a lot of sugar would have a tendency toward obesity, which in turn increases the risk for heart disease and diabetes. But this study showed that heart risk factors developed even when the women did not gain weight.

A similar, 22-year study confirmed the connection between sugar and heart disease in men. Results showed that men who drink one 12-ounce sugar-sweetened drink a day sharply increase their risk for heart disease. Those who drank the sweetened beverages most often were 20 percent more likely to have a heart attack.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took these research results seriously enough to recently propose a controversial ban on selling super-sized sugary drinks at the City’s restaurants, movie theaters, sports venues and street carts. The outcome of this proposal could have a nationwide impact.

Before you attempt to eliminate all sugar from your diet, however, it’s important to know the difference between naturally occurring sugars—those that are naturally found in foods such as fruit, some vegetables and milk—and sugars that are added to foods during processing or at the table. Added sugars are commonly found in highly processed or packaged foods, including many breakfast cereals, snacks and desserts. The US Department of Agriculture recommends that half of our daily diet should consist of vegetables and fruits because of the important nutrients they provide. Foods with high amounts of added sugars, on the other hand, usually have limited nutritional value and are considered “empty” calories.

American Heart Association guidelines specify that most women should get not more than 100 calories a day from added sugar (six teaspoons) and most men should get no more than 150 calories’ worth (9 teaspoons). Unfortunately, most Americans eat 355 calories (22 teaspoons) of added sugar every day.

These added sugars are often “hidden” under other names on Nutrition Facts labels, so watch for ingredients such as corn sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, malt sugar and words ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, lactose, maltose and sucrose), which are all forms of sugar. Note that low-fat and fat-free processed foods are often high in sugar and calories, so be sure to read the labels. There has been a lot of debate about whether high fructose corn syrup is any worse for you than table sugar, but the bottom line is that added sugars of any type provide extra calories without nutrients and should be used only in moderation.

Check out these tips on reducing added sugar in your diet.

By creating a food plan for yourself and your family that includes fewer processed foods with added sugars, you are more likely to get plenty of nutrition within your calorie needs. This will help you reach or maintain a healthy weight as well as improve your overall wellness and lower your heart disease risk.

Eating one or two servings of fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids per week, like salmon or tuna, decreases your risk for heart disease and even heart attack.