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How Sugar Affects the Heart

by Michael Desiderio, DO

You probably know that your sweet tooth affects your waistline, but did you know it can also be harmful to your heart?

A 2014 study showed that a diet high in sugar puts you at a greater risk of dying from heart disease, even if you aren’t overweight. If at least 25% of calories in your daily diet come from added sugar, you are twice as likely to die of heart disease than if your diet included less than 10% of total calories from added sugar.

Sugar can affect your heart by:

  • Increasing the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes, which in turn increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Spiking blood sugar levels (and so insulin levels), which increases your risk of obesity and heart disease.
  • Stopping triglycerides (fat in the blood connected with cardiovascular disease) from breaking down.
  • Lowers the level of HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) while raising LDL (“bad” cholesterol) levels.
  • Increasing blood pressure through increasing sodium accumulation in the body.

Sugar is added to most processed foods, which most Americans consume daily. Refined sugars are also found in all of the sweet treats lining your pantry shelves. They are even found in yogurts, salad dressings, ketchup, and other common condiments. On average, Americans consume 66 pounds of sugar per person per year. That equals nearly 20 teaspoons per day. 

Limiting Sugar In Your Diet

Limiting sugar in your diet can not only decrease your risk of heart disease, but it can also help with your overall health. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends sugars should not take up more than 10% of your daily calories (based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet). The American Heart Association recommends women should not consume more than 24 grams of sugar per day, and men should have no more than 36 grams. Just four grams of added sugar is equal to one teaspoon.

Tips to limiting sugar, include:

  • Read all food labels. Sugar can be hidden on labels. Sugar may be named brown rice syrup, barley malt, beet sugar, agave, and sucrose. 
  • Avoid processed foods. By cooking with whole foods and shopping the outside aisles of the grocery store, you can naturally decrease sugar consumption and increase the amount of vegetables and fruits you eat. 
  • Avoid sugary drinks. Replace soda with carbonated water with a squeeze of lemon or splash of fruit juice.

Remember that all calories are not equal. You should work to eat a balanced diet with 30% lean protein, 30% good fat, and 40% low-glycemic carbohydrates.
Sugar can also be very addicting. The more you consume, the more you crave. Moderation is the key to staying healthy and keeping your heart healthy. It is important to ignore the constant barrage of advertising and messages tempting you to eat more sugar — your heart and your waistline, will be better for it.

Learn more about Heart & Vascular services at UPMC.