You might already know that too much sugar leads to weight gain and tooth decay. But did you know that the sugar in your diet could increase your risk of heart disease? More and more studies are focusing on that subject. Here’s what you need to know about sweets and your heart.
What the Studies Say
The studies have a lot to say actually. The most recent one was published February 3rd, 2014, just in time for Valentine’s Day, the day of hearts and chocolates. Judging from the results, you might want to ask for flowers.
The study was conducted to estimate the increased risk of death from heart disease. The researchers were already convinced that added sugar in the diet increases the risk of heart disease. What they wanted to know about was the increased risk of death. The term “added sugar” refers to sugar that is not normally present in a food. It is added as an ingredient. Where you can find added sugars in your diet is covered in another section of this article.
The study looked at eating trends found in surveys conducted between 1988 and 2010. The results show that 10% or more of calories consumed by adults in the United States come from added sugars. About 10% of the population gets even more sugar. 25% of their daily calories come from the sweet stuff.
In addition to documenting dietary habits, the surveys also documented deaths caused by heart disease.
There was a significantly higher incidence of death (nearly 3 times as many) from heart disease among the people who consumed the most sugar.
The researchers concluded that added sugar consumption increases the risk of heart disease death. The authors also noted that “Most U.S. adults consume more added sugar than is recommended for a healthy diet.”
How Sugar Consumption Could Lead to Heart Disease
Sugar consumption could lead to heart disease in a number of ways. The most obvious has to do with weight gain. Sugar is a calorie-dense food. A tiny piece of candy may contain several hundred calories. While these treats taste good, they are not particularly filling. Two hundred calories worth of fruits, vegetables or grains, on the other hand, is very filling. So, eating too much sugar could cause you to become overweight or obese and excessive weight is hard on your heart.
Fruits and other natural foods contain complex sugars that are slowly converted to blood sugar. Added sugars are less complex and are quickly converted to blood sugar. After eating a sugary food or drinking a sweetened beverage, your blood sugar level may spike significantly. These spikes in blood sugar levels may be followed by a cascade of molecular events that lead to the production of Advanced Glycation End-products, commonly called AGEs. AGEs are molecules consisting of protein and glucose but the molecules cannot be used by the cells of the body for energy. When they get inside of a cell, they harden and eventually destroy the cell. This can happen to your heart cells!
AGEs are bad, but they aren’t the only problems. Sometimes, when you consume more sugar than your body can use for energy, your liver converts it to fat, so that the energy can be stored. Excessive body fat is more of a risk for heart disease than excessive weight. Body fat contributes to chronic or “system-wide” inflammation and system-wide inflammation plays a role in heart disease. This kind of inflammation is also known as “silent” because it doesn’t cause any outright symptoms.
Last, but not least, is the connection between dental disease and heart disease. Periodontal disease, in particular, has been linked to a higher risk. Periodontal disease is a result of untreated cavities. The sugars in soft drinks are particularly bad for the teeth, partly because they are dissolved and more likely to cause cavities, and partly because people are not likely to brush their teeth after having a sweetened drink. The acid in most soft drinks is yet another factor that contributes to oral disease. The connection between poor oral health and heart disease is believed to be, once again, system-wide inflammation. People with periodontal disease have higher levels of C-reactive protein, a compound that is known to play a role in heart disease and is also an indicator of ongoing inflammation.
Finding the Hidden Sugars
So, when you think of sugar, you probably think of the bowl of white powder that sits on your table. You might put a teaspoon in your coffee or add some to your oatmeal. If that were all the sugar you consumed every day, you would probably be okay. The American Heart Association says your daily sugar limit should be 9 teaspoons if you are a man and 6 teaspoons if you are a woman. For most people, it’s not the sugar bowl that is the problem. It’s the hidden sugars, ingredients like high fructose corn syrup.
A can of coke, for example, is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. If you drink just one can, you are getting the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar. Some people drink 4 or more cans a day. That’s 40 teaspoons of sugar! Other ingredients that are actually added sugars and contribute to your daily sugar intake include maltose, fructose, dextrose and sucrose. If the word ends in the letters “o, s and e”, it’s probably a sugar.
What about Artificial Sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners contain little or no calories but they may not be any better for your health. One recent study showed that diet sodas, for example, may lead to increased appetite and weight gain. The researchers believe that the sweet taste causes the body to expect calories. The brain, which gets most of its energy from glucose, may send signals that cause the pancreas to produce insulin. When no sugar enters the bloodstream, the insulin has no function. Over time, the process could lead to insulin resistance, a cause of type II diabetes.
Instead of using sugar or artificial sweeteners to satisfy your sweet-tooth, try eating more fruits and berries. Drink water flavored with a lemon, lime or orange slice. Add natural vanilla or almond extract to your coffee. Once you cut back on the sweet stuff in your diet, a ripe peach will taste “super sweet”.
What’s the Bottom Line on Heart Disease and Sweets?
The bottom line is really moderation. In excess, anything can be bad for you…excessive calories, excessive sodium, excessive fat and excessive sugar. Any of those things can be a part of a healthy diet, in moderate amounts. If you don’t know how to plan a moderate diet, consider making an appointment with a dietician. Your dietician may tell you about some foods that actually have anti-inflammatory activity. Those foods can work against disease-causing inflammation. Natural anti-inflammatories are also found in some of the better dietary supplements, described on other pages of this site. Planning a healthy diet is not an easy thing but help is available. We hope the information here has helped you understand more about the connection between heart disease and sugar.