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Sugar and Heart Health – The Bittersweet Truth


While cardiologists have long warned patients about the dangers of a diet heavy in salt and high in saturated fats, sugar has traditionally been left out of the heart health equation.

Not any longer.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that consuming increased amounts of sugar, especially in processed foods, can lower high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (good cholesterol) levels, higher triglyceride levels, and higher low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (bad cholesterol) levels.

The evils of sugar have been well-chronicled in recent years as the incidence of childhood obesity and diabetes has sharply increased in the United States. Now, there is evidence to what many heart doctors had long believed: increased sugar consumption is not only exacerbating a myriad of overall health issues, but also increases the risk of coronary heart disease.

And the problem is being compounded by a change in American dietary habits over the past 30 years. According to a study by the American Heart Association (AMA), Americans are taking in 150 to 300 more calories per day than they did in 1980 with half the increase in calories consumed from sugar-sweetened beverages.

The study published in JAMA also found that people who got at least 25 percent of their daily calories from added sugars of any kind were 3.1 times more likely to have low levels of good cholesterol than those who got less than 5 percent of calories from added sweeteners.

On the higher end of the spectrum, people consuming more than 17.5 percent of their calories from the sugars were 20 percent to 30 percent more likely to have high levels of triglycerides than people with the low-sugar diets.

And the effects of high-fructose diets are showing up in medical offices and hospitals throughout the country. Among the health related issues are an increased risk of developing high blood pressure, hypertension, high triglyceride levels, other risk factors for stroke, and inflammation (a marker for heart disease).

In an effort to reduce health costs related to poor diets, several states, including New York and California, have taxed sweetened soft drinks to offset the cost of treating obesity-related diseases.

The AHA says the average intake of added sugars Americans is 22.2 teaspoons per day, or 355 calories.

For starters, the AHA recommends cutting sugary sodas from diets (one 12-ounce can of regular cola has about 8 teaspoons of added sugar) and other artificial sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup found in so many processed food products. Instead, focus on a dietary pattern that is rich in fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, high-fiber whole grains, lean meat, poultry and fish.

Other important information regarding diets high in sugar:

  • High intake of added sugars is implicated in numerous poor health conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease and stroke.
  • Added sugars and solid fats in food, as well as alcoholic beverages are categorized as “discretionary calories” and should be eaten sparingly.
  • Most American women should consume no more than 100 calories of added sugars per day; most men, no more than 150 calories.
  • Soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages are the number one source of added sugars in the American diet.
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