How Does Sugar Affect Your Heart Health?

Sugar rich diet can increase risk of heart disease

Woman using one hand  to resist eating a doughnut while holding a healthy apple that she plans to eat.

Sugar rich diet can increase risk of heart disease

Ask most people how sugar can harm your health, and they’ll likely mention weight gain and dental problems. What many may not know is that large amounts of sugar also may raise your risk for heart disease, including coronary artery disease and stroke.

To better understand why consuming sugar can be bad for your heart, it’s important to know the difference between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars.

Natural sugars are found in whole fruits and vegetables and have not been linked to heart disease. Added sugars, as the name implies, are added to food or created when food is processed.

Obvious examples of added sugars include table sugar, candy and sodas, but some foods high in added sugars may surprise you, such as packaged pasta sauces and salad dressings, granola and yogurt. In fact, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), the average American consumes more than 17 teaspoons of added sugar each day.

5 ways added sugars affect heart health

Here are five ways added sugar can impact your heart:

1.     Weight gain

Many foods and drinks high in added sugar, such as soft drinks and packaged snacks, provide a lot of calories with very little nutritional value. These “empty calories” add up quickly and contribute to excess weight gain, which increases the risk of conditions like hypertension (high blood pressure) and high cholesterol.

2.     Hypertension

High sugar diets have been associated with higher blood pressure, a significant risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

3.     Insulin resistance

Insulin is a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels. Regularly consuming high amounts of sugar can lead to insulin resistance, which is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. “Added sugar is more harmful than sugar in whole foods because the body metabolizes added sugar differently,” says David Cork, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines.

“When we consume high amounts of added sugar, blood sugar levels spike quickly. If the body can’t utilize that excess sugar for energy, it is converted and stored as fat, which also contributes to obesity.”

4.     Type 2 diabetes

Insulin resistance forces the pancreas to produce more insulin, which can eventually lead to type 2 diabetes. People with diabetes have a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular conditions.

5.     Inflammation

High amounts of added sugar can result in chronic inflammation in the heart and blood vessels. This can boost blood pressure and increase heart disease risk.

Reduce added sugar in your diet

The American Heart Association recommends limiting your daily sugar intake as follows:

  • Men should consume no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams or 150 calories) of added sugar per day.
  • Women should consume no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams or 100 calories) per day.

“You don’t need to completely avoid all added sugar, but using great care to minimize your intake of sugared beverages and foods can be very helpful, because it is present in so many foods. Paying attention to food labels before consumption can help minimize excessive intake of sugar. For example, one 12-ounce can of soda may contain eight teaspoons (32 grams) of added sugar,” says Dr. Cork.

“Even healthy-sounding products like energy drinks may contain 20 tablespoons of sugar or more. Read labels and look for products with low or no added sugar. Furthermore, making an effort to consume whole, unprocessed food can pay significant dividends for your health long-term.”

Here are a few other tips to reduce your added sugar intake:

  • If you frequently use table sugar, switch to a healthier option. Stevia is a plant-derived, no-calorie sweetener that does not affect blood sugar levels. Be aware that molasses, brown sugar and “raw” sugar are still added sugars.
  • Satisfy your sweet tooth with whole fresh fruits like berries, apples and oranges. Tropical fruits tend to be higher in sugar but are still better choices than candy or other sweets.
  • Use unsweetened applesauce instead of sugar in baked goods.
  • Add fresh fruit slices to sparking water for a refreshing, low-sugar drink.

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