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Sugar and Heart Health

For years we’ve been warned about the dire effects of saturated fat and cholesterol on heart health, and though these are still considered risky territory, the latest attack on our hearts comes from sugar. And, actually, this is not new news. Here’s some history, the current research, and some guidance to move forward healthfully.  


The Scheme

In the 1960’s scientists accepted money to downplay sugar’s role and support saturated fat as the cause of heart disease. This past summer brought media reports that the sugar industry gave money to three Harvard scientists to minimize the role of sugar and put the focus on fat as the cause of heart disease for a review article they wrote for the New England Journal of Medicine. Half a century later, the implications of centering the conversation on fat instead of sugar are visible on the waistlines of millions of Americans.

The influence of the article and of the scientists who wrote it (one went on to become the nutrition leader at the US Department of Agriculture and another was the chairman of Harvard’s nutrition department) led healthcare professionals to guide Americans to eat less fat with no mention of decreasing sugar except in its role in contributing to cavities. The food industry responded with an avalanche of low-fat, high-sugar foods that we happily consumed thinking they were “healthy.” Many health experts believe that the shift to eating calorie-dense, sugar foods fueled the obesity epidemic we have today (if you’re old enough, you’ll remember the SnackWell’s fat-free cookie craze!).


The Science

How sugar contributes to heart disease is unclear. The exact mechanism of how sugar and heart disease are connected is not fully understood, but it is known that consuming calorie-dense, sugar-laden foods can lead to weight gain and increases the amount of triglycerides in the blood, both of which are major risk factors for heart disease. Researchers believe that though there is no definitive evidence linking sugar to heart disease, the data are strong enough to recommend that excess sugar be avoided [i].


The Bottom Line

Limit your sugar intake. The American Heart Association has recognized that sugar increases the risk of dying from heart disease and recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar each day for women and no more than 9 teaspoons a day for men. How does this translate into real food? Drink a 12-ounce can of regular soda, which has 9 teaspoons of added sugar, and you’re already at or over your daily limit.


Sneaky Scenario

What to watch for. Sugary drinks and desserts are obviously foods to eat in moderation, but if you frequently consume processed foods such as cereals, crackers, marinara sauce, BBQ sauce, ketchup, salad dressing, and even some brands of bread, you’re probably getting more of the sweet stuff than you think.

Food companies keep sugar hidden on labels by using sugary ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, cane sugar, sorghum, and dozens of others, all of which are types of sugar that are processed the same way once they’re in your body. Become familiar with the many types of sugar food companies use and read ingredient labels carefully before buying.


A New Hope

Help is on the way to decode sugar on food labels. The Food and Drug Administration may require the amount of added sugar to be included on food labels starting in July 2018, and some companies have already started including these. This simple labeling change will make it easy to see exactly how much added sugar you’re getting, no matter what the food companies call it. The new label will also most likely lead to food companies voluntarily using less sugar in their formulations, since consumers rightly correlate high levels of added sugar as less healthy, and therefore less likely to be tossed into the shopping cart.



Treat yourself – occasionally. If you’re like most people, a slice of birthday cake, a special dessert at your favorite restaurant, or a wedge of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving are a delicious part of gatherings with family and friends. The key is to enjoy these sweet temptations in moderation, so that they really are a treat and not an everyday indulgence. Go ahead and savor a thin slice of cake or pie and when you’re at a restaurant, order one dessert to share around the table. Enjoy sugar responsibly to help ensure that you’ll enjoy many more celebrations in good health.

[i] Te Morenga, L.A; Howatson, A.J.; Jones, R.M; Mann, J. Dietary sugars and cardiometabolic risk: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials of the effects on blood pressure and lipids. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 100(1):65-79
Jackie Mills

Jackie Mills is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who specializes in writing and recipe development for health advocacy groups, food companies, supermarkets, and publishers. She earned bachelor’s degrees in dietetics and journalism, both from the University of Kentucky, as well as two master’s degrees, in food science from the University of Maryland and in mass communications from Arizona State University. She is the author of 1,000 Diabetes Recipes (Wiley, 2010) and The Big Book of Diabetic Desserts: Decadent and Delicious Recipes Perfect for People with Diabetes (American Diabetes Association, 2007). She has served as project editor and writer for 18 Weight Watchers cookbooks and as the writer of Cooking Light Power Foods for Diabetes Cookbook (Oxmoor House, 2015).

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