Sugar and heart health

Do you know where sugar lurks?

The risk of dying from heart disease begins to rise when calories from sugar make up more than 15 percent of the total calories.

The link between sugar and heart health is clear: The risk of dying from heart disease begins to rise when calories from sugar make up more than 15 percent of the total calories.

Sugar has recently been making headline news, thanks to a number of studies focusing on sugar and heart health.

Sugar has been linked to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease. A recent study reviewing data from 10,000 United States adults (April 2014, JAMA Internal Medicine) found that, compared to people whose sugar intake was less than 10 percent of their calories, those who reported between 10 and 25 percent of their calories coming from sugar had a significantly higher risk of dying from heart disease, and those who had 25 percent or more of their calories from sugar were almost 3 times as likely to die from heart disease.

The risk of death from heart disease actually began to rise when calories from sugar made up more than 15 percent of the total intake. For a person eating 2,000 calories, this would be the equivalent of just one 20-ounce Mountain Dew a day. Clearly there is a link between sugar and heart health, but even the experts disagree on how much sugar is recommended.

How much sugar is recommended?

Official recommendations vary for how much sugar is acceptable. The World Health Organization recommends that sugar should be less than 10 percent of our total calories, while the Institute of Medicine recommends keeping sugar less than 25 percent of total calories. The American Heart Association recommends sugar be limited to less than 100 calories a day for women and less than 150 calories a day for men. When even the experts are having trouble agreeing, how do we decide?

How much sugar are we eating?

When studies showed that saturated fats were not heart healthy, a number of products hit the grocery store aisles that were labeled as “fat free” and billed as healthy choices. As these foods, such as bagels, fat-free cookies and sugary candy, became viewed as better options than high-fat foods, they began to be included as a regular part of the American diet. Not surprisingly, at the same time, obesity increased as the calories people were eating rose. Between 2005 and 2010, more than 70 percent of adults in the United States were getting more than 10 percent of their calories just from sugar, and approximately 10 percent of U.S. adults were getting 25 percent or more of their calories from sugar.

Sugar lurks in unexpected places!

One of the main sources of sugar in the American diet is soda and other sweetened beverages. Sugar is an ingredient in most pastries and baked goods, frozen desserts and candy. But sugar also is added to a surprising number of other products. Flavored yogurt, cereal and flavored instant oatmeal, granola bars, salad dressings and BBQ sauces may all be sources of hidden sugar in your diet. Even processed peanut butters usually have added sugar.

Confusing the matter is a potential difficulty in interpreting food labels. Although high fructose corn syrup is sometimes labeled as particularly bad, table sugar is equally bad. Other foods may contain natural sugars that are not related to health problems, such as the natural sugar found in unflavored milk and yogurt. Although the food label will show these foods contain sugar, it’s actually the natural lactose in the dairy and not an added sugar.

Tips for avoiding added sugar

  • Read the ingredient list to hunt down hidden sugars that may be lurking in foods. Unflavored yogurt will not include any source of sugar in the ingredient list, which is a clue that no sugar was added in processing.
  • Choose foods that are less processed such as plain yogurt, unflavored oatmeal and natural peanut butter.
  • Reduce or avoid sweets. Most of us can’t afford the extra calories anyway, and choosing a piece of fruit for dessert can be just as satisfying as a cookie.
  • Avoid drinking sugar. Pop, punch, fruit juice, sports drinks, lemonade, flavored coffee, sweet tea and all the other sweetened beverages are a huge source of sugar. Save your calories for food, and drink primarily water or low-fat milk.
  • Avoid adding sugar to foods at home. Learn to enjoy the flavor of fresh foods such as vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fruit, nuts and dairy. Moving away from sugar can actually open the door to enjoying wonderful flavors and delicious foods that we’ve been neglecting to include!

Take the next step:

  • A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist can help you improve your eating pattern for increased energy and overall good health. To schedule an appointment with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist focusing on heart health, call 734-647-7321.

Weintraub 2 150x150Martha Weintraub, ACSW, MPH, RDN, is a member of the outpatient nutrition team at the Cardiovascular Medicine Clinic at Domino’s Farms.




Frankel-informal-vertical-sigThe University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is the top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.