What Role Does Sugar Play in Heart Disease?
The average American gets about 10 percent of their calories from added sugars. Added sugars — from high fructose corn syrup to honey — are sugars and syrups that manufacturers add to processed foods. Ten percent may not seem like very much, but added sugars are empty calories that can lead to weight gain. Some Americans get a lot more than 10 percent of their calories from added sugars. Diets comprising 25 percent or more added sugar are linked to dental problems, obesity and insulin resistance.
Added sugar can also raise your risk for heart disease. You read that correctly: Sugar, not saturated fat. While saturated fat has been decried by health and nutrition advocates for decades, new research is linking sugar and heart disease.
A 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that a high sugar diet increases the risk of dying from heart disease. And results from a 2017 University of Surrey study published in Clinical Science suggest that even healthy people who consume too much sugar have a greater chance of developing heart disease.
This may seem obvious — consuming sugary foods and beverages fuels your body with calories void of nutrients and can lead to obesity. But the University of Surrey study uncovered a more complex physiological process. In the study, sugar seemed to affect how fat is metabolized in the liver. Researchers found it can raise your risk for atherosclerosis, a hallmark of cardiovascular disease defined as the buildup of fatty deposits, commonly referred to as plaque, along the inner lining of blood vessels. Eventually blood vessels will stiffen and narrow, limiting the flow of nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood to cells and damaging the heart, brain and kidneys.
That’s not to say you should swap your cake for bacon. The American Heart Association still recommends choosing healthy fats over saturated fat. “Recent studies have tied trans fats, not saturated fats, with cardiovascular disease; however, the literature hasn’t defined the role of saturated fat in heart disease,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “Some saturated fat may not be a problem, but your goal should be getting polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats into your diet.” Examples include:
- Polyunsaturated fats – walnuts, sunflower seeds, salmon, trout, albacore tuna, oils (flax, corn, soybean and safflower)
- Monounsaturated fats – avocadoes, peanut butter, oils (canola, safflower, sunflower, peanut and sesame)
If you’re trying to reduce sugar intake, keep in mind that sugar grams on a nutrition label only reflect actual sugar. Processed foods may contain other types of sugar listed in the ingredients under terms like maltose or lactose. Here’s a list of 60-plus terms food manufactures use to label sugars.
Other food labels may also confuse you. Here are three other sugar-related terms you’ll find on food packages and what they mean, according to the American Heart Association:
- Sugar-free: having less than .5 grams of sugar per serving.
- Reduced sugar or Less sugar: having at least 25 percent less sugar per serving compared to a standard serving
- No added sugars or Without added sugars: having no sugar or sugar-containing ingredients such as juice or dry fruit added while processing.
Learn more about sugar and heart health by talking to your MDVIP-affiliated physician. Looking for a primary care physician? Physicians in MDVIP-affiliated practices can customize a wellness plan for you that includes preventing and controlling heart disease. Find an MDVIP affiliate near you and begin your partnership in health »