We’re all familiar with the risks of too much added sugar for your dental health and silhouette, but is sugar bad for your heart too? The natural sugars found in fruit and milk are healthy and don’t pose a problem for your heart. However, “added” sugars affect heart health and the risk increases the more you consume.
An umbrella review published in BMJ in 2023 revealed that dietary sugar consumption is associated with 10 cardiovascular outcomes, a greater risk of coronary artery disease, and an increased risk of all-cause mortality. Reducing the added sugar in your family’s diet to a minimum is one of the best things you can do for your heart.
How Does Added Sugar Affect Heart Health?
Excessive sugar intake is associated with several factors that lead to a higher risk of heart disease: obesity, diabetes, inflammation, high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, and fatty liver disease.
Excess weight from a diet that’s high in sugar and trans fat can cause fatty material to build up in your arteries. If too much fat accumulates, the arteries—blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to your organs—can get damaged and clogged.
Clogged blood vessels leading to your heart can cause a heart attack. Clogged blood vessels leading to the brain can lead to a stroke or vascular dementia. You can reduce your risk for both of these issues by losing any excess weight and improving your diet.
Diets high in sugar appear to contribute both directly and indirectly to the development of type 2 diabetes, which is a risk factor for heart disease. Obesity is the primary risk factor for diabetes, accounting for 80-85% of the total risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Risk factors for diabetes connected with fructose consumption, specifically, include fatty liver, inflammation, and localized insulin resistance.
You can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by cutting down on sugary drinks, following a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and losing weight if you are overweight. It’s also important to have your blood sugar levels tested regularly, especially if you have a family history of diabetes.
Inflammation can occur in the body both as a direct result of a high-sugar diet and also as a result of conditions that are linked with a poor diet like obesity and type 2 diabetes. A review published by Giugliano et al. (2006) linked inflammation with diets that are high in sugar, refined starches, and saturated trans-fatty acids, and low in omega-3 fatty acids, natural antioxidants, and fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Chronic inflammation can lead to various symptoms like mood disorders, body pain, fatigue, digestive issues, weight gain, and frequent infections. Inflammation is also associated with the growth of plaque in the arteries, the loosening of existing plaque, and the formation of blood clots that can cause heart attacks and strokes.
Increased Blood Pressure
We often associate salt with high blood pressure, but sugar is also a leading cause (see our article on Salt vs Sugar – Which Is Worse for Your Heart?). High sugar consumption can inhibit the production of nitric acid. Nitric acid is essential for helping your blood vessels maintain their flexibility. When nitric acid levels are lowered, you may experience a rise in blood pressure.
Because high blood pressure is often associated with other problems like insulin resistance, limiting dietary sugar and sodium is essential for preventing (or managing) these medical problems and reducing the subsequent effects on the heart.
Sugar consumption is a risk factor for dyslipidemia. Dyslipidemia refers to an imbalance of lipids in the body, including triglycerides and the various types of cholesterol. The body turns excess sugar into fatty acids that form triglycerides and are stored in fat cells. Sugar consumption also prompts the liver to produce higher levels of LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) and reduces the amount of HDL (“good” cholesterol) in the body.
High triglycerides and high LDL cholesterol are known risk factors for heart disease. High LDL cholesterol levels can also lead to abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) and stroke. You can keep your cholesterol levels healthy by minimizing sugar consumption and eating plenty of vegetables (particularly green leafy vegetables), fruits, legumes, whole grains, and healthy fats and proteins.
Fatty Liver Disease
The buildup of excess fat in the liver is a dangerous condition that can lead to severe scarring of the liver. Risk factors for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease include those that are often linked to a high-fat, high-sugar, high-sodium diet: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
You can reduce the risk of developing fatty liver disease and its complications by losing weight (if overweight) and improving your diet.
How Much Added Sugar Is Too Much?
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than:
- 100 calories (about 6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day for women
- 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons) of added sugar per day for men
To track how much sugar you consume, add up:
- The number of teaspoons of sugar you add to your beverages throughout the day
- The number of teaspoons of sugar you use in cooking and baking
- The calories from sugar in the processed foods and beverages you consume, including fruit juice
- The calories from sugar in any foods and beverages you buy in restaurants or to-go
How Can I Reduce My Added Sugar Intake?
People who wish to cut down their sugar intake must pay attention to food labels. Nutrition labels contain information like ingredients and the nutritional value of the product you are buying. This includes naturally occurring and added sugars.
Things to avoid or cut down on for heart health include sweetened beverages like soda, flavored milk products, flavored syrup, and fruit juices, and foodstuffs like candy, chocolate, ice cream, sugary sauces, sweetened bread, hamburger buns, pastries, cakes, cookies, and packaged snacks. Be aware that only one can of soda can contain more than the total daily sugar limit.
Learn the Different Names for Sugar
Food producers are obliged to list any added sugars on the label. However, it’s not always easy to identify them because there are so many different sources of sugar. Ingredients used as sweeteners can include (but are not limited to):
- Agave nectar
- Barley malt
- Cane juice or cane syrup
- Corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Glucose, dextrose, fructose, maltose, and sucrose
- Rice syrup
Nutritional labels should also state the number of grams of total and added sugars as well as protein, sodium, cholesterol, and fat per serve. Opt for products with no added sugar when buying packaged goods.
Cook at Home
The best way to control your sugar intake is ultimately to cook your meals and snacks yourself. That way, you can measure exactly how many teaspoons of sugar you’re adding to sauces and baked goods. You can also choose to reduce the amount of sugar you add or use substitutes like bananas and applesauce. Over time, you’ll find that your taste buds adjust and you don’t feel as much need for sweet snacks and drinks.
Prevention Is Better Than Cure
In the USA, one person dies every 33 seconds from cardiovascular disease, accounting for 1 in 5 deaths. Reducing your sugar intake and leading a heart-healthy lifestyle with the AHA’s Essential 8 can reduce your risk of heart disease and cardiac events.
In addition to improving your cardiovascular health by reducing your sugar intake, it’s also important to go for regular health checkups and be prepared for cardiac arrest with an AED such as the ZOLL AED Plus or Defibtech Lifeline, especially if someone in your family already has heart disease. A swift response and the right equipment could give you or your loved one a second chance at living a healthier and longer life.