The Bittersweet Truth: Sugar and Heart Health


‘Stressed’ spelled backwards is ‘desserts’! And we love our daily sugar fix! Sugar, in the context of food, known as “added sugar”, includes table sugar, honey, other sweeteners, and fruit juices. Essentially, sugars are the components that form carbohydrates. (You can read more about that here). Sugar is naturally found in all foods that contain carbohydrates, such as fruits and vegetables, grains, and dairy. Complex carbohydrates (such as wholegrain, fruit, vegetables) and simple carbohydrates (like raw sugar, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup) are all made up of sugar molecules, which are broken down by digestion into glucose. Glucose is the fuel that keeps our body running, it generates energy for the brain, muscles, and every living cell. Simple carbohydrates are more easy to digest, and quickly release sugar into the bloodstream. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, take longer to digest, and therefore release sugar more slowly into the bloodstream.

Sugar has earned itself a bad reputation for two main reasons: One is its link to weight gain and cavities. The other is that sugar delivers “empty calories” — a term you have probably heard before. What this means is that you consume calories, but they are unaccompanied by fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. This leaves you feeling hungry, and likely to eat more food to meet that hunger. Consuming whole foods like fruit, vegetables and wholewheat bread that contain natural sugar is not considered bad for health because these sources also have high amounts of fiber, essential minerals, and antioxidants.

Why does sugar matter for my health?

Keeping track of how much sugar you consume is an important part of a heart-healthy lifestyle, especially if you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes or heart disease. The calories from added sugars in desserts, soft drinks and biscuits can lead to weight gain and spikes in blood glucose levels. Consuming too much added sugar can raise blood pressure and increase chronic inflammation, both of which are precursors for heart disease.

A landmark study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that a sugar-heavy diet may increase your risk of dying of heart disease even if you are not overweight. This study lasted 15-years, and examined the effect of added sugar on heart disease. The researchers found that participants who took in 25% or more of their daily calories as sugar had more than double the risk of dying from heart disease compared to those whose diets were 10% added sugar. Overall, the odds of dying from heart disease rose in proportion with the percentage of sugar in the diet, and these findings were consistent regardless of a person’s age, sex, physical activity level, and body-mass index (find out more about body-mass index here).

Sugar’s exact effect on heart health is not completely understood. But what is certain is that it has indirect connections. For example, your liver breaks down sugar the same way it would alcohol. High sugar levels can overload the liver, and over time, it converts this to fat. This can lead to fatty liver disease, which contributes to diabetes and heart disease.

But what if sugar isn’t the culprit?

This makes room for the question – what if it isn’t sugar that is causing these health problems, but a LACK of vegetables and other heart-healthy foods? It’s a valid concern.

The answer is found in a study that measured people’s ‘healthy eating index’. This would track how well people’s diets measure up to the local dietary guidelines. The study found that regardless of one’s Healthy Eating Index score, those who ate more sugar still had higher cardiovascular mortality.

Now that the bad news is over, we have some good news. It is actually quite easy to track and cut out, or reduce the amount of sugar in your diet. Even easier compared to salt!

Since added sugar mainly comes from sweetened beverages and foods, reading food labels before eating or purchasing certain foods is one of the best ways to monitor your intake of sugar. Look for the following items on your food labels and try to either reduce or avoid the consumption of foods that have them:

  • Brown sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Invert sugar
  • Malt sugar
  • Molasses
  • Syrup sugar molecules ending in “ose” (e.g. dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose).

Here is a quick and helpful tip: When looking at food labels, keep this measurement in mind. Just 4 grams of added sugar is equal to 1 teaspoon.

It is recommended that you keep your sugar intake between 25-30 grams per day, which is a maximum of 6 teaspoons. And if you’re simply too stressed and in need of a dessert, reach for a fruit-based option like frozen fruit yoghurt, whole fruit, fresh fruit juices, etc.

While there is no single culprit for poor nutrition, it helps to be aware and informed about how you can make lifestyle changes to your diet that are sustainable and effective. This comprehensive overview of how your diet impacts your health will give you the incentive to make those changes, and our handy guide to a heart healthy diet will give you the tools!

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Know more about AliveCor India: AliveCor, recognized as a Tech Pioneer by the World Economic Forum, is transforming cardiology by delivering AI-based, personalized heart care solutions. Our FDA-cleared machine learning techniques are recommended by leading cardiologists around the world.