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Jan 19, 2011

Teens Who Feed Sweet Tooth Risk Future Heart Disease

Eating too much sugar increases cardiovascular risk factors in teens.

Parents often warn teens that eating too much sugar could lead to painful hours in the dentist’s chair and a belly bulge over low-rise jeans. But now it appears that guzzling sugary sodas and grabbing a box of candy for lunch could hike the risk of heart disease too.

Teens who consume lots of sugar have significantly higher levels of harmful fats and cholesterol in the blood and significantly lower levels of helpful cholesterol, when compared to teens who eat a healthier diet, according to a new study published in the January 25, 2011, issue of Circulation.

In the past, doctors didn’t worry very much about a connection between sugar intake and heart disease. But growing evidence suggests that adults who eat a high-sugar diet are more likely to have cardiovascular disease. The new study shows early signs of the same problem in teens—not actual heart disease, but a worsening of well known heart disease risk factors.

The study involved 2,157 U.S. teens, all of whom participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The survey collects information on diet and other health factors, including height, weight, waist measurement, and a variety of blood tests.

When researchers analyzed NHANES data they found that the average teen consumed the equivalent of just over 28 teaspoons of sugar a day, totaling about 21 percent of their total calorie intake. And the more sugar teens ate, the worse their cardiovascular risk factors became.

In fact, in the highest-sugar group (30 percent or more of calories from sugar) blood levels of LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol were 9 percent higher than in the lowest-sugar group (less than 10 percent of calories from sugar). At the same time, blood levels of fatty triglycerides were 10 percent higher and HDL, or “good,” cholesterol levels were 9 percent lower. All of these are well known risk factors for heart disease.

The worrisome changes in HDL, LDL and triglyceride levels were seen in teens who consumed large amounts of sugar, regardless of whether they were slim or overweight. However, overweight teens also showed signs of insulin resistance, which is linked to both diabetes and heart disease.

The study concluded that teens could reduce their future risk of heart disease by cutting back on sugar today.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How can anyone possibly eat 28 teaspoons of sugar a day?

  • This study didn’t give details about the source of the teens’ sugar intake, but other studies (including earlier NHANES reports) show that sugary soft drinks contribute more calories to the U.S. diet than any other single food or beverage. One 12-oz can of soda contains about 40 to 50 grams of sugar, depending on the type of soda. That’s equivalent to 10 to 12 teaspoons of sugar. Guzzle a 32-oz jumbo drink from a fast-food restaurant or convenience store, and you’ll take in 23 teaspoons of sugar. But sodas aren’t the only problem. Lots of hidden sugars find their way into processed foods in the form of high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners.

  • If teens switch to diet soft drinks will that solve the problem?

  • It’s true that diet soft drinks don’t contain sugar, so switching from sugary soft drinks to diet drinks would be a partial solution to the problem. However, it’s still important to look at the overall quality of the diet. In this study, teens who consumed lots of sugar also consumed less protein and fiber. If teens switch to diet drinks but continue to eat the same way, they are likely to be missing out on important nutrients they need for good health. The study didn’t comment on the intake of calcium and other minerals and vitamins, but filling up on sodas, even if they’re diet sodas, may mean that a teen is not drinking enough milk or eating a balanced diet. In addition, many sodas contain caffeine, and cola drinks contain high levels of phosphates. A diet that’s high in phosphates but low in calcium can lead to weaker bones, a special concern for girls.
  • What should I look for on food labels if I want to cut back on the sugar I eat in processed foods?

  • The first place to look is the Nutrition Facts box under carbohydrates, where you’ll find the grams of sugar in each serving. However, this sugar can be combination of added sweeteners and natural sugars in the food itself, such as fructose in fruit and lactose in milk. To get a better idea how much added sugar is in the product, examine the ingredient list. The more sugar there is in the food, the higher it will be on the list. Look for high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, agave nectar, and almost any word ending in “ose,” including sucrose, glucose, dextrose and maltose. Cane sugar, beet sugar, molasses and honey are also forms of added sugar.

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