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Feb 10, 2014

Cutting Back on Sugar for a Healthy Heart

Almost three-fourths of American adults consume too much added sugar in their diets.

Want a healthy heart? Watch out for foods containing added sugar, according to a recent study.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, this study analyzed diet trends from 1988 through 2010 in the United States. Using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), researchers were able to assess how much “added sugar” Americans consumed during this time period and how that impacted their risk for death from heart disease. While past studies have looked at the impact of drinking sugar-sweetened beverages on heart health, few studies have looked at added sugar, meaning any food or drink items that don’t contain sugar naturally (or have more sugar than they naturally contain). For example, candy, desserts, many cereals and some breads contain added sugar, as do sugar-sweetened beverages.

Not surprisingly, researchers found that most Americans consume far too much added sugar on a daily basis. While the World Health Organization recommends that added sugar make up less than 10% of your daily caloric intake, nearly three-fourths of American adults exceed this amount. Worse, about 10% of Americans get more than one-fourth of their calories from added sugar—well beyond current dietary guidelines. And unfortunately, added sugar may be bad news for heart health.

Researchers found the more added sugar Americans consumed, the greater their risk for death from heart disease. After following participants for more than 14 years, researchers found that adults getting 10-24.9% of their calories from added sugar had 30% greater risk of dying from heart disease compared to those who limited added sugar intake to less than 10% of total calories. And those getting 25% or more of their calories from added sugar were nearly three times as likely to die from heart disease compared to those limiting sugar intake to less than 10%.

So what’s the take-home message when it comes to sugar? While it’s OK to consume foods that contain natural sugars like fruit and juices, it’s important to limit the amount of added sugar we consume each day. Guidelines vary, but most recommend limiting added sugars to anywhere between 5-15% of daily caloric intake. To make it easy, the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to less than 100 calories a day for women and less than 150 calories a day for men.

In this study, researchers found that the biggest sources of added sugar in American adults’ diet included sugar-sweetened beverages, grain-based desserts (like cake and cookies), fruit drinks, dairy desserts (like ice cream) and candy. And for reference, one 360-milliliter can of regular soda contains about 35 grams of sugar, which is 7% of total calories based on a 2,000 calorie diet, so it’s easy to exceed guidelines, even in one sitting. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to how much added sugar is contained in your favorite foods and, if necessary, make small changes to make your diet more heart-healthy.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How can I cut out excess sugar in my diet?

  • Many 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.

  • 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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