February 4, 2014
News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Sugar Linked with Increase in Heart Deaths
Even if your weight, cholesterol and blood pressure are normal, sugar added to food may increase your risk of heart-related death, a new study says. For a typical American, the added risk was nearly 20%. Scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did the study. It was based on a major government health survey of all ages. Researchers compared death statistics related to heart disease and stroke for people with different levels of sugar consumption. Sugars included syrups and honey added to food as well as table sugar. For the years 2005 through 2010, the average person got 14.9% of calories from added sugars. Eating that amount of sugar increased heart-related death risk by 18%. And risk more than doubled for those who got 25% of calories from sugar. The study took into account other health factors known to contribute to heart problems. They included age, smoking, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, lack of exercise and excess weight. Death rates were still higher for those who ate more sugar. On average, 37% of sugar calories came from sweetened drinks. The journal JAMA Internal Medicine published the study. HealthDay News wrote about it February 2.
By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
Everyone knows that too much sugar causes weight gain. And weight gain increases your chances of developing diabetes and high blood pressure. Both of these conditions are well known to increase the risk of heart disease and early death. But added sugars are looking more and more like a killer all on their own.
In her commentary published with this new study, Laura Schmidt, Ph.D., summed it up beautifully. She said that sugar is not just "…'empty calories' promoting obesity. Too much sugar does not just make us fat; it can also make us sick."
Sugars that naturally occur in foods (such as fruit) are healthful. But added sugars are another matter. They are the syrups and granules added to foods during processing or preparation or at the table.
The most popular added sugar is high-fructose corn syrup. It's produced from corn syrup (nearly pure glucose) that is treated with enzymes to convert some of the glucose to fructose. At the end, glucose is added back in. So the final product has a mix of glucose and fructose that is very similar to table sugar.
This study adds more evidence to what other studies have already suggested about the dangers of added sugar. The researchers used valid statistical methods to show how too much sugar, on its own, increased heart-related deaths. Added sugar increased the risk even for normal-weight people with good blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
The good news is that U.S. adults are eating less added sugar these days. But the daily amounts are still way too high. Most adults still get more than 10% of their daily calories from added sugar.
As little as one 12-ounce serving of a sugar-sweetened drink per day was linked with an increased risk of heart-related death. A typical 12-ounce soda contains about 10 teaspoons (40 grams) of sugar and 150 calories. That would be 7.5% of the calories in a 2,000-calorie daily diet.
The risk of heart-related death was twice as high for those who consumed more than 20% of their calories as added sugar as for those who consumed 8%.
What Changes Can I Make Now?
If you're "hooked" on sugar, don't try to quit all sugary foods at once. Start by eliminating sugar-sweetened drinks. These are the No. 1 source of added sugar in the United States.
Here are some other ways to help you break the sugar habit:
- Keep sugary foods and drinks out of the house.Instead, always have fresh fruit available. Even better, reach for a fresh vegetable, such as a carrot.
- Sweeten foods yourself. Start with unsweetened iced tea, plain yogurt and unflavored oatmeal. Then add your own sweetener. You probably won't put in as much as the manufacturer would have.
- Watch for hidden sugars at the grocery store. Read the labels. You will be surprised at how much sugar is added. Be wary of reduced-fat products. They often contain extra sugar instead.
- Eat breakfast. Start your day with a filling, nutritious meal, so you'll be less likely to give in to cravings. Good choices include oatmeal, plain yogurt with fruit, or eggs with whole wheat toast
Consider using artificial sweeteners. There is no evidence that they are harmful when used in moderation. But there is a potential downside. Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than natural sugar. Sometimes this fuels cravings for sugary foods and beverages.
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
The American Heart Association says that we all should limit intake of added sugar. The recommended daily limits are:
- 25 grams (6 teaspoons, or 100 calories) of added sugar for women
- 38 grams (9 teaspoons, or 150 calories) for men
Given the mounting evidence about sugar, this seems like excellent advice.