New Study Shows Link to Sugar and Heart Disease

What's the best thing you can do for your heart today? Watching your sugar intake has now officially joined the list of heart healthy measures you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease.

The American Heart Association is telling us that added sugars increase the risk of dying from heart disease, according to a new study that was published Monday in JAMA: Internal Medicine. Past concerns about sugar consumption relating to heart disease assumed sugar consumption to be a marker for unhealthy diet or obesity. This new study shows that sugar consumption itself is an independent risk factor in cardiovascular disease (as well as other chronic diseases, including dementia).

The study involved added sugars, or sugars and syrups that are added to foods and beverages when they are processed or prepared. It does not involve naturally occurring sugars, like those found in fresh fruit.

Individuals who consumed 17 - 21% of calories from added sugar had a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, compared to those who consumed 8% of their calories from added sugar.

Added sugars can be found in beverages sweetened with sugars (or artificial sweeteners), grain-based desserts such as cookies, cakes, and cupcakes, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, candy, and conventionally prepared breakfast cereals and breads. According to the study, most U.S. adults consume about 22 teaspoons of added sugars per day. To put this in perspective, just one can of regular soda can include about 35 grams of added sugars (almost 9 teaspoons).

The American Heart Association recommendations for added sugar is:

  • No more than 6 teaspoons (100 calories) per day for women
  • No more than 9 teaspoons (150 calories) per day for men

Eliminating or reducing added sugars from your diet can benefit your health in many ways, but for some, breaking the sugar habit is hard to do. Emerging science is telling us that sugar can actually be as addictive as a drug. Nicole Avena, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, has shown in lab experiments with rats that sugar can produce changes in the brain that resemble addiction.

Research done at Connecticut College found that rats formed an equally strong association between the pleasurable effects of eating a commonly-consumed cookie (chocolate wafers sandwiched around a creamy filling) and cocoaine or morphine. Eating the cookies activated more neurons in the brain's "pleasure center" than exposure to the drugs.

How to Break Your Sugar Habit

1. Identify Sugar

Grab a highligher, open your cupboard and fridge, and start looking at labels. Highlight the amount of sugar per serving in the foods that come out of a box, can, or bottle. Then look at the ingredient list and try to pinpoint the source of the sugar - it may be lurking under a different name, like corn sugar, corn sweetener, high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, maltose, or sucrose.

Begin a pattern of awareness. Be aware of how much sugar is in the foods you are eating. Start a tally of the grams of sugar you are consuming daily. Approximately 5 grams of sugar are in a teaspoon.

2. Eliminate the Offenders

Now that you can see exactly what in your kitchen contains the greatest amounts of sugar, get rid of it. Donate unopened food to food banks, throw away half or almost empty containers. Begin the process of removing these foods from your home. If they aren't there for you to grab when you get bored or hungry, you can't eat them. Try to have the foods with added sugars removed from the home before it's time for your next shopping trip.

3. Re-stock a Sugar Free Kitchen

Before you go shopping, prepare a weekly meal plan that does not include the foods that you have eliminated from the kitchen. This will help you when you shop to stick to a list. Replace sugary snacks with healthy options. Instead of a bag of processed cookies, try some freshly popped pop-corn. Replace prepackaged cereals with fresh fruit, nuts, and plain yogurt. Raw veggies and a hummus dip can satisfy a craving for something crunchy. Water flavored with fresh mint, lemon, and lime slices can be just as refreshing and flavorful as a soda. While you shop, be sure to scrutinize labels and nutrition information so you don't inadvertantly bring home something that will sabatoge your careful planning.

When you shop, be sure you are not shopping hungry. This can lead to impulse purchases. Remain on the perimeter of the store, where you are more likely to find whole, fresh foods, and avoid the center aisles where prepackaged and processed foods are bountiful.

4. Recognize Cravings

As you transition to a sugar-free, or reduced sugar diet, you may find yourself experiencing cravings. Recognize the craving when it hits, and address it. Are you really hungry, or are you bored, lonely, or giving in to a habit? If you are used to having a bowl of ice cream after dinner every night, what will you do to replace that habit? The best way to "break" a habit is to create a new one, so when it is time for ice cream, try making an after dinner cup of decaf herbal tea instead.

Reducing your intake of added sugars will not only reduce your risk of cardiovascular diease, it can also lessen your chances of dementia, and other chronic disease. A longer, healthier life - nothing is sweeter.

Melissa Zimmerman, Healthy Goods


JAMA: Internal Medicine: Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults

JAMA: Internal Medicine: New Unsweetened Truths About Sugar                                              

American Heart Association: Added Sugars Add to Your Risk of Dying from Heart Disease                       

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