How Sugar Affects Your Heart
When you think about foods to avoid to prevent heart disease, sugar might not be the first thing that comes to your mind. To date, there are no large-scale clinical trials that have investigated the effects of dietary sugar on cardiovascular health. But there are facts that researchers have gathered that do seem to indicate why it's a good idea to pay attention to your sugar consumption as part of a heart-healthy lifestyle.
Here are some examples of the effects of sugar on the heart:
—A report from the Nurses Health Study showed that women who commonly ate foods that were high on the glycemic index had an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The glycemic index ranks foods according to the way they affect blood sugar levels. Foods high on the index, such as sugar soft drinks, cause sugar levels to rise more quickly than foods low on the index.
—Some studies have indicated that sugary foods can decrease HDL cholesterol—the good kind. Others have indicated that sugary foods can elevate levels of triglycerides, a type of blood fat.
—People who have higher levels of sugar in their blood, but who do not have diabetes, are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease. There's a blood sugar measurement called the A1C that provides an picture of blood sugar levels over a period of three months. People who have a measurement of seven are not considered to have their diabetes under control. But even if the measurement is five or six, the risk for cardiovascular disease increases. In fact, it increases by 20 percent for every extra point.
—Sugar contributes indirectly to heart disease in that people who are obese tend to choose to eat a lot of foods that are high in sugar. And obesity is a risk factor for heart disease.
—Some studies indicate that people who consume a great deal of sugar are more likely to have high blood pressure, although there's not a clear understanding of the cause and effect.
There's another way to consider the effects of sugar on your heart health. If you're eating a lot of foods that contain sugar, chances are you're leaving out a lot of healthier foods. Sugary soft drinks might be replacing milk, for example. Candy and other sugary desserts may be replacing fruit. High sugar cereal may be replacing the healthier varieties. You may be eating fewer vegetables because you're filling up on the less healthy foods. It's possible that you're omitting important nutrients and fiber.
According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, people who have diets that are high in sugar get less calcium, fiber, folate, vitamins A, C and E, zinc, magnesium and iron. A good diet—healthy foods in the right amounts—is important to heart health. The more you focus on keeping the healthy foods in your daily regimen, the easier it is to leave out the sugary stuff. You can do it gradually so that it's not so difficult.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; Archives of Internal Medicine, 12 September 2005; Circulation, 2002; 106:523; Center for Science in the Public Interest; U.S. Department of Agriculture