Is Sugar Bad for Your Heart?

Many of us are concerned about sugar intake. We know that high levels of sugar consumption are implicated in the development of obesity and that the empty calories may keep us from eating more nutritious foods. But you may be surprised to learn that a Harvard study shows that sugar is also a factor in poor heart health. Sugar and heart health turn out to be more closely connected than most of us realize. 

Not new information

The connection between sugar and heart health is not a new discovery. A 2014 study found that people who ate more sugar had a much higher chance of dying from cardiovascular disease. Those who ate 8% or less of their calories in the form of sugar had a 38% lower chance of death from heart disease than those who ate the normal amount of sugar in an American diet, which is closer to 20-25% of total calories. 

Too much sugar can lead to obesity high blood pressure, diabetes, and chronic inflammation, all of which increase heart disease risk. That’s not quite the same as saying that sugar causes heart disease. But long-term studies that track people’s eating habits over time make it clear that people who eat more sugar have greater risk of heart disease. The specific path from sugar consumption to a heart attack may not matter as much as the strong correlation. 

Grasping the numbers

The meandering path from sugar to heart disease may be one reason we’re not as aware of this consequence. But the numbers may not be concrete enough to be really clear. 

For example, you probably don’t know what percentage of your total daily calories are made up of sugars. Most of us don’t know how many calories we eat in a day, let along how many of those calories come from sugar.

Let’s look at this another way.

The World Health Organization guidelines for sugar intake suggest a daily limit of 6 spoonful for women or 9 spoonful for men, The difference is based on the average size and calorie intake of men and women. Make it simpler by thinking of a 12-oz can of soda. That’s all the sugar an adult should have in a day. 

However, it’s not quite that simple. The majority of foods sold in the average grocery store contain sugar. If you eat a container of fruit-flavored yogurt for breakfast and a salad with dressing for lunch, you have already reached that limit on sugar. 

In fact, the sugar content in spaghetti sauce, bread, barbecue sauce, ketchup, breakfast cereal, baked beans, and most processed foods is high enough that you can easily eat 6-9 teaspoons of sugar in a day without choosing one sweet item. Add a soda, a doughnut, or dessert, and you will certainly get more than the recommended amount. 

Cutting back on sugar

You can certainly cut your sugar intake by giving up sweets and sodas. But you might find it easier to cut back on the hidden sugars — the sweeteners in foods you don’t think of as desserts. Choose brands with less sugar or make dishes at home without adding sugar. 

Sugar content varies a lot among brands. A serving of peanut butter, for example, can have one gram of sugar or 4 grams of sugar, depending on the brand you choose. It’s worth trying different brands until you find a lower-sugar option you enjoy.

But we also have to admit that processed food usually contains sugar. Sugar in processed foods improves the taste, and it also helps to preserve foods, give them a desirable texture, and even make for a more attractive color. It might take a while to get used to a less-sweet taste if you switch brands, but choosing fresh unprocessed foods like fruit and vegetables makes the biggest difference in your sugar intake. 

It may be a gradual process, but your heart will thank you!