The Wrong Sugar Is Killing Your Heart

Your sweet tooth could double your heart disease risk, a new study finds.

February 3, 2014

With Valentine's Day right around the corner, we're going to be the bearer of bad news. Sugar is breaking your heart!

Just to get things straight: There are natural sugars, found in things like whole fruits and vegetables, and then there are the added sugars, hidden in everything from ketchup and salad dressing to fake fruit juice and "healthy" cereals. The latter—those added sugars—are doing a real number on your heart.


Cardiovascular disease accounts for one in every three deaths. And more and more, sugar is getting the shakedown as one major contributor to America's No. 1 killer.

Sugar's link to heart disease might seem surprising, given that the sweet stuff is most often linked to skyrocketing type 2 diabetes rates. But a new study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that too many added sugars could be destroying your heart, too. (That's problematic, since most of us aren't following recommended sugar intake guidelines.)

In the new study, Quanhe Yang, PhD, a CDC researcher in Atlanta, led a team that calculated the percentage of total calories people took in from added sugar and found:

•Those who consumed 17 to 21 percent of their calories from added sugar had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared to those who consume just 7½ percent of their calories from added sugars.

•For people whose added sugars accounted for more than 21 percent of their total calorie intake, their risk of heart disease–related death doubled.

•Most Americans eat too many added sugars, and those sugars are significantly associated with an increased chance of dying from cardiovascular disease.

•Between 1988 and 1994, 15.7 percent of American adults' total calories came from added sugars; it increased to nearly 17 percent from 1995 to 2004; it decreased to nearly 15 percent between 2005 and 2010. 

•Between 2005 and 2010, more than 70 percent of Americans got 10 percent or more of their daily calories from added sugar.

•Reducing any risk factor you have control over could help slash your risk of heart disease. This includes cutting down on the added sugar you eat and drink, along with exercising more and quitting smoking.


How Added Sugar Behaves in the Body

"Added sugars cause excess insulin in the bloodstream, which takes its toll on your arteries," explains Anne Alexander, Prevention'seditorial director and author of the New York Times bestseller The Sugar Smart Diet. "Chronic high insulin levels cause the smooth muscle cells around each blood vessel to grow faster than normal, which causes tense artery walls and puts you on the path to high blood pressure, making a stroke or heart attack more likely."

Added-sugar overload can also increase triglyceride levels and low-density liptoprotein (LDL), the "bad" cholesterol.

The latest CDC study is published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Commentary related to the new CDC study from Laura A. Schmidt, PhD, MPH, of the University of California–San Francisco, echoes the sugar-fueled public health crisis. "We are in the midst of a paradigm shift in research on the health effects of sugar, one fueled by extremely high rates of added-sugar overconsumption in the American public." She adds that federal guidelines are needed to help consumers set safe limits on their intake, something difficult with the current labeling system.

Giving added sugars the boot isn't always easy. One downfall? Food companies don't have to differentiate between naturally occurring sugar levels and added sugars. That said, if you see any in the ingredients list anything ending in –ose or containing sugar or syrup, there's some level of added sugars.


Nix Sugary Sips

Soda is one important place to start when it comes to cutting out dangerous added sugars. "If I could wave a magic wand, I'd eliminate sugary sodas and create a wave of refreshing drinks made with mostly seltzer water and a splash of fruit juice," says Alexander. "Most people have no idea how much sugar they are consuming when they quench their thirst with a bottled drink."

She points out that just one 16-ounce bottle of Coke has 52 grams of sugar. "One study showed that having more than two sugary drinks a day increased the risk of having a heart attack by 40 percent," she adds.

Bonus Sugar Smart Tip

Don't exceed the American Heart Association's recommended sugar levels, which are 5 teaspoons for women (20 grams); 9 teaspoons for men (36 grams); and 3 teaspoons (12 grams) for children. For reference, a can of soda generally contains up to 12 grams of sugar; a single slice of whole wheat bread contains up to 2 teaspoons of added sugars.

For more ways to dodge these destructive secret sugars, read Weird Places Sugar Hides.