To keep your heart healthy, you’ve probably heard it’s good to eat only small amounts of saturated fats like butter and full-fat dairy as well as carbs like white bread and starchy vegetables. But one food ingredient doesn’t get enough attention when it comes to heart health: sugar.
More and more research shows that the sweet stuff can be rough on your heart and health. In one 15-year study, people who got 25% or more of their daily calories from added sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who ate less than 10% of their calories as sugar.
The more sugar people ate, the greater their risk of dying from heart disease. The results were the same even when researchers took things like age, the amount people exercised, and their body size into account.
Many foods naturally contain sugar. These include fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products. When sugar comes naturally in these foods, it is usually not a problem, especially in foods with a lot of fiber. In fact eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains reduces the risk of heart problems, such as heart attacks and strokes.
The trouble comes when you, or food producers who package food in bags, boxes, cans, and bottles, add sugar to these and other foods. Examples include stirring sugar into your coffee or just eating lots of sugary foods like cake, cookies, doughnuts, canned fruit, and ice cream, and drinking sugar-sweetened beverages.
Sweet drinks are a particular problem. They account for about a third of added sugar in the nation’s diet. According to a 2019 study involving more than 37,000 men and over 80,000 women, those who drank the most sugar-sweetened beverages over a 30-year time period were most likely to die from heart disease.
Sugar is a problem for several reasons. It causes people to gain weight and it takes the place of better foods in a person’s diet.
Research also suggests it raises blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart problems. Eating a lot of sugar also causes the liver to release harmful fats into the bloodstream. And it causes chronic inflammation, which is linked to heart attacks and strokes. You may want to work with your doctor to check some simple blood and urine tests related to inflammation and blood vessel health. These may help uncover hidden heart risks.
The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than about 150 calories of added sugar a day—about 9 teaspoons. It’s ok to have a sweet treat every now and then, just look for ways to limit sugar in the rest of your diet. The trick with sugar is to gradually use less so you have time to get used to enjoying foods not being as sweet.
Here are some ways to reduce the sugar in your diet:
- Skip sweet drinks. Instead of soda or sports drinks, add lemon or lime juice to fizzy or tap water. If you’re used to drinking sweet coffee and tea, gradually reduce the amount you use. When ordering fast food, you can ask them for half sweet and half unsweet drinks such as half water and half orange juice or half unsweet tea and half sweet tea.
- Watch out for sugar in processed foods. Sugar is added to everything from salad dressings to ketchup and commercial bread loaves. Read the labels on foods at the grocery store to identify added sugar. Corn sweetener, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, honey, molasses, and words ending in “ose” (dextrose, sucrose, lactose, maltose, and glucose) all count as added sugar.
- Eat more whole foods. By sidestepping processed foods, especially ultra processed foods, you’ll avoid added sugar. Focus on whole grains like oats and whole wheat pastas and breads, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and lean types of protein like fish and poultry.
- Limit sugar-heavy desserts. Opt for fresh fruit, alone or mixed with unsweetened yogurt. If you enjoy chocolate, go for the dark variety, which contains less sugar. Try some dark chocolate covered almonds that include some healthy fat, fiber, and protein. For even less sugar, mix in dry roasted and unsalted almonds, too.
By getting less sugar in your diet, you’re not just helping your heart. You’ll probably lose weight and feel better as well!