Why We Might Want To Worry More About Sugar Than Salt For Heart Health

Why We Might Want To Worry More About Sugar Than Salt For Heart Health

Sugar may have a not-so-sweet side. (Photo by Uwe Hermann/Flickr)

All these years, we’ve pointed the finger at salt, blaming it for high blood pressure and heart disease. But now, evidence shows that added sugar, such as table sugar and high fructose corn syrup, may be an even bigger culprit.

A new study in the journal Open Heart showed that people who consumed 10 to 25 percent of their calories from added sugars have a 30 percent increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Those who consumed 25 percent or more calories from added sugars have an almost threefold increased risk. 

The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day, and no more than nine teaspoons of sugar per day for men. But most Americans consume far beyond that.

According to the study researchers, recent estimates suggest Americans consume anywhere from 77 to 152 pounds of sugar per year. That’s the equivalent of eating 24 to 47 teaspoons of added sugar per day, on average. Other research shows that teens ages 14 to 18 take in even more than that, with added sugars making up 52 percent of their total daily calories.

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All of this added sugar is wreaking havoc on our health. The minute the body starts breaking down added sugar, a whole host of problems begin.

“Consuming sugar increases insulin levels, which activates the sympathetic nervous system, leading to increases in heart rate and blood pressure,” James J. DiNicolantonio, lead author of the study and a cardiovascular research scientist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, tells Yahoo Health.

In addition, sugar makes it harder for the body to regulate blood pressure. “Sugar also depletes the molecule ATP [adenosine triphosphate], which in turn, reduces nitric oxide — our most potent vasodilator in the body,” explains DiNicolantonio. “This increases blood pressure, and increases the formation of methylglyoxal, which vasoconstricts our bloodvessels, increasing blood pressure.”

But it doesn’t end there. The fructose in added sugars, such as from high fructose corn syrup, has been found to increase insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, obesity (mainly as visceral fat storage, which is the harmful fat you can’t see that’s stored inside the abdominal cavity), hypertension, gout, fatty liver, kidney disease, and dental caries, notes DiNicolantonio.

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“The fructose component is what is harmful,” he says. “It is primarily metabolized in the liver and leads to fatty liver and hepatic insulin resistance, which causes the pancreas to secrete more insulin, driving increased visceral fat storage, inflammation and cardiometabolic disease/diabetes. This leads to an increased cardiovascular risk.” Fructose is also a major culprit behind chronic insulin resistance and chronically elevated insulin levels, which ultimately increase blood pressure, he adds.

Needless to say, cutting back on added sugars can save you from a slew of health problems down the road. The best way to do that is to eat whole, natural foods and steer clear of soda, fruit drinks such as fruit punch, and processed foods — all of which contain added sugars — including baked goods, ice cream, candy, cakes, and cookies.

But there are other foods high in added sugars that aren’t so obvious. For instance, flavored yogurt, granola-type bars, rice milk, barbecue sauce and tomato sauce are all high in added sugars, registered dietitian Keri Gans, author of “The Small Change Diet,” tells Yahoo Health. You can also find added sugar in low-fat or fat-free salad dressing, ketchup, and instant flavored oatmeal.

To make the transition away from added sugars a little less painful, Gans recommends gradually reducing the foods you eat that include a lot of added sugar. “You can re-train your taste buds to require less sweetness,” she says.

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