For decades, Americans were warned to reduce their fat and cholesterol intake in order to prevent heart disease, the nation’s No. 1 killer of both men and women. However, it is now known that sugar is the greater threat to our national health.
The link between sugar and heart disease was purposefully obscured for decades. In 1964, after studies began linking sugar with heart disease, the Sugar Association (a sugar industry trade group) began funding research that cast doubt on sugar’s role in heart disease, in part by pointing the finger at fat.
First, we should note the difference between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar, which is the real threat.
Sugar occurs naturally in all foods that contain carbohydrates, such as fruits and vegetables, grains and dairy. Consuming whole foods that contain naturally occurring sugar is okay. Plant foods also have high amounts of fiber, essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and dairy foods contain protein and calcium.
Since your body digests these foods slowly, the sugar in them offers a steady supply of energy to your cells. A high intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains also has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
However, problems occur when you consume too much added sugar — that is, the sugar food manufacturers add to their products to increase flavor and/or extend shelf life. The added sugar in our food is generally regular table sugar (sucrose) and high-fructose corn syrup (a mix of fructose and glucose).
Remarkably, sugar is the most popular ingredient added to foods in the US. In fact, about 80% of all sugar found in US foods has been added by the food industry. The top sources of sugar in the American diet are soft drinks, fruit drinks, flavored yogurts, cereals, cookies, cakes, candy, and other processed foods.
Yet, added sugar is also present in items you may not think of as sweetened, such as soups, cured meats, and ketchup. Yes, sugar isn’t merely found in sweets; it’s also added to many other processed foods, such as crackers, breads, peanut butter, and salad dressings. In fact, most processed foods contain sugar.
While you might not think you’re eating much sugar, chances are you’re eating a lot more than you realize. Added sugar lurks in nearly 70% of packaged foods and is found in many sauces, snacks, most breakfast foods, and even many so-called ‘health foods’.
The result: we consume way too much added sugar.
Today, the average American consumes 66 pounds of added sugar each year, according to government data. That’s more than one pound of sugar each week!
This is of great concern since too much added sugar is among the greatest threats to cardiovascular disease. Eating and drinking too many added sugars can also contribute to other health problems, such as type-2 diabetes and obesity.
“Sugar is actually more addictive than even cocaine, so it is probably the most consumed addictive substance around the world and it is wreaking havoc on our health,” says cardiovascular researcher James DiNicolantonio.
Sugar’s impact on heart health has long been researched by Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
In a study published in 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine, Dr. Hu and his colleagues found an association between a high-sugar diet and a greater risk of dying from heart disease. Over the course of the 15-year study, people who got 17% to 21% of their calories from added sugar had a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared with those who consumed 8% of their calories as added sugar.
“Basically, the higher the intake of added sugar, the higher the risk for heart disease,” says Dr. Hu.
High amounts of sugar overload the liver, potentially leading to fatty liver disease, a contributor to diabetes, which also raises your risk for heart disease.
Consuming too much added sugar can also raise blood pressure and increase chronic inflammation, both of which are pathological pathways to heart disease.
“The effects of added sugar intake — higher blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease — are all linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke,” says Dr. Hu.
Diabetes has reached epidemic proportions in the US. It kills more Americans each year than AIDS and breast cancer combined, according to the American Diabetes Association.
More than 100 million US adults are now living with diabetes or pre-diabetes, according to a 2017 CDC report. Pre-diabetes is a condition that, if not treated, often leads to type-2 diabetes within five years. Despite the fact that more than a third of US adults have pre-diabetes, the majority don’t know it, says the CDC.
Even a relatively small amount of sugar can do a lot of damage to your health. People who add 150 calories of sugar to their daily diet — from sources such as a 12-ounce can of Coke or an ounce of M&Ms — have 10 times greater risk of developing diabetes.
Additionally, people who consume a diet high in fructose risk damaging their immune systems, a new study suggests. The study shows that fructose, which is commonly found in sugary drinks, sweets and processed foods, causes the immune system to become inflamed.
Furthermore, researchers say that consuming too much added sugar (as well as artificial sweetener, fast foods, fried foods, processed foods, and alcohol) can harm your gut microbiome.
The American Heart Association (AHA) has long suggested that men consume no more than nine teaspoons (36 grams) of added sugar per day. That’s close to the amount in a 12-ounce can of soda. Women are advised to limit added sugars to no more than six teaspoons a day (24 grams).
However, the average American still eats about 17 teaspoons (19 for men, 15 for women) of added sugar a day, according to the CDC. That’s about double the recommended limit for men (nine teaspoons) and two-and-a-half times the limit for women (six teaspoons). This doesn’t include the sugars that occur naturally in foods like fruit or dairy products.
In other words, American adults consume an average of 77 grams of added sugar per day. Again, that’s more than two times the recommended amount for men and two-and-a-half times the recommended amount for women.
Recognizing the problem, the AHA now recommends that sugar intake be limited to less than 6% of daily calories, and the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee agrees.
Yet, roughly 90% of Americans still get more than 10% of daily calories from sugar, and the top 10% of sugar-consumers ingest a whopping 40% of their calories from sugar!
Beverages are the leading source of added sugars, accounting for 47% of the total. Examples of sugary beverages include regular soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened waters, and coffee and tea beverages with added sugars.
The US ranks third in the world in sales of sugary drinks. In 2013, the average American drank just over 38 gallons of soda a year — or about eight 12-ounce cans a week.
Reading food labels is one of the best ways to monitor your intake of added sugar. Total sugar, which includes added sugar, is often listed in grams. Note the number of grams of sugar per serving as well as the total number of servings. The package might only say 5 grams of sugar per serving, but if the normal amount is three or four servings, you can easily consume 20 grams of sugar. That’s a lot of added sugar.
By simply being more aware, you can substantially reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet. It would certainly be worth your while.