Is Excess Sugar to Blame for Heart Disease?


In recent years, we’ve been worried about how fat affects our risk of heart disease. It turns out we should also be worried about sugar. In research that rocked the public health world, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that Americans with a higher sugar intake develop cardiovascular disease (CVD) and related disorders at much higher rates than those with lower sugar intake.

How much sugar?

According to the research, which looked at health data for more than 31,000 Americans over two decades, study participants increased their sugar consumption on average from 235 calories a day to 318 calories a day during that time period.

While recommendations vary for how much-added sugar should be in the diet, they range from less than 25% of all calories (according to the Institute of Medicine) to less than 10% of all calories (from the World Health Organization). The American Heart Association specifies a specific number, rather than a percentage. They recommend that women take in less than 100 calories a day of added sugars, and 150 calories or less for men. Added sugars are not the naturally occurring sugars in whole foods like fruit, but those added by the preparer or during processing.

The study noted that those consuming excess sugar calories tend to gain more weight and increase their risk for obesity and related disorders like type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol levels, hypertension, and CVD. The research suggested that those who consumed 10-25% of their calories from added sugar had a 30% higher risk of CVD mortality, while those who consumed more than 25% calories from added sugar had an even higher risk.

The Problem With Excess Sugar

Why do added sugars increase a person’s risk of CVD? Unfortunately, researchers don’t have the answer to that yet. While some suspect that eating empty sugar calories (calories with no nutrients or fiber) take the place of eating more healthful foods, the Harvard Heart Letter debunks that, showing that even people with good diets who ate a higher quantity of sugar had an increased level of CVD. One better-accepted explanation is that the liver metabolizes fructose, a type of sugar, and converts it to triglycerides, a type of fat which can reduce HDL, the good cholesterol. Too many triglycerides can increase heart disease, according to several physicians quoted in the New York Times.

Where is the sugar?

People should worry about more than just sugar added on top of morning cereals or baked goods. There are often high sugar levels hiding in less obvious prepared foods like tomato sauce, fruit yogurt, sports drinks and coffee shop frozen drinks. Start reading labels to see the sugar content.

Here’s what the American Heart Association recommends:

  • No more than 36 ounces of sweetened beverages (450 calories) per week
  • For women, no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day (100 calories, 25 grams of sugar)
  • For men, no more than nine teaspoons of added sugar per day (150 calories, 37 grams of sugar)

Note that one can of soda has 8.75 teaspoons of sugar!

In some ways, the fat versus sugar story circles back to fat, since the liver turns the sugar into fat. But sugar isn’t something that people naturally associate with fat, and those watching their waistlines sometimes substitute foods high in fat with those high in sugar. That may not be such a wise move after all.

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About the Author:


Deborah Abrams Kaplan writes about health and medical topics for universities, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and medical websites. She has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, San Francisco Chronicle, Woman's Day, Continental Airlines Magazine, Shape, and many more!

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Comments 1
  • rob

    I find your post very interesting and look forward to your new ones.

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