If the torrent of studies suggesting that sugar is bad for our health wasn’t quite enough, new research again suggests that added dietary sugar increases the risk of death from heart disease. Among the health concerns of eating or drinking too much sugar have been a higher risk of obesity, high blood pressure, dementia, type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia (a bad assortment of blood fats), cirrhosis of the liver, and, of course, cardiovascular disease. And from the new study, which looked at sugar intake and the health of men and women over about 15 years, a clear trend emerged: The more added sugar a person consumed, the greater his or her risk of dying from heart disease.
Researchers from the CDC looked at data from 31,000 people who’d taken part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, comparing a multitude of different lifestyle and physical variables to health outcomes.
The good news is that sugar consumption has decreased a bit over the years. The percentage of calories we get from added sugar decreased from 16.8% in 1999-2004 to 14.9% in the years 2005-2010.
The slightly discouraging news is that 70% of adults consumed 10% or more of their daily calories from added sugar – and about 10% of adults consumed more than 25% of their calories from added sugar. (To give some perspective, drinking a 20-ounce soda would be about the equivalent of taking 15% of your daily calories from added sugar, assuming a 2,000/day diet.)
The bad news is that added sugar appears to significantly increase our risk of death from heart disease. People who consumed about 15% of their daily calories from added sugar had a 18% higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared to people who only took in very little added sugar. For people whose added sugar intake made up over 21% of their daily calories, their risk of death doubled.
And the phenomenon appears to be completely independent of other factors – like weight, calories consumed, smoking, blood pressure, sex, cholesterol level, and physical activity – which indicates that there’s something specific about the relationship between sugar and the heart.
What could sugar be doing to increase the risk of heart disease? There are a lot of possibilities. One is that sugar has been shown to increase blood pressure, independent of other health problems it can trigger. Another idea is that it increases unhealthy blood fats like triglycerides and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, while decreasing “good” HDL cholesterol. Other studies have suggested that excess sugar can trigger inflammation in the body, by boosting levels of certain inflammatory biomarkers. Finally, some studies have suggested that sugar may enhance the genetic effects of obesity, boosting the heart risks that obesity genes were already threatening to begin with.
“Our findings indicate that most US adults consume more added sugar than is recommended for a healthy diet,” the authors write. “A higher percentage of calories from added sugar is associated with significantly increased risk of CVD mortality.”
The bottom line is that added sugar appears to confer risks far beyond weight gain. In her editorial, Laura Schmidt, a UCSF researcher, says that we’re beginning a paradigm shift in the current thinking on sugar. Unlike trans fats and salt, she points out, there’s no upper limit to how much food companies can add: Sugar is on the FDA’s “generally recognized as safe” list. This, she suggests, should change.
The WHO recommends having added sugar make up no more than 10% of our daily calories, while the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a U.S. organization, is more lenient, saying upper limit should be 25%. But the American Heart Association is much more conservative, recommending that added sugars should be limited to 100 calories per day for women and 150 per day for men.
And the new study supports that this lower estimate is probably pretty smart. Whether the government steps in with more “sin taxes,” or we continue to eat and drink less sugar on their own, is anybody’s guess. As Schmidt says, one thing’s for sure: “Too much sugar does not just make us fat; it can also make us sick.”
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source: FORBES by Alice G. Walton