When added sugars are not so sweet

Americans get roughly 400 extra calories each day just from added sugar alone. The main culprits are liquid calories such as sodas, sweet tea, coffee drinks, fruit juice blends, desserts and some flavored waters. Evidence suggests that sugar-sweetened beverages may increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and gout. It’s no coincidence that the prevalence of these diseases has increased over the past 20 years alongside an increase of sweetened beverage consumption. We are eating and drinking 20 percent more added sugar now than we did in 1970.

To define, added sugar includes high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), table sugar (sucrose), agave syrup and honey. On packages you may see “healthy-looking” terms such as evaporated cane juice, beet sugar or brown rice syrup that also are sugars. To clarify, this is about added sugar, not what is found naturally in healthy foods such as fruit, grains, milk, plain yogurt and vegetables.

Added sugars are connected to heart disease in a couple of ways. First, there’s the link with obesity. Much research suggests that when we drink sweetened beverages we do not compensate by eating less calories in food. Liquid calories are not satisfying, thus we still eat the same amount at meals. This over time will contribute to gradual weight gain that puts more strain on the heart and vessels. To make matters worse, our insulin has trouble shuttling sugar into our cells to be used as energy (i.e. insulin resistance). High sugar levels in the blood also are damaging to the heart and vessels.

Secondly, added sugars can contribute to raising our triglycerides, which is a sticky fat that travels in our bloodstream and may contribute to heart disease. It is important to monitor triglycerides as well as cholesterol levels when evaluating heart disease risk.

Because of these links, the American Heart Association has established limits for us to prevent these deadly and expensive medical conditions. Women should aim for no more than 6 ½ teaspoons of added sugars (25 grams or 100 calories). Men are advised to minimize added sugars to 9 ½ teaspoons per day (38 grams or 150 calories). Just to give some practical reference, a 20-ounce regular soda contains 16-20 teaspoons of sugar. So by drinking one sweetened beverage, you exceed the new recommendations.

If you are only trying to limit high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), then you may not be seeing the full picture. HFCS is a cheaper alternative to table sugar thus one of the main reasons it is used, but they are very similar in their chemical structure. Sucrose (i.e. table sugar) contains 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose, while HFCS is 45 percent glucose and 55 percent fructose. So there is no need to single out one from the other, excesses from any added sugar can do the same damage.

Taking these recommendations to heart by limiting excess sugar, especially from liquids, can be useful to preventing overall heart disease risk. For more information visit the American Heart Association’s Web site at www.americanheart.org, or for heart healthy recipes visit www.deliciousdecisions.org.

Heather Pierce is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator for the Blount Memorial Weight Management Center.

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