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What's the Deal with Sugar and My Heart?
Let's Talk HeartMost of us know that the consumption of sugar-laden foods can come with plenty of unwanted consequences, but we still want to know if sugar can be part of a healthy diet. Can we have our cake and eat it too?

What's the Deal with Sugar and My Heart?

Special Feature by Bret A. Witter, MD, FACC, FACP

Sugar ScienceIn my cardiology practice, patients often ask me questions like: How does sugar consumption affect my cardiovascular health? Is it really bad for me? Well, most of us know that the consumption of sugar-laden foods can come with plenty of unwanted consequences, but we still want to know if sugar can be part of a healthy diet. Can we have our cake and eat it too?

So, what is the deal with sugar? There does appear to be mounting scientific and medical evidence that sugar consumption contributes to an increase in inflammation in the arteries. Simply stated, blockages are formed in areas of inflammation, so it makes sense to avoid inflammation. Multiple indirect studies link high sugar levels with markers of inflammation and resistance to insulin. Insulin is the body’s way of counteracting high sugar. Obesity is also linked with markers of inflammation. There definitely is an association with obesity and diabetes, both of which increase heart risk. It is not clear if sugar is the direct culprit, but where there is smoke (sugar) there is likely fire.

Sugar FactsMore and more foods can be found promoting lower fat content, but be mindful that those foods are frequently endowed with plenty of added sugars to help tickle our taste buds. The foods with added sugars are generally less healthy than others, and products containing sugar and corn syrup--like candy and soda--are less healthy than their natural sugar counterparts.

The Labels
Hidden SugarsAs many of us have learned, regular food label inspections are essential to a healthy diet. Yet, even if armed with the best intentions, it can be difficult to calculate added sugars based on labeling information, alone, so here are some tips:
arrow Read the label to look for other names of sugar. Sugar names usually end with the letters "-ose.”
arrow Some popular examples you’ll see are: fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose and sucrose. Your watch list should also contain: high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, honey, malt sugar, molasses, raw sugar, sugar, syrup.
arrow Sad fact: For most American diets, sodas constitute a disproportionate amount of calories. As an example, a typical 12-ounce can of soda meets an average person’s total, daily maximum requirement for added sugar.

Did you know AHA recommendations? The Numbers: Three Recommendations by The American Heart Association
1) Added sugar: Aim for less than 100 calories a day for women, and 150 calories a day for men. That equates to 6 teaspoons of sugar for women and 9 teaspoons for men.
2) Sugar-sweetened beverages: Consume less than 450 calories a week. This is the equivalent of about 3 cans of soda (a week, not a day).
3) Sugar substitutes: Though they typically contain no calories, there is limited information to make very definitive recommendations. Small amounts are generally regarded as safe; however, excessive use is not recommended.

one can of soda a day Even Simpler Guidelines
Numbers are nice, but many of my patients don't want to be bothered calculating calories. If that sounds like you, here’s another way of looking at your diet:
arrow Plant-based foods should make up a significant portion of the diet. If it looks like it did when it came from the ground, it is probably good for you.
arrow Fresh fruits and vegetables are generally healthy, but remember many fruits do contain excessive amounts of sugar. Beware: Blended drinks--especially fruit-based smoothie recipes and commercially prepared versions--can include added sugar on top of naturally occurring amounts of sugar.
arrow In a nutshell, The American Heart Association recommends consuming a dietary pattern that emphasizes intake of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. A healthy diet should include low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, non-tropical vegetable oils and nuts. It should limit the intake of sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages and red meats.

I hope all of you will be encouraged to go easy on your sugar consumption and keep your hearts strong and your lives naturally sweet through healthy diet, regular exercise and the best sweetener of all—much laughter.

Useful Web-based Resources:

This article was written by Bret A. Witter, MD, FACC, FACP. Dr. Witter is board certified in Internal Medicine, Cardiovascular Diseases and Cardiac Echocardiography. In addition to his full-time duties as a cardiologist and partner at Los Alamitos Cardiovascular, Dr. Witter is Assistant Clinical Professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Learn more about Dr. Witter.

Let's Talk! Library

In addition to frequently participating as guest lecturers throughout the community, our cardiologists write articles for local and regional print and e-publications as well as for this website. We regulary update the list below with new health-related content, so check back often.

What's the Deal with Sugar and My Heart?/ Dr. Bret Witter/ March 2015

arrow FEATURED! Healthy Resolutions: The KIS(S) IT! Approach/ Dr. Stuart Fischer/ August 2014

Heart Attack / Dr. Robert S. Lee / January 2014

Stroke Prevention / Dr. Bret A. Witter / May 2013

Women and Heart Disease / Dr. Steven T. Forman / February 2013

Caring for a Family Member with Heart Failure / Dr. Bret A. Witter / August 2013

Finding the Fountain of Youth / Dr. Steven T. Forman / September 2012

Exercise and Your Health / Dr. Steven T. Forman / December 2012

Making the Most Out of Your Office Visit / Staff / March 2012