Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta looked at data collected on approximately 40,000 Americans between 1988 and 2010. They analyzed the connection between sugar intake and incidence of death due to heart disease.
The study, published this month in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that people whose sugar consumption made up 25 percent or more of their daily caloric intake had twice the risk of dying from heart disease than people whose sugar intake was 7 percent of their daily calories.
Research has previously linked sugar consumption to diabetes, obesity, and heart disease — but the CDC researchers said this is the first time a study has linked sugar intake to heart disease fatality. The new findings are significant given that heart disease leads to about 600,000 deaths in America each year, according to the CDC.
Many risk factors for heart disease can be managed through lifestyle changes, including dietary modifications — specifically, in light of this study, by reducing added sugar in one’s diet.
There are no agreed-upon standards for sugar intake: The Institute of Medicine recommends limiting consumption to 25 percent of daily calories (yes, that is the percentage at which the study found risk of death from heart disease doubles), while the World Health Organization recommends a cap of 10 percent of daily calories. The American Heart Association recommends limiting sugar to 100 calories daily for women and 150 calories for men.
Common sources of added sugar include sodas, grain-based desserts, and even such “health foods” as smoothies, protein bars, and commercially prepared salads.
In addition to processed sweeteners, refined carbohydrates are also problematic. Like sugar, they are commonplace in the modern food supply, have been linked to diabetes and obesity, and have been shown to also be a contributing factor in the development of heart disease.
(RELATED: Common sources of added sugar)
Limiting consumption of processed foods and beverages is a good alternative to the calorie counting inherent in calorie-based dietary recommendations. Calorie-counting in general is not something we advocate here at Experience Life.
As a magazine, we believe that if eating primarily whole, healthy foods — an array of sustainably raised vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, meats, fish, eggs, whole-kernel grains, and healthy fats and oils — one doesn’t need to stress about the number of calories in a food or drink, which are often inaccurate or misleading. Instead, we believe in focusing on food quality and trusting our bodies to tell us what we need.
The recent CDC study adds to growing evidence that sugar — not dietary fat — is connected to numerous health woes, including cardiovascular disease. Experience Life previously looked at research into the relationship between sugar, saturated fat and heart disease:
[A] large meta-analysis recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition finds no significant link between saturated fat and heart disease. More importantly, the meta-analysis (which looked at 21 studies involving about 350,000 people) finds that refined carbs and processed sugar are the real culprit when it comes to heart disease.
The problem with cutting out saturated fat is two-fold: Not only is saturated fat needed for a variety of biochemical functions within our bodies, including proper cell, nerve and brain function, but also, when people restrict saturated fat from their diets, they tend to replace it with refined carbohydrates.
“If you reduce saturated fat and replace it with high glycemic-index carbohydrates, you may not only not get benefits — you might actually produce harm,” David Ludwig, MD, PhD, director of the Obesity Program at Children’s Hospital Boston, recently said. He adds that when it comes to a piece of buttered toast, “butter is actually the more healthful component.”
— Experience Life, January-February 2011
Maggie Fazeli Fard is Experience Life's staff writer.