Study Finds ‘Free Sugar’ Raises Your Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke

Study Finds ‘Free Sugar’ Raises Your Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke
  • New study finds a link between eating “free sugar” and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

  • People studied had a 6% higher risk of developing heart disease and a 10% higher risk of stroke for every 5% increase in calories they took in from sugar.

  • Experts recommend gradually decreasing your intake.

For years, research has found that sugar isn’t great for your health. Now, there’s even more evidence to support that.

A new study published in BMC Medicine linked so-called “free sugars” (which are added sugars, along with those found in fruit juice and syrup) to a higher risk of developing heart disease and stroke.

For the study, researchers analyzed about nine years’ worth of dietary data from more than 110,000 people between the ages of 37 and 73 in the U.K. The researchers discovered that, for every 5% increase in a person’s total calorie intake from free sugars, they had a 6% higher risk of developing heart disease and a 10% higher risk of stroke. Worth noting: They also found that fiber intake had a reverse association with the risk of cardiovascular disease—meaning, the more fiber someone ate, the lower their risk of heart disease.

The people with the highest risk of heart disease or stroke consumed about 18% of their daily calories (or 95 grams) from free sugars.

But why might sugar raise your risk of heart disease, and what is considered a safe amount to consume? Here’s what you need to know.

What are free sugars, again?

Added sugars, which are sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared, get a lot of attention when it comes to the negative impact of sugar on your health. “Free sugars take added sugars a step farther,” says Jessica Cording, R.D., nutritionist and author of The Little Book of Game-Changers. “Added sugars are free sugars, but free sugars also take into account things that are naturally present in foods, like honey, syrups, and fruit juice.”

Why might sugar raise your risk of heart disease and stroke?

“Free sugars—or simple carbohydrates—are sugars we eat that are converted to glucose, our body’s sugar,” explains Thomas F. Boyden, M.D., program director of preventive cardiology at Corewell Health. “Glucose is used for cellular energy or stored in the body in fat cells or liver cells for use when we don’t have access to food. Diets high in free sugars or simple carbohydrates increase blood glucose, leading to fat storage and metabolic complications.”

The American Heart Association (AHA) specifically warns about having too much added sugar in your diet, noting that it may put you at higher risk for:

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Cognitive issues, including dementia

  • Colon cancer

  • Types of diabetes (type 2 or prediabetes)

  • High blood pressure

  • Kidney disease

  • Liver disease

  • Obesity

  • Pancreatic cancer

  • Retina, muscle, and nerve damage

Sugar impacts your heart a few different ways, explains Cording. One is that a high-sugar foods may crowd out healthier foods in your diet, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are good for your heart, she says.

High-sugar foods can also raise your risk of developing other conditions that can lead to cardiovascular disease, says Jim Liu, M.D., a cardiologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “High sugar intake increases the risk for other cardiovascular risk factors like obesity, certain types of diabetes, and elevated triglycerides, all of which in turn increases the risk of heart disease and stroke,” he says. (Triglycerides, in case you’re not familiar with them, are extra calories your body stores as fat. High levels of triglycerides raise your risk of heart disease.)

Weight gain linked to sugar can trigger factors that influence your heart disease risk, says Deborah Cohen, R.D.N., D.C.N., an associate professor in the Department of Clinical and Preventive Nutrition Sciences at Rutgers University. “Obesity also contributes to increase stroke and blood pressure risk,” she says.

Sugar is also directly linked to heart disease. It can cause bodily inflammation, which can put stress on your heart and blood vessels, increasing your risk of heart disease, Cording says.

How much sugar is OK in your diet?

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that you get no more than 10% of your daily calories from added sugars. So, if you eat a 2,000 calorie diet, you shouldn’t have more than 200 calories (about 50 grams) of sugar a day. Worth noting: The AHA recommends that you have no more than 6% of your daily calories from added sugar. (Cording says that’s a recommendation that she usually advises her patients try to follow.)

But it’s important to think about more than your sugar intake if you want to eat well for your heart, Cohen says.“A healthy diet is not simply one that is low in added/free sugar, but it also is one that is high in fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals [compounds found in plants],” Cohen says. “Bottom line: It’s quality of the carbohydrate and not quantity of carbohydrates that appear to be important with regards to cardiovascular disease risk.”

How to lower your sugar intake

If you have a lot of sugar in your diet and want to reduce the amount you take in regularly, Cording suggests stepping back your intake in phases to make it less of a shock to your tastebuds. “I’ve seen that work really well,” she says.

That includes things like looking at how you take your coffee, and considering having one less scoop of sugar, she says. You can also mix plain and flavored yogurt or do half unsweetened cereal with sweetened cereal, and scale back on the amount of sugary foods you have from there.

Drinks can be big sources of added and free sugars, Cohen says. “Limiting or avoiding soda, sugary drinks including fruit drinks, vitamin waters, sports and energy drinks, sweetened coffee and tea drinks can significantly impact your intake of sugar,” she says.

Dr. Boyden also recommends focusing on foods that are high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients and “avoiding simple carbohydrates that increase our blood sugar, cause weight gain, increase inflammation and promote metabolic risk factors like diabetes mellitus, high triglycerides, and high blood pressure, which in turn increase the risk of heart disease.” Basically, while you’re weeding out sugar, try to fill your plate with more nutritious options like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, Cording says.

In general, Cording suggests trying to change your thinking around sugar. “I usually tell my patients and clients to save sugar for special occasions,” Cording says. “Choose the things that are going to be worth it. Weed out added sugar in your everyday foods and save it for things you’re going to savor and enjoy.”

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