Judy Thalheimer, R.D., L.D.N. – Environmental Nutrition

People who consume more added sugars have a higher risk of death from heart disease. Researchers used to think it was the calories in sugary foods that were the problem: sugar made us fat, and obesity raised our risk of heart disease.

But a 2014 research review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who consumed more added sugars had more risk factors for cardiovascular disease no matter what size they were. Eating lots of sugary foods or drinking sugar-sweetened beverages has been linked to high triglyceride levels, high total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, high blood pressure and more.

Sugar and your liver

The key to the link between sugar and heart disease may lie in the liver. While one common sugar molecule (glucose) goes into the bloodstream after digestion to be used as fuel by our cells, another (fructose) goes to the liver to be processed. Unfortunately for those of us eating a typical Western diet (high in processed foods), the liver is designed to deal with the amount of fructose in an apple or a sweet potato, not the large amounts we dump on it in the form of colas, confections and coffee-bar drinks. Too much fructose can cause the liver to make fat, and a fatty liver can lead to increased triglyceride and cholesterol levels, inflammation, and maybe even higher blood pressure.

In 2009 the American Heart Association, already wary of the association between sugar and heart disease, published recommendations that women limit their added sugar intake to no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) a day, and men to no more than 9 teaspoons (38 grams). The average American currently consumes as much as 20 teaspoons of added sugars every day. About 50 percent of these sugars come from sweet drinks like sodas, sports and energy drinks, iced teas, lemonades and fruit drinks. Another 25 percent is from treats like candy, ice cream and baked goodies.

Is some sugar better?

We’ve all heard that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is bad for us. But it might come as a surprise to find that most formulations of HFCS have nearly the same amount of liver-damaging fructose as regular table sugar (sucrose), and honey, and maple syrup. The only real outliers are regular corn syrup (which is 100 percent glucose) and agave nectar, which is close to 100 percent liver-clogging fructose. The trick, then, is not to switch sweeteners, but to stop eating so many sweetened foods.

Cutting back on sweets

The best place to start when trying to cut added sugars is drinks. Try more water, milk, unsweetened tea and black coffee. Switching to diet drinks and artificial sweeteners is an option, but since it seems like the more sweets we eat the more sweets we want, the switch to non-caloric sweeteners may not end up decreasing your overall sugar consumption.

Since most processed foods have added sugars, be sure to check Nutrition Facts labels. Even though this number is a total of natural and added sugars, it is still a helpful guide. (Just divide the grams of sugar listed by 4 to get an approximate number of teaspoons.) The next trick is to rethink our relationship to sweets: Cookies, cakes and candy are supposed to be occasional treats, not everyday snacks and mealtime companions. Try swapping some out for a naturally sweet piece of fruit or a square of very dark chocolate. Just as it’s possible to get used to less salty foods, it’s possible to wean yourself off sugar. Your heart is waiting.

– Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit www.environmentalnutrition.com.