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Updated 19 March 2019

You're eating more sugar than you think and it will affect your heart

Do you think you're not at risk for heart disease and that you don't eat too much sugar? Think again! Our nutritional expert tells us the scary truth.

On average your heart beats 100 000 times per day, 36 million times a year, which is an average of three billion heart beats during an average lifetime. The blood pumped by the heart provides your body with the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function. A healthy heart is key to longevity.

If you think you're not at risk for heart disease, think again.

Cardiovascular disease is on the rise in South Africa. With 18% of all deaths caused by heart disease and stroke, with 225 fatalities every day, it's likely you or someone you know is at risk of stroke, hypertension or coronary heart disease.

When excessive sugar intake is not so sweet

In our modern-day environment, if you are not actively pursuing a diet that improves health, you will by default eat a diet that promotes disease. One of the big contributing negative factors is excessive sugar intake.

The World Health Organization recognises the impact of excessive free sugar in the diet and recommends limiting intake to 5% of your total daily energy requirement. In an 1 800 calorie diet, this equates to only four to five teaspoons (23g) per day, which is made up of not only added sugar, but also includes hidden sugars.  

Understanding the impact of sugar

Free sugar in our diet is digested into glucose molecules and absorbed into the blood stream. This glucose stimulates the release of the hormone insulin which triggers cells in the body to absorb the glucose to use as energy or to be stored as glycogen in the liver. When glucose levels are consistently high, insulin is chronically elevated, leading to increased storage of fat, elevated triglycerides, inflammation, as well as damage to the endothelial (inner) lining of the blood vessels.

All these abnormalities increase the risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. An additional problem that occurs with constantly consuming sugary and flour-based foods is that the cells in our body become damaged. The clinical term for this damage is oxidative stress, which results in an inflammatory response. This oxidative stress cycle with high inflammation is one of the leading contributing factors that affect the health and elasticity of the blood vessels responsible for providing oxygen and nutrients to the body cells and organs such as your heart. 

How to identify sugar where you wouldn’t expect it

We are often unaware of the sugar content of foods as it is added to many processed foods such as sauces, breakfast cereals, health and energy bars, yoghurt, milky drinks, instant coffee, flavoured coffee sachets and rusks.

For example, did you know that a 340ml can of cold drink contains seven teaspoons of sugar and a 50g chocolate bar six teaspoons?

Fortunately, in South Africa food labelling laws dictate that food items are required to display this information. Start reading food labels and comparing food products. When reading labels, remember that every 4g of sugar indicated on a label indicates one teaspoon of sugar in a drink. By looking at the ml per 100g column on a label you can easily compare similar products to make healthier choices. The general rule is that products should contain less than 10g sugar/100g food product.

Fresh fruit is not the sugar trap it’s made out to be

Fruits contain a kind of sugar called fructose. The sugar in fruit is trapped within a matrix that contains fibre, which slows down the release of glucose into the blood stream. In addition, the fructose in fruit follows a longer metabolic pathway as it needs to be converted into glucose by the liver before it enters the blood stream. Therefore, eating whole fresh fruit in portion-controlled amounts has health benefits.

Unfortunately, all fruit juices (no matter how fresh) lack the necessary fibre and cause spikes in glucose, and a high consumption can lead to increases in triglyceride production, which is not good for heart health and should be avoided.

What diet is best for heart health

According to research, the Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest ways of eating for optimal heart health and was listed as the best diet to follow by the American Academy of Nutrition in 2019. People living in Mediterranean regions have been following this dietary pattern for centuries and show a remarkably low incidence of heart disease. The diet promotes the intake of fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables, wholegrains and seafood with moderate amounts of fat from extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds. These cardiovascular benefits are derived from much lower levels of saturated fat, lower red meat intake and reduced refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and sugar.

5 tips to minimise your sugar intake

1. Eat healthy food

Eat a healthy balanced diet that includes lots of fresh vegetables, fruit, lean proteins such as fish and legumes, wholegrain starches (fibre content more than 6g per 100g) and healthy unsaturated fats found in plant oils.

2. Limit sugar in hot beverages   

Cut down on the number of teaspoons of sugar you add to your tea and coffee. Sugar is an acquired taste and it is not so difficult to reduce sugar intake by slowly reducing the amount you add into your morning mug of coffee, or honey in your herbal tea.  

3. Check the label       

Read labels to become aware of added sugars in sauces, salad dressings, tinned soups, cakes and biscuits. Select foods with a lower sugar content.

4. Don't drink your sugar

Avoid high sugary drinks such as sports drinks, iced teas, cordials, soft drinks, milkshakes and fruit juices.

5. Get creative

Avoid flavoured waters and freshen your summer drinks by adding lemon, cucumber, mint or fresh berries and give sugary options the boot. 

Image credit: iStock

 
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