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Heart Health

Updated 09 July 2020

More evidence that sugar can be bad for your heart

Eating too much sugar is a worldwide problem. New research shows how sugar affects your heart.

  • Sugar is linked to several diseases
  • Your heart health is also affected by excessive amounts of sugar
  • Unfortunately, sugar lurks in many unsuspected places

It’s no new news that eating the right foods benefits your heart. But, somehow, we always associate the “bad” fats, known as saturated fats, with heart disease. Now, new research published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology shows that sugar also has a significant impact on our hearts.

Sugar isn’t only found in the obvious culprits such as fizzy drinks and sweet treats. Hidden sugar can lurk in anything, from canned foods and seemingly healthy cereals, to ready-made sauces.

According to the dietitians at Nutritional Solutions, a 340ml can of cold drink contains seven teaspoons of sugar and a 50g chocolate bar six teaspoons. And while sugar can be stored as body fat when not converted to energy, it can mess with our blood glucose level and also affect the heart.

Larger fat deposits

This new study shows that excess sugar consumption is linked to larger fat deposits around the heart (also known as increased pericardial adipose tissue volume) and the abdomen, which can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

The observational study examined how sweetened beverages and sugar added to processed foods – and the long-term consumption of these products – can affect fat stores around the heart and other vital organs.

The researchers found that excess sugar intake over the course of 20 years is linked to greater fat stores around the heart and other organs.

"Our findings provide more evidence that consuming too much added sugar and sugary drinks is related to a higher amount of fat tissue," stated study author Dr Lyn Steffen of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in a news release. "And, we know that fat deposits are connected with higher risks of heart disease and diabetes."

What should I be eating for a healthy heart?

According to various previous studies, the Mediterranean diet is one of the best diets for a healthy heart. The core of this diet is:

  • Antioxidant-rich, colourful vegetables (with small amounts of starchy vegetables like potatoes)
  • Fruits
  • Nuts
  • Whole grains such as brown rice and wholewheat pasta
  • Limited amounts of lean meat such as chicken
  • A variety of fish
  • A variety of fresh herbs
  • Olives and olive oil
  • Limited amounts of good-quality red wine
  • No processed, sugary or greasy foods
  • Moderate dairy consumption, mostly high-quality cheese and yogurt (important for calcium)

In general, you should try and avoid saturated and trans-fatty acids, often found in fast food and red meat. Refined carbohydrates such as white bread can also contain high amounts of added sugar.

How do I limit my sugar intake?

At first, it might seem daunting to cut out sugar, especially when you realise that sugar may be lurking in all your favourite sauces and convenient foods. But, there are ways you can be more sugar-savvy. Our dietitians recommend the following:

1. Educate yourself on how to read labels.

Sugar by any other name is still sugar, and can be named anything from sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, barley malt, dextrose, maltose and rice syrup.

Fortunately, in South Africa, food labelling laws dictate that food items are required to display this information. Flip that packaged product over and read the label. Remember that every 4g of sugar indicated on a label indicates one teaspoon of sugar. 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 per 100g food product.

2. Don’t drink your sugar

Avoid consuming excess sugar by cutting out any highly processed drinks such as sports drinks, fruit juices, fizzy drinks and instant coffee sachets. Avoid syrupy coffee drinks in coffee shops. Rather order an Americano with a dash of milk and add more flavour with a sprinkle of cinnamon. Be careful of booze as well. Some mixers, wines, sparkling wines and cocktails can seriously add to your sugar intake.

3. Stick to whole, healthy foods

Go back to basics by eating lean proteins, lots of fresh vegetables, legumes, wholewheat starches and healthy fats in nuts and plant oils. Build your main meals out of these healthy components and see everything else as a treat.

4. Rethink your sauces

If you can only tolerate salad when it’s smothered in creamy store-bought dressing, retrain your taste buds to appreciate simple flavours such as lemon juice, fresh herbs, balsamic vinegar or a splash of olive oil. If you can’t live without your favourite condiment, compare labels for options with less added sugar.

5. Choose your treats

Instead of devouring an entire milk chocolate slab, teach yourself how to truly enjoy a good-quality sweet treat once in a while. Dark chocolate is satisfying, contains less processed sugar and is packed with antioxidants.

READ | 6 ways too much sugar messes with your body

READ | How much sugar is safe to eat per week?

READ | Can sugar really weaken your immune system?

 Image credit: Alleksana from Pexels