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Healthy Heart

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Obesity, Sugar and Heart Health

sugar cubes in a glass

Over the last half century, obesity rates have skyrocketed. In 1962, 46 percent of adults in the U.S. were considered overweight or obese. By 2010, that figure had jumped to 75 percent. 

Obesity is a complex problem with multiple causes. But among the likely suspects, sugar is high on the list. As sugar consumption has increased, so too has our national waistline. 

If you’re concerned about protecting your health and your heart, you might want to take a closer look at the sweet stuff in your life. 

Does Sugar Contribute to Weight Gain?

The average American eats a whopping 20 teaspoons of sugar every day, according to U.S. government figures. That’s well above the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 per day for men.

A variety of research has drawn a link between sugar consumption and excess body weight. “I don’t think we have enough evidence yet to suggest that sugar is the reason for the obesity epidemic,” says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Chiadi E. Ndumele, M.D., M.H.S. “But there is enough evidence to say that elevated sugar consumption is an important contributor to weight gain.”

All those sweet snacks seem to be affecting the heart as well. In a study published in JAMA: Internal Medicine in 2014, researchers compared people who consumed a lot of added sugar (accounting for 17 to 21 percent of their total daily calories) with people who ate less sugar (just 8 percent of their total calories). Those in the high-sugar group had a 38 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease.

The Obesity-Heart Disease Link

Excess weight increases the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes. Research by Ndumele and colleagues has shown that those factors usually explain the link between obesity and heart disease. “All of those factors make it more likely that someone will develop cardiovascular disease,” says Ndumele.

But obesity itself can be harmful even in the absence of those other conditions. Ndumele and colleagues found that after accounting for factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, obesity by itself increases the risk of heart failure.

In other words, there are many reasons to aim for a healthy weight. And cutting back on sugar is a good place to start. 

How to Tame Your Sweet Tooth

Ready to cut back on the sweet stuff? Here are some tips to try:

  • Avoid sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages, which are among the top sources of added sugars.
  • Reach for fruits instead of candy, cookies or other sweet treats.
  • Read ingredient labels. Sugar is often hiding in places you wouldn’t expect it, such as spaghetti sauce and sandwich bread.
  • Added sugars have a lot of aliases. When reading labels, keep an eye out for terms like corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar and sucrose. 

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