Do you drink a sugar-sweetened beverage every day? If so, you may be increasing your risk for experiencing heart disease or a stroke, according to a 2020 study reported in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
“Sugar has several negative effects on the heart and arteries,” says Dr. Oleg Chebotarev, a cardiologist with ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care. “Eating foods or drinking beverages that contain added sugar can lead to high blood pressure, chronic inflammation and higher cholesterol and triglyceride levels, all of which can contribute to heart disease.”
Common sugar-sweetened beverages Americans consume include regular soda (not sugar-free), fruit-flavored drinks (not 100% fruit juice), sports and energy drinks, sweetened water, and coffee and tea with added sugar.
These drinks may be sweetened with several types of added sugars, including brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, or sucrose.
One 12-ounce can of regular cola contains 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of sugar — the American Heart Association’s limit for how much added sugar men should consume each day. Women and children should only consume 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar per day.
Sugar affects the heart in several ways, Dr. Chebotarev says.
“Excess sugar adds extra calories to our diet, which are stored in the body as triglycerides,” he says. “High triglycerides are a risk factor for developing atherosclerosis, a narrowing, thickening, and stiffening of the arteries that can cause poor blood flow to the heart.”
Food and drinks with added sugar also increase low-density lipoprotein levels (LDL — bad cholesterol) and decrease high-density lipoprotein levels (HDL — good cholesterol).
While your body need cholesterol for cell development, high cholesterol levels can create fatty deposits in your blood that can block arteries over time and restrict the flow of blood to your heart, Dr. Chebotarev says. It can also lead to a risk of fatty deposits breaking loose and passing through the blood stream to the heart or brain, causing a heart attack or stroke.
A follow-up study of descendants of the famous Boston University Framingham Heart Study noted that drinking more than 12 ounces per day of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with a 53% higher incidence of high triglycerides and a 98% higher incidence of low HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) compared to those who drank less than one serving per month.
Added sugar also contributes to chronic inflammation throughout the body, which is linked to atherosclerosis, Dr. Chebotarev says.
“Caffeine and heart disease can be related as well, with caffeine acting as a stimulant to the heart, which can affect one’s heart rate,” he said.
With an estimated 70% of Americans adding sugar to their coffee, the beverage can also be a hidden source of added sugar in your diet. In addition, unfiltered coffee can raise blood cholesterol levels because of certain natural oils that coffee contains. This means you should limit consumption of espressos, French press and other unfiltered coffee drinks.
Dr. Chebotarev offered these suggestions for reducing sugar intake and improving cholesterol levels:
- Eliminate sugar-sweetened drinks from your diet.
- Drink more water.
- Follow a Mediterranean diet.
- Learn to recognize the names of added sugars, and read food/drink labels carefully, noticing how many grams of sugar are in the product. (4 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon.)
- Get adequate exercise on a weekly basis.
- Have your cholesterol levels checked yearly.
“It is possible to lower our risks for developing heart disease,” Dr. Chebotarev says. “Eating a diet that’s low in added sugar is important in that regard. Working toward eliminating sugar-sweetened drinks is a great first step in that direction.”
It’s vital to know your heart health numbers.
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