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February 21, 2023

Sugary Drinks and the Potential Connection to Heart Disease

ThedaCare Cardiologist Warns Sugar May Contribute to Unhealthy Levels of Cholesterol and Triglycerides

Do you drink a sugar-sweetened beverage every day? If so, you may be significantly increasing your risk for experiencing heart disease or a stroke, according to a 2020 study reported in the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA).

“Sugar has several negative effects on the heart and arteries,” said Oleg Chebotarev, MD, 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.”

The most common sugar-sweetened beverages Americans consume include regular soda (not sugar-free), fruit-flavored drinks (not 100% fruit juice), sports and energy drinks, pre-sweetened water, and coffee and tea with added sugar.

These drinks are sweetened by the addition of a number of different 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, and sucrose.

One 12-ounce can of regular cola contains nine 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 six teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar per day.

Dr. Chebotarev said sugar affects the heart in several ways.

“Excess sugar adds extra calories to our diet, which are stored in the body as triglycerides,” he said. “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).

Dr. Chebotarev explained that while our bodies need cholesterol for cell development, high cholesterol levels could create fatty deposits in our blood that can block arteries over time and restrict the flow of blood to our hearts. Another threat is that the fatty deposits can break loose and pass 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.

Dr. Chebotarev added that sugar also contributes to chronic inflammation throughout the body, which is also linked to atherosclerosis.

“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, it also can be a hidden source of added sugar in one’s diet. In addition, unfiltered coffee can raise blood cholesterol levels because of certain natural oils that coffee contains, suggesting that one should limit the drinking 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 said. “Eating a diet that’s low in added sugar is important in that regard. Working toward eliminating sugar-sweetened drinks a great first step in that direction.”

About ThedaCare

For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health and well-being of the communities it serves in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 17 counties and employs approximately 7,000 health care professionals. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including eight hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their unique, best lives. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts about a patient’s care. ThedaCare is proud to partner with Children’s Wisconsin and Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network to enhance convenient access to the most advanced levels of specialty care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.

For more information, visit thedacare.org or follow ThedaCare on social media. Members of the media should call Cassandra Wallace, Public and Media Relations Consultant at 920.442.0328 or the ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah switchboard at 920.729.3100 and ask for the marketing person on call.

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