A sugary diet contributes to weight gain and other factors that boost heart disease risk. Learn healthier ways to satisfy a sweet tooth. A treat refers to something that’s out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure. Your favorite dessert, perhaps? But given the growing evidence of sugar’s damaging effects on health, you may be wondering whether you should shun all added sugar. “People don’t need to completely stay away from added sugar. Sweet foods make eating more enjoyable,” says Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Just make sure to enjoy desserts and other sugary foods and drinks as a treat rather than a daily habit, he says. How sweet it is The typical American diet is very high in added sugar, nearly half of which comes from sugar-sweetened beverages. These include sodas, flavored juice drinks, sweetened tea, coffee drinks, and sports drinks. Another 30% of the added sugar in our diets comes from baked goods such as cookies, brownies, cakes, pies, doughnuts, sweet rolls, and pastries. On average, Americans consume just over 18 teaspoons of added sugar a day—about 30% more than what the federal dietary guidelines suggest (see “Sugar in the American diet: Reality versus recommendations” on page 7). Aside from contributing to weight gain, excess sugar has some unique metabolic effects that may raise a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease, Dr. Hu notes.
The bitter truth Eating lots of added sugar may trigger chronic inflammation, an inappropriate reaction of the body’s immune system that leads to high levels of unhealthy substances in the bloodstream. Excess sugar intake may also disrupt the body’s ability to manage blood sugar effectively, a shift that can lead to diabetes. Both inflammation and diabetes leave people more prone to heart problems. High-sugar diets also encourage the liver to pump out higher-than-normal amounts of triglycerides and other lipids (fats). Elevated levels of fat in the bloodstream (especially harmful LDL cholesterol) contribute to the plaque deposited inside artery walls, as well as a buildup of fat in the belly area. This so-called abdominal obesity is especially dangerous for the heart. How low should you go? There’s clearly a linear relationship between added sugars and health: the more you consume, the greater the risk, says Dr. Hu. The question is, where do you draw the line? The stringent limit suggested by the American Heart Association of just 25 to 38 grams per day may be optimal for heart health. However, that might not be realistic for most people, says Dr. Hu. Aiming for the U.S. Dietary Guidelines’ target of 50 to 75 grams daily is reasonable, he adds. And once you start eating less sugar, you may retrain your taste buds to adapt to even less sugar over time. “We do find that the less sugar people eat, the less they crave it,” says Kristine Miklos, a clinical dietitian at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. Start by cutting out sugar-sweetened beverages, especially if you drink them daily. Even if you don’t drink soda, you may not realize that a 16-ounce bottle of sweetened iced tea or coffee contains about 35 to 40 grams of added sugar. For many adults, baked goods such as cookies, brownies, and donuts are common sources of added sugars. Many believe that a low-fat muffin is a healthier alternative, but those jumbo muffins you find at grocery stores and coffee shops can contain as much as 50 grams of sugar each, says Miklos. Don’t consider these foods totally off-limits, which can make them even more tempting. “If you like, enjoy them once a week or so—just not every day,” she says. Check the Nutrition Facts As of January this year, major food companies have been required to list the grams of added sugars on their products’ Nutrition Facts panels. That makes it easier to find everyday foods that contain less sugar, such as breakfast cereals and yogurt. If you eat cereal, pick one with no added sugar, suggests Miklos. Some brands of yogurt now offer options that contain up to one-third less added sugar. (These differ from products that instead use sugar substitutes; those often taste very sweet.) Or try adding berries or other chopped fruit and a little drizzle of honey to plain yogurt for a healthy breakfast or dessert, says Miklos. This dish can satisfy a craving for something sweet and contains a lot more healthy nutrients (such as vitamins, minerals, and protein) than a cookie or muffin—without the added sugar, fat, and sodium.
source: Harvard Heart Letter