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Go easy on sugar for your heart

161128_tsf_bloghero_02We are becoming well aware that too much of the sweet stuff ain’t great for you, impacting mood, energy, the liver, and also the health of your heart.

Whilst a modest amount is fine, recent research out of Sweden has found that those who consume a good chunk of their daily kilojoules from sugar – provided not only in the obvious cakes, soft drinks and sweets, but also added to some everyday foods and drink like jam, bread and dairy products – have a greatly increased risk for heart disease.

The study

The Swedish prospective analysis included 26,190 people, none of which had diabetes or a history of cardiovascular disease (CVD). After a 17 year (on average) follow-up, 2,493 incident cases of coronary events were identified.1

Sucrose intake was obtained from an interview-based diet history method, including 7-day records of prepared meals and cold beverages, and a 168-item diet questionnaire that included other foods.

The researchers found the more sucrose in the daily diet, the greater the impact on heart health.

“Among the 5 per cent of participants who got at least 15 per cent of their daily energy intake from sucrose, the risk of myocardial infarction increased by about a third”, said Emily Sonestedt, the study’s nutrition researcher.

This was even after adjustment for other CVD risk factors, like lack of physical exercise; smoking; fat, fruit and veg consumed; and drinking too much booze.

Overconsumption of the sweet stuff is the issue here, and has been reflected other past research.2 Sugar and heavily refined foods that become simple sugars in our body are very prevalent in our diets. And the major concern, as That Sugar Film raises, is many of us do not realise we are eating too much of sweet.

However, cutting down on the excessive amounts the researchers believe will help reduce the risk for coronary artery disease (CAD).

Too much sweet stuff to handle

The mechanism behind the relationship between too much sweet stuff and CAD is complex and research continues; though it may include increased levels of oxidative stress and inflammation, increase in blood pressure, and compromised liver function.2

Looking at the liver, excess added sugar can be stored in the body as fat whether from glucose or fructose. The liver undertakes the metabolism of the simple sugars, and through separate mechanisms is able to convert each to glycogen – the stored form of cellular energy.

But when the excess energy storage tank is full (which is most of the time for most us) fructose is stored as fat.

So you can imagine consuming huge amounts of added sugar puts a big burden of work on the liver, and as the liver gets fatty, its function is further compromised.

In turn, levels of fatty triglycerides (TGL) rise in the blood. And high triglycerides increase risk for coronary artery disease, even independent of other factors for CVD such as obesity, insulin resistance, low HDL (the good) cholesterol, and lifestyle factors like exercise and alcohol intake.3

The metabolic effects of high TGL include decreased HDL cholesterol levels, the presence of atherogenic lipoproteins, increased blood viscosity, hypercoagulability, and endothelial dysfunction.3 You get an idea of how CAD can develop.

Have yourself a healthy heart!

It is important to note that for most people, consuming triglycerides through fatty foods only contribute only a little to blood triglyceride levels. The main cause of high fasting or postprandial triglyceride levels is fatty liver and a diet high in simple sugars and refined carbohydrates.

With that in mind, here are few things to consider for heart health include:

  • Limiting simple carbohydrates – like added sugars, sugar-sweetened beverages, and heavily refined and processed grains. A little is fine, but we need to be aware that added sugars can easily sneak into packaged or pre-made foods commonly thought of as healthy.
  • Limiting bad fats – artificially created trans-fatty acids are especially nasty, which are served up in fried foods and partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Enjoying good fats – foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids – like walnuts, flaxseed, chia seed, leafy greens, and oily fish – have been seen to lower TGL.
  • Enjoying real, whole foods, especially a heap of vegetables. The fibre helps with eliminating excess TGL and cholesterol, and the antioxidants can help mitigate cellular damage.
  • Getting in some exercise.

By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)



  1. Warfa, K, Drake, I, Wallström, P, Engström, G, & Sonestedt, E 2016, ‘Association between sucrose intake and acute coronary event risk and effect modification by lifestyle factors: Malmö Diet and Cancer Cohort Study’, British Journal of Nutrition, vol. 116, no. 9, pp. 1611-1620.
  2. Yang, Q, Zhang, Z, Gregg, EW, Flanders, WD, Merritt, R, & Hu, FB 2014, ‘Added sugar intake and cardiovascular diseases mortality among US adults’, JAMA Internal Medicine, vol. 174, no. 4, pp. 516-524.
  3. McBride, P 2008, ‘Triglycerides and risk for coronary artery disease’, Current Atherosclerosis Reports, vol. 10, no. 5, pp. 386-390.
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