How Sugary Drinks Can Affect Cholesterol Levels and Heart Health

  • Nearly one-third of U.S. adults have high cholesterol.
  • Too much cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, two leading causes of death in the United States.
  • Now research finds drinking sugary beverages may increase the risk of high cholesterol.

New research finds that adults who drink at least one sugary beverage, when compared with those who don’t, have a greater risk for developing dyslipidemia, or higher levels of unhealthy fats (like LDL cholesterol or triglycerides), which can increase the risk of heart disease.

“Dyslipidemia is just when your cholesterol numbers are not within the normal range, so it can be a variety of things. The most concerning is elevated LDL, or bad cholesterol,” said Mark Peterman, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Texas Health Plano.

High cholesterol levels are a risk factor

Nearly one-third of U.S. adults have high cholesterol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Too much cholesterol puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke, two leading causes of death in the United States.

Study participants were drawn from the Framingham Heart Study (FHS), a long-standing study focused on discovering common factors that contribute to heart disease.

Data from almost 6,000 people, middle-aged or older and of European descent, were analyzed over an average of 12 years.

The study was recently published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

“We were very interested in how consumption of different types of beverages may contribute to changes in blood lipids. There is evidence from other observational studies that higher consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is linked to greater cardiovascular disease risk,” Danielle Haslam, first author of the study, told Healthline.

Study looked at full-sugar drinks and low-calorie alternatives

The researchers adjusted for other factors that can affect cholesterol and triglyceride levels, like obesity, overall diet quality, physical activity, alcohol intake, and the use of cholesterol-lowering drugs.

They used questionnaires to determine what drinks participants consumed and how frequently. They separated beverages into two categories: sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) like full-sugar carbonated drinks and fruit drinks, and low-calorie sweetened beverages (LCSBs) like diet carbonated drinks with sugar substitutes (diet sodas).

All the participants had very similar calorie intake, making choice of beverage (full sugar or low calorie) the most identifiable factor.

“Overall, the findings were not surprising, but what’s important is that we were able to move the research forward. Because existing evidence for associations between sugary drinks and dyslipidemia was from small studies, and studies that only captured a snapshot of diet and blood lipid levels in time,” said study author Nicola McKeown, PhD, nutritional epidemiologist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

Sugary drinks worsened cholesterol levels over time

Researchers found that middle-aged and older adults who drank sugary beverages daily were at greater risk for developing abnormal cholesterol and triglyceride levels compared with those who rarely drank those beverages.

“With this study, we have shown that SSB intake is also associated with greater risk of developing dyslipidemia and with adverse changes in lipoprotein concentrations related to triglycerides and HDL cholesterol,” McKeown said.

Sugary beverage drinkers had a 98 percent higher chance of developing low HDL (good) cholesterol and a 53 percent higher chance of developing high triglycerides, according to the study.

“Cholesterol is one of the most important risk factors for atherosclerosis and heart attack and stroke. Managing your cholesterol is extremely important, and at least once a year checkups are vital for keeping on top of it,” Peterman said.

Sugar can be harmful to health

The findings also suggest that high sugary beverage intake is associated with HDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels that worsened over time in daily sugary beverage drinkers when compared with those who rarely drank sugar-sweetened beverages.

“Sugar intake and diabetes play a huge role in your cholesterol levels,” Peterman said.

He explains that “metabolic syndrome” is a term that encompasses a host of issues, and cholesterol abnormalities, body weight, and diabetes are all interrelated.

“This study makes a good point in showing that eating too much sugar has a negative impact on your cholesterol levels,” Peterman said.

Cholesterol, HDL, and LDL

Cholesterol comes in two types: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).

HDL is considered “good” cholesterol because it can help get rid of LDL cholesterol, the type that can build up in our arteries and increase the risk of heart disease.

“HDL is most closely linked with exercise and fitness, so traditionally the best way to improve your HDL is to exercise regularly, so lifestyle is very important,” Peterman explained.

Having higher LDL and lower HDL in your blood can mean you’re at risk for developing atherosclerosis, a thickening and stiffening of arteries clogged by too much plaque. Poor blood supply to the heart can lead to cardiovascular disease.

HDL also alters the chemical composition of LDL, preventing it from becoming oxidized, which helps reduce inflammation and prevents damage to the arteries, according to Harvard Medical School.

However, it’s not that simple.

HDL might simply be a marker or indicator of our cholesterol level, instead of having any significant influence on our bodies.

Currently, the American Heart Association (AHA) no longer recommends a specific range for HDL and LDL cholesterol.

Instead, the AHA says to look at cholesterol as part of your entire heart health.

“Here again, ‘normal ranges’ are less important than your overall cardiovascular risk. Like HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, your total blood cholesterol score should be considered in context with your other known risk factors,” wrote the AHA.

Lifestyle factors that reduce risk

Peterman emphasizes that “reducing cholesterol in general is multifaceted,” and controlling body weight as well as getting sufficient exercise are two important ways to do so.

He adds that dietary changes like following the Mediterranean diet (higher fish intake and lower red meat, lower carbohydrates, and using olive oil instead of animal fat), could provide immense benefits.

However, sugar is still a significant factor.

“Metabolic syndrome is a term that encompasses all these things, like cholesterol abnormalities, body weight, and diabetes — they’re all interrelated,” Peterman said.

“This study makes a good point in showing that eating too much sugar has a negative impact on your cholesterol levels,” he said.

The bottom line

New research finds that sugar-laden drinks can not only increase cholesterol levels, but also reduce the amount of HDL (good) cholesterol in our bodies. This increases our risk for cardiovascular disease.

Experts say sugar intake significantly influences our cholesterol levels. They recommend eating a Mediterranean diet, getting sufficient exercise, and having your cholesterol levels tested at least once a year as effective ways to help maintain cardiovascular health.

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