Sugar and Heart Health: What Women Need to Know

  • A new study reports that women who drink sugary beverages on a daily basis face higher risks of heart disease.
  • Researchers said high daily doses of sugar can lead to obesity as well as higher glucose and insulin levels, all factors in cardiovascular disease.
  • Experts say lifestyle changes and behavior modifications are the best ways for women to reduce their daily sugar consumption.

Women drinking one or more sugary beverages per day could be increasing their risk of cardiovascular disease by more than 20 percent.

So suggests a study published today in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Researchers collected data from more than 106,000 women with an average age of 52. None of the participants had been previously diagnosed with heart disease, stroke, or diabetes.

Researchers said the findings show women with the highest consumption rate of sugary beverages were younger, more likely to be current smokers, diagnosed with obesity, and less likely to have a diet rich in protein, fat, and fruits and vegetables.

Self-reporting of beverage consumption and interstate inpatient hospital records were analyzed to see which women were more likely to experience a heart attack, stroke, or surgery to open clogged arteries.

Researchers reported that drinking one or more sugary beverages per day was associated with a 26 percent higher likelihood of needing a vascularization procedure, such as angioplasty.

They added that daily intake of sugary beverages was associated with a 21 percent higher likelihood of having a stroke, compared with women who rarely or never drank sugar-laden drinks.

The type of drink also seemed to matter.

Researchers said drinking one or more sugar-added fruit drinks daily was associated with a 42 percent greater likelihood of having cardiovascular disease.

Drinking soft drinks daily was associated with a 23 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease, compared with women who rarely or never drank sugary beverages.

While cause and effect can’t be confirmed, researchers hypothesize sugar may increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases in several ways, says Cheryl A.M. Anderson, PhD, MPH, MS, a lead study author and a professor and interim chair of family and public health at the University of California, San Diego and chair of the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee.

“It [sugar] raises glucose levels and insulin concentrations in the blood, which may increase appetite and lead to obesity, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease,” Anderson said in a press release accompanying the study.

The link to sugar and heart disease

Heart disease in women can often go undiagnosed until it’s too late, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, a nutritionist and the author of the book “Skinny Liver.”

“Women have always been in the population where they are more likely to die from a heart attack and stroke than men, and they also have less obvious symptoms,” Kirkpatrick told Healthline.

Consuming excess sugar creates a spike in insulin and blood sugar levels, followed by a strong dip. This dip can increase the risk of inflammation, and inflammation is the base of any heart disease, explains Kirkpatrick.

“Further, sugar provides no nutritional benefit, so having it means you may be replacing other more nutrient-dense foods that are associated with decreased risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease,” she said.

The American Heart Association recommends women don’t exceed 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of sugar per day.

So, if your one sugary beverage is a typical 12-ounce regular soda with 130 calories and 8 teaspoons (34 grams) of sugar, you’re already exceeding the American Heart Association’s recommended limit on sugar for the day.

In this case, Caroline West Passerrello, MS, RDN, LDN said, “You need to be very mindful of other sources of added sugar in your diet.”

“Remember that there are different types of sugar and you want to think about the company that your sugar keeps,” she told Healthline. “For example, sugar from soda just comes with calories, while sugar from whole fruit comes with nutrients.”

Reducing your daily sugar intake

Changing your eating habits can be challenging.

“When I work with clients on reducing their sugar intake, I take an individual approach,” said Passerrello. “For some clients, it is a quantity discussion. For some, it is a frequency discussion, and for some, it is both.”

“We start by looking at what they are currently eating and drinking in relationship to their lifestyle, and we discuss what they would like to be eating and drinking and how they would like their lifestyle to look,” she said.

“At that point, we see where the gap is, what is realistic to change, and discuss their motivation to change,” Passerrello added. “We remember this motivation and refer back to it over time because behavior change is not always easy.”

This is where nutritionists and dietitians can help with goal setting and achievement.

When trying to cut down on sugar, Kirkpatrick suggests you work with someone and get a village to help you.

“Having friends or a spouse that continues to eat lots of sugar themselves will only hold you back,” she said. “Also, get enough sleep. Lack of sleep leads to difficulty in managing cravings.”

“I remind my clients that the relationship between humans and sugar goes back thousands of years,” said Passerrello. “Historically, the taste of sweetness provided from sugar is what helped early humans determine what plants were safe and nutritious to consume.”

In other words, our desire for the taste of sweetness is natural.

Andy De Santis, a registered dietitian and weight loss specialist, suggests we can use this to our advantage.

His advice is that we get our sweetness from natural sources, especially fresh or frozen fruit that bring nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber.

“I find very often that we are much more eager to go out of our way to point out some new way that a food that is bad for us rather than to appreciate the core food groups that are associated with good health,” De Santis told Healthline.

Kirkpatrick agrees, saying that she would start a sugar reduction plan by focusing on naturally sweet treats such as whole fruits. She recommends chewing your fruits rather than drinking them in juices so you benefit from the fiber content.

You can also try Passerrello’s advice, which is to, “Have a smaller portion, a little less often, or mix a splash of a sugar-sweetened beverage with sparkling water.”

Balance is important

While the new study shows an association between sugary beverages and increased risk of heart disease, experts told Healthline the most important takeaway is that the women with increased risk were the ones with less healthy lifestyles.

“The issue, as the study points out, is that the women who drank the most sugary beverages were also less likely to eat well,” De Santis said.

“Cardiovascular disease risk and overall cardiovascular health are determined by a number of modifiable and non-modifiable variables,” he said.

“Even if we accept that sugary drinks may modestly increase heart disease risk, and this study does not decisively prove that, we have to be equally accepting that a vast number of habits can have an equally or much more powerful effect in the opposite direction,” De Santis said.

For example, consuming adequate nuts, seeds, legumes, fish, fruits, and vegetables can help reduce inflammation and control blood sugar.

“In the context of a strong, balanced diet, the presence or absence of a daily soft drink will have much less bearing on overall health, even if it still won’t be considered heart healthy,” said De Santis.

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