Americans consume too much sugar, and our collective sweet tooth has become deadly. The biggest study of its kind suggests that too much sugar can be fatal when it comes to heart problems.
Illustration by JIM FREITAG • Special to the Star Tribune
Americans consume too much sugar, and our collective sweet tooth has become deadly. The biggest study of its kind suggests that too much sugar can be fatal — at least when it comes to heart problems.
And it doesn’t take all that much extra sugar, hidden in many processed foods, to substantially raise the risk, researchers found. Most Americans eat more than the safest amount.
“Too much sugar does not just make us fat; it can also make us sick,” wrote Laura Schmidt, a professor of health policy at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco. It may contribute to deadly heart problems, high blood pressure and inflammation.
Researchers found that 71.4 percent of adults get more than the recommended 10 percent of daily calories from added sugars in foods and drinks. For someone who normally eats 2,000 calories daily, even two 12-ounce cans of soda substantially increases health risks.
Lead author Quanhe Yang of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the results of a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine sobering and the first nationally representative attempt to examine the issue.
Scientists aren’t certain exactly how sugar may contribute to deadly heart problems, but it has been shown to increase blood pressure and levels of unhealthy cholesterol and triglycerides, and also may increase signs of inflammation linked with heart disease, said Rachel Johnson, head of the American Heart Association’s nutrition committee.
Heart disease, which can cause heart attacks, chest pain and heart failure, is the leading cause of death worldwide for men and women, killing more than 600,000 Americans each year, according to the CDC.
Link found even in normal weight
Previous studies have linked diets high in sugar with increased risks for nonfatal heart problems and with obesity, which can also lead to heart trouble. But in the new study, obesity didn’t explain the link between sugary diets and death. That link was found even in normal-weight people who ate lots of added sugar.
The researchers focused on sugar added to processed foods or drinks, or sprinkled in coffee or cereal. Even foods that don’t taste sweet have added sugar, including many brands of packaged bread, tomato sauce and salad dressing. Naturally occurring sugar, in fruit and some other foods, wasn’t counted.
Researchers used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES — a large study updated each year by the CDC — to measure changes in sugar consumption over time and to see its health effects. Added sugars were defined as “all sugars used in processed or prepared foods, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, grain-based desserts, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, candy, ready-to-eat cereals, and yeast breads, but not naturally occurring sugars, such as in fruits and fruit juices.”
Between 1988 and 1994, Americans got 15.7 percent of their calories from added sugars, on average. That figure rose to 16.8 percent from 1999 to 2004, then fell to 14.9 percent between 2005 and 2010, the researchers found.
In the most recent period studied, about 10 percent of adults got more than 25 percent of their calories from added sugar. Nonsmokers, blacks and people younger than 60 ate and drank more added sugar than other adults.
For the second part of the study, the research team took a close look at 11,733 people who were part of NHANES between 1988 and 2006 and tracked for a median of 14.6 years. During those years, 831 people died as a result of cardiovascular disease.
Study participants were divided into five groups based on their sugar consumption. People in the lowest group got fewer than 9.6 percent of their calories from added sugars, while those in the highest group got more than 21.3 percent of their calories from added sugars, the researchers found.
And as sugar intake increased, risks climbed steeply.
Soda pop is No. 1 source