Adopting healthy eating habits might require more than just heading for the salad bar in the dining hall. Now, scientists have found that sugar in your soda might be doing more harm than you realize.
High consumption of added sugar leads to increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality, according to the results of a study published Feb. 3 by JAMA Internal Medicine. Added sugar refers to all sugar found in processed and prepared foods (cereals, yogurts, sodas, flavored coffee, etc.), but excludes natural sugar found in items such as fruit and milk.
Dr. Quanhe Yang from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and his colleagues analyzed trends of adult consumption of added sugar as percentage of daily calories in the United States. They compared this intake to to cardiovascular disease mortality rates.
“We are trying to increase people’s awareness of possible effects of higher added sugar intake and cardiovascular disease risk,” he said.
The research team used nationally representative samples, and they found that most American adults consume more added sugar than is recommended. Compared to those who consumed about 8 percent of daily calories from added sugar, adults who consumed between 17 percent and 21 percent of daily calories from added sugar had a 38 percent higher risk of cardiovascular mortality.
“For our study, we are trying to tell people if they could follow the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans,ﾊwhich limit total added sugar and solid fat to 5 to 16 percent [of daily caloric intake],” Yang said. “Our study found that most Americans are consuming too much added sugar.”
Additionally, those who consumed 21 percent or more of their daily calories through added sugar had more than double an increased risk of CVD mortality than to those who consumed about 8 percent.
While the biological explanation for this association is still uncertain, there are several theories as to why.
Added sugar consumption has independently been related to hypertension, increased blood pressure and inflammation markers, all of which are major factors in causing CVD.
“The animal studies have suggested that high intake of refined sugar independent of weight gain will increase the risk of hypertension,” Yang said. “Also, the durational study also shows that high intake of added sugar also independently is associated with the risk of increased blood pressure and hypertension. You know that the hypertension is the leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease.”
Americans are particularly at risk, as most adults in the United States consume more than the recommended amount of added sugar. However, that recommended value varies between different health organizations — though all agree the lower, the better.
The World Health Organization recommends that people consume less than 10 percent of their daily caloric intake from added sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that total calories from added sugar should be fewer than 100 calories per day for women and fewer than 150 calories per day for men.
Both of these recommendations were based off of assessments of added sugar and its negative health outcomes. The Institute of Medicine recommends no more than 25 percent of daily calories from added sugar, but this suggestion was based off of a study that did not take health effects into account.
“Even small changes for the better can lead to life-long habits that will make a big difference,” said Jennifer Culbert, a registered dietician at the Boston University Sargent Choice Nutrition Center.
So what are some easy ways college students can cut down on their added sugar consumption? Culbert provided progressive changes for students to integrate into their daily eating routine.
Students who enjoy eating a bowl of cereal in the morning, for example, can try mixing their favorite sugared cereal with a lower-sugar cereal. Sugary cereals — while often delicious — are packed with added, processed sugar that causes negative health effects beyond cavities.
Culbert suggested starting out by replacing one-quarter of normal cereal with a lower-sugar cereal. Over time, students can increase the amount of lower-sugar cereal that they mix in.
An additional way to cut down added sugar is decreasing the amount of flavored pumps of syrup added to your coffee. Flavored coffee drinks at Starbucks have one to four teaspoons of sugar per pump, according to Culbert, and each large coffee has four pumps of syrup — about two days worth of the recommended added sugar intake.
And perhaps the simplest option is to cut down on sugary soft drinks. The study itself indicated that an increase in calories from added sugars is mainly attributed to “sugar-sweetened beverages,” so choosing water over soda can only bring benefits to students.
Yang said he hopes his study serves as an indication of how people can make healthier choices in their everyday lives.
“Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States,” he said. “… If we could reduce modifiable risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, quit smoking, getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, including reducing added sugar … together they might play an important role in reducing the instance of cardiovascular disease in the United States in the future.”