Does Sugar Cause Heart Disease?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Issues

Is Sugar No Longer Your Best Friend?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

SugarSugar has gotten a lot of bad press in recent years. You’ve probably already heard that high sugar intake is associated with inflammation, obesity and diabetes. As if that weren’t bad enough, the latest headlines proclaim that added sugar may also increase our risk of fatal heart disease. Are those headlines true? And if they are true, what should you do about it?

Sugar Basics – The Truth About Sugar

There are three facts about sugar that almost every expert agrees with:

  • The sugars that occur naturally in foods like fruits and vegetables are generally not a problem unless you are a diabetic. It is the added sugars in our diet that we should be concerned with.
  • The amount of added sugars in the American diet has increased dramatically since the founding of this country. Based on data from the US Department of Commerce and the USDA, the amount of added sugar in the American diet has gone from 6.3 pounds/year in 1822 to over 100 pounds/year in 2000. Put another way, we have gone from consuming the amount of sugar in a 12 oz soda every 5 days in 1822 to every 7 hours in 2000.
  • The lion’s share of that added sugar is coming from sodas and similar sugary beverages. The amounts are: sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages (37.1%), grain-based desserts (13.7%), fruit drinks (8.9%), dairy desserts (6.1%) and candy (5.8%).

Beyond that there is little agreement among experts. When I was a young man the sugar “villains” were glucose and sucrose. Then it was sugar alcohols. Today it is high-fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin. Tomorrow it will be something else.

In reality there are no sugar heroes and no sugar villains. The harmful effects of added sugars are based almost entirely on:

  • The amount of added sugars in the diet…and…
  • The type of foods those added sugars are found in.

For more information, watch my video “The Truth About Sugar”.

Does Sugar Cause Heart Disease?

The study behind the headlines (Yang et al, JAMA Internal Medicine, 174: 516-524, 2014) followed 11,733 participants in the 3rd National Health And Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) for an average of 14.6 years. (NHANES studies are designed to represent a cross section of the adult US population). Sugar intake was based on the average of two dietary surveys for most of the participants, and cardiovascular deaths were determined from the NHANES III Linked Mortality Files.

The average intake of added sugar in the American population was around 16% of total calories (compared to around 1% of total calories in 1822). For comparison purposes, the authors divided the population into three groups based on added sugar consumption:

  • Those consuming less than 10% of calories from added sugar (28.6% of the population).
  • Those consuming between 10% and 25% of calories from added sugars (46.4% of the population).
  • Those consuming more than 25% of calories from added sugars (25.0% of the population).

When the groups with the 10-25% and >25% of calories from added sugars were compared to the <10% group with respect to cardiovascular deaths, the results were pretty striking.

  • The group consuming 10-25% of calories from added sugars had a 30% increased risk of dying from heart disease
  • And the group consuming >25% of calories from added sugars had a 275% increased risk of dying from heart disease!

This association between added sugar consumption and risk of cardiovascular death was independent of age, sex, race/ethnicity, educational attainment, physical activity, HEI score (a measure of overall diet quality and BMI (a measure of obesity).

The Strengths And Weaknesses of This Study

Strengths:

  • This was a particularly large, well designed study.
  • This study is consistent with a number of early studies suggesting that added sugar intake increases the risk of cardiovascular death. See, for example “Can Soft Drinks Cause Heart Disease?

Weaknesses:

  • The main weakness of this study is that it measures associations only. It does not prove cause and effect.

Should You Switch To Diet Sodas?

Diet SodaYou may be thinking that you should switch to diet sodas – and perhaps artificially sweetened snacks and desserts as well. It only makes sense that if sugar is the problem, artificial sweeteners must be the answer. Wrong! The latest research suggests that diet sodas may be just as bad as the sugar-sweetened sodas.

I have already shared one study with you that linked consumption of diet sodas with increased risk of heart disease (see “Can Soft Drinks Cause Heart Disease?”). The link between diet sodas and heart disease has now been supported by another major clinical study reported by Dr. Ankur Vyas from University of Iowa, March 30, 2014 at the American College of Cardiology’s 63rd Annual Scientific Session.

This study followed 60,000 women with an average age of 62.8 years who were enrolled in the Woman’s Health Initiative Observational Study for 9 years. They reported that compared to women who never or rarely drank diet sodas, those who consumed two or more diet sodas/day were:

  • 30% more likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes…and…
  • 50% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease.

What Can You Drink?

By now you are probably asking yourself: “If regular sodas, diet sodas, other sugary and diet beverages, and even most fruit juices are out, what else can I drink? Is there anything left?”

It’s not quite as daunting as it seems at first. It may take some time to re-educate your taste buds, but your health is worth it. Here are some healthy alternatives:

  • My #1 recommendation is always water. If you crave some flavor, add lemon, mint, or your favorite fruits. Herbal teas are another flavorful, healthy choice.
  • If you crave caffeine, go for green tea, regular tea or coffee – without sweeteners, of course.
  • If you crave the carbonation, start with unsweetened mineral water or seltzer and add you favorite flavorings.

The Bottom Line:

1)    The evidence is getting stronger every day that too much added sugar in our diet is linked to increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease. If you are consuming >25% of calories from added sugars the increased risk is almost 3-fold!

2)    The evidence from this study suggests that it would be prudent to keep added sugars below 10% of calories. For most Americans this represents around 200 calories/day from added sugars. That compares with the World Health Organization’s recommendation that added sugars be <10% of calories, the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation that added sugars be <25% of calories, and the American Heart Association’s recommendation that added sugars be <100 calories for women and <150 calories for men.

3)    There are no sugar heroes and villains. The amount of added sugar in the diet is much more important than the kind of sugar. The food that the sugar is found in is also very important, with sodas and similar sugar-sweetened beverages being the worst offenders (See my video “The Truth About Sugar” for more information).

4)    Artificial sweeteners are not the solution. A recent study with postmenopausal women suggests that consumption of as few as two diet sodas a day increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 30% and cardiovascular death by 50%.

5)    Don’t despair. You won’t have to go thirsty. There are lots of healthy alternatives available (see above).

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (3)

  • Mary Sue Whatley

    |

    The Lord Jesus Christ let me know several years ago that ‘sugar’ is a destroyer.

    I know that there are some good sugars, such as honey, xylitol, etc., but He was referring to the white sugar that most people use.

    Reply

  • Pearlene

    |

    Good way of explaining, and good post to take information concerning my presentation topic, which i am going
    to deliver in university.

    Reply

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Latest Article

How Long Do the Benefits of Supplements Last?

Posted October 23, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Can Supplements Set You On A Path Towards A Healthier Life?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

benefits of supplements heartA recent study (U Alehagen et al, PLOS One, April 11, 2018, 1-15 ) reported that the heart benefits of supplementation with coenzyme Q10 and selenium persisted for 12 years after supplementation ended. You would have thought a story like that would have made the headlines. Nope. Hardly a mention. Perhaps it did not match the narrative of the media and health professionals that supplements are worthless.

This study broke new ground. Most studies last a year or two and report whether there were any benefits of supplementation. A few studies have been extended a few years beyond the original supplementation period and have reported continued benefits of supplementation. However, in those studies the intervention group was still taking supplements. The intervention period was simply extended.

However, this study was unique in that supplementation was discontinued after 4 years. However, the positive effects of supplementation during that four-year period persisted for another 12 years without additional supplementation.

 

How Was The Study Done?

benefits of supplements monitoring heartIn this study 443 elderly individuals (average age =78) were recruited from a rural village in Sweden. They were given either supplements providing 200 mg/day of coenzyme Q10 and 200 mcg/day of selenium yeast or placebo pills. They were followed for four years. At this point the intervention phase of the trial ended, and the participants were followed for another 12 years without supplementation.

Cardiovascular deaths and all-cause mortality were recorded at 4 years (the end of the original intervention period), 10 years, and 12 years. The Swedish health care system is incredibly efficient. None of the participants were lost to follow-up.

Note on study design: Both coenzyme Q10 and selenium have heart health benefits and they compliment each other. Coenzyme Q10 was included in this study because our bodies lose the ability to make coenzyme Q10 as we age. By the time we reach age 80, we only make around half the coenzyme Q10 we made when we were younger. Selenium was included in the study because most Swedes are selenium deficient.

This study measured selenium levels and confirmed that all participants were selenium deficient at the beginning of the study. Selenium levels increased to near optimal in the supplemented group during the 4-year intervention period. In contrast, the placebo group remained selenium deficient.

 

How Long Do the Benefits of Supplements Last?

benefits of supplementationThe results of the study were truly amazing.

When you compared the group that had received coenzyme Q10 and selenium during the first 4 years of the study with the placebo group:

  • Cardiovascular mortality was 38% less and all-cause mortality was 24% less 12 years later in the supplement group.
  • The decrease in cardiovascular mortality lessened slightly with time (53% lower at 4 years, 46% lower at 10 years, and 38% lower at 12 years.
  • In contrast, the decrease in all-cause mortality remained relatively constant.
  • The effect was greater for women (who have lower coenzyme Q10 levels than men) than it was for men.
  • The decrease in cardiovascular mortality was 57% for women and 22% for men.
  • Cardiovascular mortality was decreased by 40-50% for people at high risk of cardiovascular death because of atherosclerosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, or impaired heart function.

Putting This Study Into Perspective

benefits of supplements wellnessI don’t want to read too much into this study. It has multiple limitations:

  • It is a very small study.
  • It is the first study I am aware of that has followed study participants years after supplementation has ended. More studies like this are clearly needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn.
  • It may be unique to Sweden where selenium deficiency is widespread. Selenium deficiency is much less prevalent in some other countries such as the United States.
  • It is possible that once the study population heard about the results of the initial 4-year study they started self-supplementing with coenzyme Q10 and selenium. However, since the participants did not know whether they were in the supplement or placebo group, that would likely affect both groups equally.

However, it is the implications of the study that fascinate me.

  • The authors of the study speculated that the improvement in endothelial cell function (Endothelial cells line the arteries and play an important role in arterial health) and/or decreased inflammation may have persisted long after supplementation stopped.
  • A more interesting idea is that supplementation (or the effects of supplementation) caused modifications to the DNA that were persistent (something we refer to as epigenetics). Moreover, those DNA modifications may have altered gene expression in a manner that reduced heart disease risk.

Much more work needs to be done before we know whether epigenetic modifications were responsible for the persistent benefit of supplementation in this, or any other, study. However, the ramifications of this idea are substantial. We think of supplementation as something that provides benefit only while we are taking the supplement. What if, under the right conditions, supplementation could send us down an entirely different path to better health? That would be worth major headlines.

 

The Bottom Line

 

A recent study in Sweden looked at the effects of supplementation with coenzyme Q10 and selenium on heart health 12 years after supplementation had ended.

  • The study reported that cardiovascular mortality was 38% less and all-cause mortality was 24% less 12 years later in the group that supplemented during the first 4 years.

The study has multiple limitations and needs to be repeated before drawing any definite conclusions. However, if true, it has interesting implications. What if the benefits of supplementation didn’t stop when you stopped supplementing? What if supplementation sent you down an entirely different path, a path towards better health?

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

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