Your salt intake has historically been public enemy #1 in the battle to maintain good heart health. Yet, a new study is now suggesting that there may be an even bigger cardiovascular villain lurking in your foods — added sugar.
In a new study published in Open Heart, a publication of the British Medical Journal, researchers argue that dietary guidelines should put the spotlight on reducing added sugar consumption — rather than salt — in order to really slash hypertension, heart disease and stroke rates.
“All the guidelines say restrict sodium, particularly the U.S. dietary guidelines,” says study author Dr. James DiNicolantonio, of the department of preventive cardiology at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, Kansas City, MO. “But when I looked at the research, you only see a reduction in blood pressure of two to four mm Hg, in other people you even get a rise.”
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Some recent research has indicated that lowering salt intake levels below three grams per day, as recommended by many U.S. health organizations, might not actually offer much benefit to a person’s health. Meanwhile, a growing number of studies indicate that sugar might actually be your heart’s top threat. And it’s hard to ignore some of the evidence. People who consume more than a quarter of their daily calories from added sugars have nearly triple the risk of cardiovascular disease compared to those who consume less than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugars, the researchers note.
DiNicolantonio’s recommendation: “Don’t worry about the sodium count, focus on the added sugars, which are everywhere. It’s in ketchup, burger buns, 70 to 80 percent of foods in the supermarket have added sugars.”
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One of the biggest menaces to your ticker is high-fructose corn syrup, which is found in many processed foods. And of course, there’s soda. “Processed food that contains added sugars is the problem, not whole foods that contain fructose,” DiNicolantonio says.
“If you do need to eat something with a nutrition label, focus on the sugar.”
“We’d have to consume numerous pieces of fruit — five to six apples — to get the same sugar in one can of soda.”
Eating or drinking more than 74 grams of fructose per day (slightly less than what’s in one 20 oz bottle of Mountain Dew) has been associated with a 77 percent increased risk of a person having blood pressure above 160/100 mm HG (normal blood pressure is around 120/80 mm Hg). Plus, diets high in sugar have also been linked to higher blood insulin levels, and metabolic syndrome.
So how much added sugar is safe? DiNicolantonio says he agrees with the American Heart Association recommendations of six teaspoons per day for women, and nine teaspoons per day for men. But he notes, “I disagree with the nine teaspoon threshold if it comes in liquid form, which is one can of soda.”
The real way to curb your heart risk, and stay healthy is to avoid packaged goods, DiNicolantonio notes. “Eat real food and everything else will fall into place. And if you do need to eat something with a nutrition label, focus on the sugar.”