A new study has linked eating too much sugar to fatal heart problems (or drinking, since soda seems to be the main source). And it really doesn't take all that much extra sugar to substantially increase the risk. Most Americans consume more than the “safe” amount, according to researchers.

For someone who eats 2,000 calories a day, just drinking two 12-ounce cans of soda substantially increases the risk of dying prematurely from heart disease, the Associated Press reports. (For most American adults, sodas and other sugary drinks are the main source of added sugar in the diet.)
Lead author Quanhe Yang of the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention called the results “sobering.”

Scientists don't know exactly how sugar contributes to deadly heart problems. However, it has been shown to increase blood pressure and levels of unhealthy cholesterol and triglycerides, and also may increase inflammation linked to heart disease.

To reach their conclusion, Yang and colleagues analyzed national health surveys between 1988 and 2010 that included questions about what people ate. They also looked at national death data to calculate the risks of dying during 15 years of follow up. More than 30,000 American adults aged 44 on average were included.

The researchers focused on sugar added to processed foods and drinks. Even foods that don't taste sweet often have added sugar, such as bread, tomato sauce and salad dressing. Naturally occurring sugar, such as that found in fruit, wasn't counted.

Most adults consumed 10% or more of their calories from added sugar (71.4%), and approximately 10% consumed 25% or more in 2005-2010. Twenty-five percent would be equivalent to a cinnamon bun at breakfast, a “super-size” soda at lunch and a scoop of ice cream after dinner.

The study found that people who consumed the highest amounts of added sugars were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease. People who consumed approximately 17 to 21 percent of their calories from added sugar had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared to those who consumed approximately 8 percent of calories from added sugar. The findings were largely consistent across age group, sex, race/ethnicity (except among non-Hispanic blacks), educational attainment, physical activity, health eating index and body mass index.

Previous studies have linked diets high in sugar with increased risks for non-fatal heart problems, as well as with obesity, which can also lead to heart issues. But scarily, in the new study, obesity didn't explain the link between sugary diets and heart-related death. That link was found even in normal-weight people who ate lots of sugar.

“Too much sugar does not just make us fat; it can also make us sick,” says Laura Schmidt, a health policy specialist at UC San Francisco who wrote an editorial accompanying the study, published February 3 in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“We are in the midst of a paradigm shift in research on the health effects of sugar, one fueled by extremely high rates of added sugar overconsumption in the American public,” Schmidt says. “Under the old paradigm, it was assumed to be a marker for unhealthy diet or obesity. The new paradigm views sugar overconsumption as an independent risk factor in cardiovascular disease as well as many other chronic diseases, including diabetes mellitus, liver cirrhosis and dementia – all linked to metabolic perturbations involving dyslipidemia, hypertension and insulin resistance.”

Study author Yang suggests that people check food labels for added sugar and try to choose products with the lowest added sugar amounts, and reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Sorry, soda – or should we call you the Elixir of Death?

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