By nature, people like sweet foods really, really sweet foods, apparently. Americans now consume 19% more added sugar in their daily diet than they did in 1970, according to recent figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While it's no secret that all that excess sweetness has helped add inches to the average American waistline and probably sprouted an extra cavity or two a new study reveals some less obvious health risks that come with consuming too much added sugar: it can also lead to dangerously high levels of blood fats, and raise the risk of heart disease as much as a diet full of high-fat foods.
The culprit is what nutrition experts call added sugar any sugar that a food doesn't contain in its natural state, provides no nutritional value and serves only as a source of empty calories. These sugars include carbohydrates such as sucrose, dextrose, glucose and high fructose corn syrup (see a pattern here?) that food makers add by the bagful to everything from breads and snack foods to beverages.
Some small studies have previously indicated that eating too much sugar may lead to heart-hazardous levels of fat and cholesterol in the blood. So, researchers decided to gauge the health impact of the sugar contained in an average diet. "We wanted to see if people were eating a regular diet, was there an association between the added sugar they were eating and what their triglyceride and HDL levels were," says Dr. Miriam Vos, a professor of pediatrics at Emory University and lead author of the research that appears this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Vos led a group of nutritionists, epidemiologists and physicians in an analysis of data from a national health survey of more than 6,000 men and women conducted between 1999 and 2006. Each of the participants had been interviewed about what they had eaten in the 24 hours prior to the survey, and Vos' team then calculated the sugar content of these foods using government food pyramid equivalents. On average, the respondents consumed 21 teaspoons of added sugar a day (which does not include sugar from natural sources), accounting for nearly 16% of their total daily caloric intake.
Current World Health Organization guidelines suggest consuming no more than 10% of total daily calories from added sugar. In 2009, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommended half that amount.
Compared with people consuming less than 5% of their daily calories in added sugar, those in the highest consumption group who got 25% or more of their daily calories in added sugar were twice as likely to have low levels of HDL cholesterol, the beneficial lipid that mops up artery-clogging LDL cholesterol. According to government health guidelines, HDL levels below 50 mg/dL for women and 40 mg/dL for men are considered low; 43% of the highest sugar consumers recorded low HDL, while only 22% of the lowest sugar consumers did.