Is Fructose Good For You Or Bad For You?

Is It The Fructose Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

VillainFructose is the villain of the day. It is #1 on everyone’s “No-No” list. Almost every website, blog, and diet book demonize it. Even authors I highly respect say we should absolutely avoid it.

We are told it causes obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease – a disease that was unheard of only a few decades ago. We are told to read labels and avoid any foods with fructose or high-fructose corn syrup listed on their label.

But wait. Isn’t fructose a natural sugar? The answer is, “Yes”. It is the main sugar in fruit and many other naturally sweet whole foods. In fact, there is the same amount of fructose in an 8-ounce soda and a medium apple.

Does that mean that fruits are also bad for us? What is the truth?

Is It The Fructose Or Is It The Food?

AppleLet me put this into perspective for you. I have covered this in detail in a previous issue of Health Tips From The Professor. Here is a brief summary.

  • There are no sugar villains. There are no sugar heroes. Most of your favorite “natural” sugars are chemically and biologically indistinguishable from high-fructose corn syrup. Other natural sugars, like agave sugar, contain more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup.
  • All the studies showing the bad effects of fructose have been done with sodas and/or highly processed foods with added sugar. Let’s be clear. Those foods are bad for you.
  • Fruits, on the other hand, are good for you. You’ve heard the old adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. A recent study showed that isn’t just an “old wives’ tale”. It is true.

Why is that? Why is fructose in sodas and junk foods bad for us and fructose in fruits good for us?

Part of the answer is that fruits are high in fiber, which slows the release of fructose into the intestine as fruits are digested. In addition, the fructose in fruits is trapped in a cellular matrix, which also slows the release of fructose during digestion.

Sodas and highly processed foods, on the other hand, have nothing to slow the release of fructose. It is immediately available as soon as the food reaches the intestine.

A recent study sheds light on why the rate of fructose release in our intestine may be important. The study showed:

  • When fructose is released slowly our bodies know exactly what to do with it.
    • Most of it is metabolized by the cells that line our intestine, and the rest is metabolized by the liver.
    • In both cases fructose is converted to glucose and slowly released into the bloodstream.
    • This stabilizes blood sugar levels.
  • When fructose is released quickly our bodies are overwhelmed and bad things happen.
    • The intestine passes the excess on to the liver, and the liver converts it to fat rather than glucose.
    • The fat is stored in the liver.
    • This leads to insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver disease.

But could the fiber in fruits have other beneficial effects such as supporting populations of beneficial gut bacteria? The study ( J Beisner et al, Nutrients, 12: 3444, 2020) I will focus on today suggests the answer is yes.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyInvestigators from the University of Hohenheim, Germany recruited 12 healthy female volunteers, ages 20 – 40 (average age = 28).

Each of the subjects was given a series of diets to follow for one week each.

  • Week one was a low fructose diet (10 g of fructose/day). For this diet phase subjects had to avoid sweets, highly processed foods, sodas, and fruits and vegetables containing more than 1 g of fructose per serving.
  • Week two was a high fructose fruit diet (100 g of fructose/day). This diet phase emphasized fructose-rich fruits and vegetables. Sweets, highly processed foods, and sodas had to be avoided.
  • Week three was a repeat of the low fructose diet (10 g of fructose/day).
  • Week four was a high-fructose corn syrup diet (100 g of fructose/day). For this diet phase subjects had to sweeten the food they were eating with a measured amount of high-fructose corn syrup. They also had to avoid fructose-rich fruits and vegetables.

The diets were designed to have around 2,000 calories/day and to have the same amounts of fat (30% of calories), protein (15% of calories), and carbohydrate (55% of calories). However, the fiber content of the diets was very different (around 17 g/day on the low fructose and high-fructose corn syrup diets and around 38 g/day on the high fructose fruit diet).

The subjects were given detailed instructions and training before starting on the 4-week program. They also kept a daily dietary record of everything they ate and drank so the investigators would know how closely they stuck to their dietary instructions.

This experimental design was based on previous studies showing that populations of gut bacteria change within 24-48 hours when you go on a new diet. Stool samples were collected at the end of each week and analyzed for gut bacteria.

Is Fructose Good For You Or Bad For You?

MicrobiomeThe study showed:

  • Consumption of a high-fructose, fruit-rich diet resulted in:
    • An increase in beneficial butyrate-producing bacteria (more about that below).
    • A decrease in bacteria associated with elevated total and LDL cholesterol.
    • Decreased blood levels of total and LDL cholesterol.
  • Consumption of a high-fructose corn syrup diet had the opposite effect. It resulted in:
    • A decrease in beneficial butyrate-producing bacteria.
    • An increase in bacteria associated with elevated total and LDL cholesterol.
    • Increased blood levels of total and LDL cholesterol.

The authors concluded: “We provide evidence that the high-fructose corn syrup diet induces an imbalanced microbiota [gut bacteria] profile characterized by a significantly reduced abundance of beneficial butyrate-producing bacteria and of bacteria known for anti-obesity effects…Despite the high fructose content, the fruit-rich diet shifts the intestinal microbiota composition in a protective manner…”

The authors said that there were probably two mechanisms for the different effects of fructose in high-fructose corn syrup and in fruits.

  • The fiber found in fruit supports the growth of beneficial bacteria in our intestine.
  • When high-fructose corn syrup is present in foods with low fiber content, it is released rapidly in the intestine. As I noted above, the cells that line our intestine become overwhelmed and pass some of that excess fructose on to our liver. However, the authors cited previous studies showing that some of that excess fructose remains in our intestine and supports the growth of unhealthy bacteria.

What Does Butyrate Do?

Question MarkYou are probably wondering what is special about butyrate-producing bacteria. Here is a brief synopsis.

  • Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid. As you might expect from its name, it was originally identified as a constituent of butter.
  • Some species of gut bacteria convert the fats in our diet to butyrate.
    • It is used as a preferred energy source for the cells that line our intestine. Consequently, butyrate production in our intestines has been linked to:
      • Reduced inflammation of the cells lining our intestine, which reduces the risk for diseases like inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) and Crohn’s Disease.
      • Reduced risk of “leaky gut syndrome”.
      • Reduced risk of colon cancer.
    • It is also absorbed into the bloodstream and appears to affect several metabolic pathways. For example, butyrate production in the intestine is associated with:
      • Decreased cholesterol levels.
      • Improved blood sugar control.
      • A healthy body weight.

What Does This Mean For You?

Questioning ManThis was a small study. As the authors noted, larger studies of longer duration are needed to confirm that the effects of fructose on our gut bacteria depend on the food the fructose is in. However, several other studies have come to similar conclusions.

More importantly, this study merely shows that the effect of fructose-containing foods on our gut bacteria is a potential mechanism for explaining why the effect of fructose depends on the food it is in.

There is already overwhelming evidence that fructose in fruits is good for us, while high-fructose corn syrup in sodas and highly processed foods is bad for us.

Does that mean high-fructose corn syrup is villainous? Should we read labels and avoid any food containing high-fructose corn syrup?

I would remind you that the amount of fructose and the relative abundance of fructose and glucose are virtually identical in fruits and high-fructose corn syrup. It is not high-fructose corn syrup that is the problem, it is the foods it is found in.

We don’t need to become compulsive label readers. We just need to eat more foods without labels.

The Bottom Line 

High-fructose corn syrup has been vilified in recent years. However, there is increasing evidence that it is not fructose that is the problem. It is the foods it is found in.

A recent study was designed to test that hypothesis. The investigators fed subjects high fructose diets in which the fructose came either from fruits or high-fructose corn syrup. The amount of fructose was identical in the two diets. The investigators then asked what effect the two diets had on gut bacteria. In short:

  • Consumption of the high-fruit diet increased healthy levels of beneficial gut bacteria and suppressed levels of unhealthy gut bacteria.
  • Consumption of the high-fructose corn syrup diet had the opposite effect. It increased unhealthy bacteria and suppressed beneficial bacteria.

The authors concluded: “We provide evidence that the high-fructose corn syrup diet induces an imbalanced microbiota [gut bacteria] profile characterized by a significantly reduced abundance of beneficial…bacteria and of bacteria known for anti-obesity effects…Despite the high fructose content, the fruit-rich diet shifts the intestinal microbiota composition in a protective manner…”

My take is as follows: This study shows that the effect of fructose-containing foods on our gut bacteria is a potential mechanism for explaining why the effect of fructose depends on the food it is in.

There is already overwhelming evidence that fructose in fruits is good for us, and high-fructose corn syrup in sodas and highly processed foods is bad for us.

Does that mean that high-fructose corn syrup is villainous? Should we read labels and avoid any food containing high-fructose corn syrup?

I would remind you that the amount of fructose and the relative abundance of fructose and glucose is virtually identical in fruits and high-fructose corn syrup. It is not high-fructose corn syrup that is the problem, it is the foods it is found in.

We don’t need to become compulsive label readers. We just need to eat more foods without labels.

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.

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

What Is Nutritionism?

In Defense Of FoodRecently, I have been reading Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food”. Yes, I know the book has been around for a long time. Normally I read the scientific literature rather than popular health books. However, in the past few weeks I have had a lot more time to read books, so I decided to read this one.

Some of the things he says are “off the wall”. As he readily admits, he isn’t a scientist or a medical doctor. However, a lot of what he says is “right on”. He echoes many of the things I have been talking about for years. But he does a masterful job of pulling everything together into a framework he calls “nutritionism”.

If you have a chance, I highly recommend that you read his book.

I will briefly summarize his discussion of nutritionism below. I will also share some scientific support for what he is saying. Finally, I will close by sharing what the Bible says on the subject.

What Is Nutritionism?

Low Fat LabelSimply put, nutritionism is the belief that we can understand food solely in terms of its nutritional and chemical constituents and our requirements for them. I use the term “belief” purposely. As Michael Pollan puts it: “As the ‘-ism’ suggests, nutritionism is not a scientific subject, but an ideology.”

What Michael Pollan is referring to is taking food constituents like saturated fats, cholesterol, sugar, carbohydrates, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, fiber, antioxidants, and probiotics and labeling them as either “good” or “bad”.

As he points out, that leads to debacles like the creation of margarine as a substitute for butter. Of course, everyone reading this article knows that we subsequently found out that the trans fat in margarine was worse for us than the saturated fat in butter. He offers many other examples like this.

He also points out that the nutritionism concept has given free rein to the food industry to replace whole foods with processed foods that are cholesterol-free, sugar-free, low-fat, low-carb, or high in fiber, omega-3s, etc. He says that these foods are seldom healthier than the foods they replace. I agree.

Finally, he points out that the scientific support for the classification of individual ingredients or foods as “good” or “bad” is weak. That’s because when scientists design a study that removes a chemical constituent or a food from the diet, they have to replace it with something. And what they replace it with determines the outcome of the study. I give some examples of this in the next section.

The essence of Michael Pollan’s message is:

  • The effect of an individual nutrient or chemical constituent on your health depends on the food it is found in. Forget the fancy nutrition labels. Whole foods are almost always healthier than processed foods.
  • The effect of a food or food constituent on your health also depends on your overall diet. We should be thinking about healthy diets rather than the latest “magical” or “forbidden” food.

I will discuss these points below.

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

Question MarkNow, let’s get to the question, “Which Foods Should I Avoid?” If we are talking about whole foods, the short answer is “None”. As I said in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”, “We have 5 food groups for a reason”.

For example, if we are talking about plant foods, each plant food group:

  • Has a unique blend of vitamins and minerals.
  • Has a unique blend of phytonutrients.
  • Has a unique blend of fiber.
  • Supports the growth of a unique combination of beneficial gut bacteria.
  • Dr Strangelove and his friends are telling you to eliminate whole grains, fruits, and legumes (beans) from your diet. Recent studies suggest that might not be a good idea. Here is one example.

If we are talking about animal foods, each animal food group:

  • Has a unique blend of vitamins and minerals.
  • May have unique components that are important for our health. [Note: This is an active area of research. Theories have been proposed for which components in animal foods may be important for our health, but they have not been confirmed.]
  • Vegan purists will tell you that you have no need for meat and dairy foods. Recent studies suggest otherwise. Here is one example.

With that as background, let’s turn our attention to nutritionism and look at some of science behind claims that certain food components are either good for us or bad for us.

Saturated Fat. Saturated fat is the poster child for nutritionism.lowfat

First, we were told by the American Heart Association and other health organizations that saturated fat was bad for us. Recently Dr. Strangelove and his friends are telling us that saturated fat is good for us. Instead of limiting saturated fat, we should be limiting carbs by cutting out fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Both cite clinical studies to support their claims. How can this be?

Perhaps a little history is in order. When the American Heart Association recommended that we decrease intake of saturated fat, they were envisioning that we would replace it with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat in the context of a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. That never happened.

Big Food quickly realized that if the American public were to follow the AHA guidelines, it would be disastrous for their bottom line. So, they sprang into action. They mixed sugar, white flour, and a witch’s brew of chemicals to create highly processed, low fat “foods”. Then they told the American public, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to give up your favorite foods. We have created low fat alternatives.”

This is the essence of what Michael Pollan refers to as nutritionism. By marketing their fake foods as low fat Big Food created the halo of health. In fact, Big Food’s fake foods were less healthy than the foods they replaced. Americans got fatter and sicker.

Now let’s look at the conflicting claims that saturated fat is bad for us or good for us. How can clinical studies disagree on such an important question? The answer is simple. It depends on what you replace it with. You need to consider saturated fat intake in the context of the overall diet.

I discussed this in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, but let me summarize it briefly here. The American Heart Association tells us that replacing half of the saturated fat in a typical American diet with:

  • Trans fats, increases heart disease risk by 5%.
  • Refined carbohydrates and sugars (the kind of carbohydrates in the typical American Diet), slightly increases heart disease risk.
  • Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits & vegetables), decreases heart disease risk by 9%.
  • Monounsaturated fats (olive oil & peanut oil), decreases heart disease risk by 15%.
  • Polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils and fish oil), decreases heart disease risk by 25%.
  • Unsaturated fats in the context of a Mediterranean diet, decreases heart disease risk by 45%.

My advice: Saturated fat is neither good for you nor bad for you. A little bit of saturated fat in the context of a healthy diet is fine. A lot of saturated fat in the context of an unhealthy diet is problematic.

fatty steakRed Meat. Is red meat bad for you? Like saturated fat, it depends on the amount of red meat and the overall diet. I covered this in detail in “Slaying The Food Myths”, but let me summarize briefly here:

According to the World Health Organization, red meat is a probable carcinogen. If we look at the postulated mechanisms by which it causes cancer, they can be mostly neutralized by components of various plant foods.

My advice: An 8-ounce steak with fries and a soda is probably bad for you. Three ounces of that same steak in a green salad or stir fry may be good for you.

I should make one other point while I am on the topic. Dr. Strangelove and his friends have been telling you that grass-fed beef is better for you than conventionally raised beef. Once again, that is nutritionism.  Grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat and high in omega-3s than conventionally raised beef. That may be better for your heart, but it has no effect on the cancer-causing potential of red meat. It doesn’t give the license to eat 8-ounce steaks on a regular basis. You still want to aim for 3-ounces of that grass-fed beef in a green salad or stir fry. 

High-Fructose Corn Syrup. This one seems to be on everyone’s “naughty list”. You are being told to read labels, and if the food has high-fructose corn syrup on the label, put it back on the shelf. But is that good advice?

It turns out that all the studies on the bad effects of high-fructose corn syrup have been done with sodas and highly processed foods. This should be your first clue.

Of course, as soon as high-fructose corn syrup gained its “bad” reputation, Big Food started replacing it with Sugar Comparisons“heathier” sugars. Does that make those foods healthier?

The answer is a clear “No”. Both chemically and biologically, high-fructose corn syrup is identical to sucrose (table sugar), honey, molasses, maple syrup, coconut sugar, date sugar, or grape juice concentrate. Agave sugar is even higher in fructose than high-fructose corn syrup. This is your second clue.

Substituting these sugars for high-fructose corn syrup doesn’t turn sodas and processed foods into health foods. This is nutritionism at its worst.

My advice: Forget reading the label. Forget trying to avoid foods with high-fructose corn syrup. Avoid sodas and processed foods instead.

Sugar. Once the public started to realize that natural sugars in processed foods were just as bad for us as high-fructose corn syrup, sugars became “bad”. We were told to avoid all foods containing sugar in any form. In fact, we were told we needed to become “label detectives” and recognize all the deceptive ways that sugar could be hidden on the label.

Apple With Nutrition LabelI have discussed this in detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”.

Let me just summarize that article with one quote, “It’s not the sugar. It’s the food. There is the same amount and same types of sugar in an 8-ounce soda and a medium apple. Sodas are bad for you, and apples are good for you.” If you are wondering why that is, I have covered it in another issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”.

Before leaving this subject, I should mention that nutritionism has risen its ugly head here as well. Big Food has struck again. They have replaced sugar with a variety of artificial sweeteners.

Once again, nutritionism has failed. Those artificially sweetened sodas and processed foods are no healthier and no more likely to help you keep the weight off than the sugar-sweetened foods they replace. I have covered the science behind that statement in several previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”. Here is one example.

My advice: Forget about sugar phobia. You don’t need to become a label detective. Just avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sweet processed foods. Get your sugar in its natural form in fruits and other whole foods.

low carb dietCarbs. Dr. Strangelove and his friends are now telling you that you need to avoid all carbs. That is pure nutritionism. Carbs are neither good nor bad. It depends on the type of carb and what you replace it with.

Once again, clinical studies have given conflicting outcomes. Each side of the carbohydrate debate can provide clinical studies to support their position. How can that be? The answer is simple. It depends on what assumptions went into the design of the clinical studies. I have written several articles on this topic in “Health Tips From the Professor”, but let me give you one example here.

In this example, I looked at two major studies. The PURE (Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology) study included data from 135,000 participants in 18 countries. In this study, the death rate decreased as the % carbohydrate in the diet decreased. The low-carb enthusiasts were doing a victory dance.

However, it was followed by a second, even larger study. The ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk In Communities) study included 432,000 participants from even more countries. In this study, the death rate decreased as the % carbohydrate decreased to about 40%. Then a curious thing happened. As the % carbohydrate in the diet decreased further, the death rate increased.

How can you explain this discrepancy? When you examine the PURE study:

  • The % carbohydrate only ranged from 70% to 40%.
  • The data for the PURE study was obtained primarily with third world countries. That is an important distinction because:
    • In those countries, it is primarily the well to do that can afford sodas, processed foods, and meat.
    • The poor subsist on what they can grow and inexpensive staples like beans and rice.
  • Simply put, in the PURE study, the type of carbohydrate changed as well as the amount of carbohydrate.
    • At the highest carbohydrate intakes, a significant percentage of the carbohydrate came from sugar and refined grains.
    • At the lowest carbohydrate intakes, most of the carbohydrate intake came from beans, whole grains, and whatever fruits and vegetables they could grow.

When you examine the ARIC study:how much carbohydrates should we eat aric

  • The % carbohydrate ranged from 70% to 20%.
  • The ARIC study added in data from the US and European countries. That is an important distinction because:
    • Low carb diets like Atkins and Keto are popular in these countries. And those are the diets that fall into the 20-40% carbohydrate range.
    • Most people can afford diets that contain a lot of meat in those countries.
  • Simply put, at the lower end of the scale in the ARIC study, people were eating diets rich in meats and saturated fats and eliminating healthy carbohydrate-containing foods like fruits, whole grains and legumes.

My advice: The lesson here is to avoid simplistic nutritionism thinking and focus on diets rather than on foods. When you do that it is clear that carbs aren’t bad for you, it’s unhealthy carbs that are bad for you.

Which Foods Should I Avoid? By now the answer to the question, “Which Foods Should I Avoid?” is clear. Avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods (The term processed foods includes convenience foods, junk foods, and most sweets).

What Does This Mean To You?

Questioning ManNow that we are clear on which foods you should avoid, let’s look at the flip side of the coin. Let’s ask, “Which foods should you include in your diet?

As I said at the beginning of this article, “We have 5 food groups for a reason”. We should consider whole foods from all 5 food groups as healthy.

Of course, each of us is different. We all have foods in some food groups that don’t treat us well. Some of us do better with saturated fats or carbs than others. We need to explore and find the foods and diets that work best for us.

However, whenever we assume one diet is best for everyone, we have crossed the line into nutritionism.

What Does The Bible Say?

Let me start this section by saying that I rely on the Bible for spiritual guidance rather than nutritional guidance. However, as part of our church’s Bible reading plan, I was reading 1 Timothy. A passage from 1 Timothy 4:1-5 leapt out at me. It reinforces the theme of Michael Pollan’s book and seems uniquely applicable to the times we live in.

“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They…order people to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

Interesting.

The Bottom Line

In this article, I have discussed the concept of “nutritionism” introduced in Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense Of Food”. He defines nutritionism as the belief that we can understand food solely in terms of its nutritional and chemical constituents and our requirements for them.

What Michael Pollan is referring to is taking food constituents like saturated fats, cholesterol, sugar, carbohydrates, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, fiber, antioxidants, and probiotics and labeling them as either “good” or “bad”. He points out that when we accept these simplistic labels, we often end up creating foods and diets that are less healthy than the ones we were trying to replace.

At the beginning of the article, I asked the question, “Which Foods Should I Avoid?” I then looked at several foods or food groups we have told to avoid, including saturated fats, red meat, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, and carbs. When you look at the science behind these recommendations from the lens of nutritionism, you come to two conclusions:

  • We should avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods (The term processed foods includes convenience foods, junk foods, and most sweets).
  • Whole foods from all 5 food groups should be considered as healthy.

Of course, each of us is different. We all have foods in some food groups that don’t treat us well. Some of us do better with saturated fats or carbs than others. We need to explore and find the foods and diets that work best for us.

However, whenever we assume one diet is best for everyone, we have crossed the line into nutritionism.

For more details and a bible verse that supports the theme of Michael Pollan’s book and seems uniquely applicable to the times we live in, 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.

Does Sugar Cause Heart Disease?

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.

Health Tips From The Professor