Is Sugar Bad for Your Heart? It Depends On the Type of Sugar

Sugar has become the controversial nutrient of the decade. It has replaced fat as the supposed reason for most of our health problems — everything from obesity to migraines to dementia. Low-carb, high-fat diets are back in style. Sweet stuff is “out.” But is our collective health improving?

Heart disease is the deadliest health condition in America. More and more, experts and consumers alike are asking the same question: Is sugar to blame?

It turns out it depends on which type of sugar you’re talking about.

Types of sugars: Which sugar is the worst?

Sugar label

Sugar label | shakzu/Getty Images

When experts talk about carbohydrates, they are not just talking about “sugar” in the way most people picture it. On nutrition labels, for example, carbs are divided into two subcategories: sugar and dietary fiber. One of those is significantly better for your body than the other.

  • Refined sugars — sometimes called added sugars, or on nutrition labels, just sugar — are not found in healthy foods. They are usually added to extend a product’s shelf life or improve the taste of a product. Oreo cookies are extra sweet because of the volume of sugar.
  • Natural sugars are the types of sugars found naturally in foods such as fruits and vegetables. Strawberries are naturally sweet because of their sugar content. However, strawberries also contain a type of carbohydrate called fiber, which is extremely good for you. Unlike Oreos, strawberries and other plant foods contain essential vitamins and minerals essential for long-term health.

Nutrition labels don’t always make it clear that not all the carbohydrates in your food are healthy or unhealthy. Some foods contain sugar that’s safe, and some contain sugars that aren’t. But manufacturers lump them all together under the “sugar” category.

Instead of assuming all carbs are bad, think of sugar in terms of refined and natural. This should help you remember that the sugar in fruit is okay, but the sugar in junk food is not.

Negative effects of sugar on your body

The problem with refined sugar is that the more you eat it, the more you’re likely to continue eating. These foods are addicting for some people — but they also do not trigger feelings of fullness in the body the way other foods do. This may be why these types of sugars are often linked to weight gain and associated health problems.

If you follow a diet that includes large amounts of refined sugars, you’re automatically at an increased risk for developing:

  • Fatty liver disease
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Insulin resistance
  • Mental health conditions
  • Narrowed or clogged arteries.

This does not mean that people who eat mostly junk food are guaranteed to gain weight, damage their livers, develop diabetes, or endanger their hearts. Risk is the most complicated element of health research. Simply put, you are significantly more likely to experience the above problems if you do not watch your refined sugar intake.

Is sugar bad for your heart?

Donuts

Donuts | iStock.com/bhofack2

Research suggests that eating massive quantities of added sugar contributes to risk factors for multiple chronic health conditions. This may include nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

This may be because foods that contain added sugars — let’s use Oreo cookies as an example — also tend to have high calorie amounts. If eaten frequently, too many Oreo cookies won’t necessarily give you heart disease. But this might lead to weight gain, which might trigger high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart problems.

But does this mean you should cut out sugar for good?

If your goal is to eat less sugar, remember the difference between refined and natural sugars (Oreos versus strawberries). It’s virtually impossible to eliminate all natural sugars from your diet — and you don’t want to try — but it is possible to significantly reduce your intake of added sugars.

There is no evidence that fruits and vegetables cause heart problems in most humans. There is much more research out there in support of the many health benefits of good carbs.

There are plenty of foods that contain sugar that are still good for you. You can still eat foods containing added sugars if you really want to. But the healthiest people — and those with the lowest risk of conditions such as heart disease — mostly eat a variety of healthy foods. Even those that technically had sugar in them from the moment they were planted.