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Added sugar hurts your heart

Karen Hawthorne is a health and lifestyle writer and producer in Toronto, Canada. Her work has appeared in print and online for publications including Glow, Homemakers, BestHealthMag.ca and the National Post.

The sweet leads to heart disease

Tooth decay, energy spikes and dips, weight gain – do you need another reason to cut back on the sugar in your diet? How about heightened heart risks? Moderation is key, but new research shows that sugar consumption is not good for your heart.

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An excess of sugar is easy to achieve

Most of us enjoy a sweet treat now and then, but there is a downside to indulging sugar cravings. The Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta asked 6,000 adults what they ate, and then cross-referenced the amount of sugar in their diet with their cholesterol levels.

It turns out that the group averaged about 16 percent of their total calories from sugar. The highest consumer group took in about 46 teaspoons of sugar a day. There are close to 10 teaspoons in a can of cola, for example, so hitting that 46 teaspoons of added sugar is not as hard as you might think. The study found that as the amount of sugar in diet went up, so did the risk for heart disease, as it lowered the good, high-density lipoprotein or HDL cholesterol.

We live in a culture that has made sugar one of the major components in countless food and beverage products from the wide selection of packaged-for-convenience items, and the sweet stuff may even be in products that aren't deemed dessert.

Sugar may be sneaking up on you

We expect to find sugar in the sweets we eat and soda we drink, but sugar also makes an appearance in some unexpected places. One slice of white bread, for example, contains three teaspoons of sugar. On packaged foods, it may be listed as syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose or maltodextrins, among others.

Here are some common foods where sugar may cross your path:

  • canned fruit
  • packaged cereals, including granola
  • those pre-packed meat, cheese and cracker combos your kids may take for lunch
  • flavored yogurt

These are just a few of many everyday foods that contain surprisingly large amounts of sugar.

How to cut back on the sugar count

When it comes to cutting back on sugar, awareness is a big part of the game plan.

1. Know your sugar limit. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we should have no more than eight teaspoons per day of added sugar. Yes, eight teaspoons only. To break down eight teaspoons a little further, that equals about 32 grams.

2. Read labels. One of the first things to do when reducing the sugar count in your diet is to read the nutrition facts found on most packaged food. This is your guide to the amount of nutrients and sugar that these foods contain. If you notice that a large amount of sugar is making a guest appearance on your grocery list, you may want to reconsider what you are eating.

3. Opt for naturally sweet treats. It's also a question of how you get your sugar. Natural sugar in fruit and berries can help keep your sweet tooth in check. That means instead of going for the pastry or donut in the morning, try sweet fruits, such as raisins or dates. You will still be taking in sugar, but the count will not be nearly as high, and you will get the nutrition that these natural foods offer.

4. Ditch the soda. Instead of soda, try combining a 100 percent fruit beverage, like cranberry or apple juice with soda water. Additionally, those smoothies you find in cafes and restaurants often contain a lot of extra sugar in the mix. Try making your own at home with plain yogurt, fruit, and a bit of honey or maple, and take it in your to-go cup when you're on the road.

5. Change your dessert choice. The other major challenge is dessert. Once again, reach for fruit and berries instead of ice cream or cake. At the very least, reduce the number and/or size of your sugar-laden servings of dessert items.

Alternatives to sugar growing in popularity

Artificial sweeteners are the popular alternative to sugar. They have been around for years and are often recommended for people who need to avoid the calories associated with sugar in diet. The point of these sweeteners is that they are actually much sweeter tasting than sugar, so people need to use less to get that sweet hit. There are several name brands, but most contain similar ingredients, primarily saccharin, aspartame and sucralose.

In defense of sweeteners, they have been approved by the FDA and, in some cases, have been around since 1879. However, the fact remains they are not a natural substance and they provide no nutritional value. Real, whole foods that have a natural sweet flavor are your best bet.

Reducing your sugar count means being conscious of what you are taking in and planning alternatives. The benefits will include better calorie control and possibly reducing your risk of heart disease — that's a pretty good trade-off.

More on sugar and natural sweeteners

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