Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Other Piece of the Heart Disease Puzzle

This past January, I wrote a blog piece about the inherent dangers in restaurant food and how excess saturated fat contributes to heart disease. While cardiologists still point to saturated fat as a component in heart disease, another perhaps more serious component has moved to center stage: Sugar.

Thanks to recent developments in medical technology, scientists have been able to watch the effect of sugar on the body at the molecular level, and in particular, its effect on liver function. The liver generates a variety of different cholesterol molecules, depending on the type of foods we consume. Some of this cholesterol is good for us and is necessary for normal body function, but some other cholesterol types are downright dangerous. There is a type of cholesterol called Small Dense LDL which adheres to the walls of arteries and can lead to a heart attack or stroke. These Small Dense LDL molecules are the direct result of excess sugar in our diet.

Sugar occurs naturally in a wide variety of foods, from honey to fresh fruit. Since 1960, the American diet has allowed sugar to grow to 20% of our total daily calorie intake. The World Health Organization recommends that only 5% of total daily calories come from sugars. For an adult with a normal Body Mass Index, 5% would be about 25 grams of sugar—or 6 teaspoons daily. Just for reference, a 23-ounce can of Arizona Green Tea contains 51 grams of sugar!

Not All Sugar Is Alike

 

While the sugar contained in fruit is less harmful because it is absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream, another type of sugar is particularly risky for one's health: High Fructose Corn Syrup. HFCS is a man-made sweetener used in 70% of the foods found in a supermarket. It is cheaper than cane sugar, so it's the sweetener of choice for the packaged food & beverage industry. HFCS is in foods you would never expect: bread, crackers, low-fat yogurt, even processed meats.

HFCS has a different effect on the body than natural sugar...

Natural sugar triggers an insulin response, causing the pancreas to pump insulin into the bloodstream. Insulin receptor molecules attach themselves to fat cells, so that those cells will attract sugar in the blood. In addition, insulin tells the brain to turn down the feelings of hunger.

HFCS, on the other hand, does not trigger an insulin response. The feelings of hunger don't go away, so the tendency is to consume more and more. This results in higher concentrations of sugar in the blood and a corresponding increase in Small Dense LDL being generated by the liver. This highly-utilized food additive is creating a national health crisis in America. Heart Disease in individuals younger than 20 is becoming common.

Cancer Risks Too

 

Excess sugar in the diet also presents a cancer risk. An insulin spike can serve as a catalyst for certain types of cancer. Some cancer tumors have the ability to receive the same insulin receptor molecules that fat cells do. This provides the tumor with a means to attract sugar to fuel its growth.

Diabetes

 

Many people realize that there is a connection between sugar and Diabetes. Unfortunately, most people don't realize that they have Diabetes until the damage is already done. If you have Diabetes, your chances of developing heart disease are significantly greater. Here's an interesting fact: the highest concentration of Diabetes in the world is in a cluster of wealthy Arabic countries where alcohol consumption is against the law. Instead, they've been drinking sugared soft drinks.

Going Forward

 

I will continue to be vigilant about saturated fat and salt in my diet, and I'll continue to get lots of aerobic exercise. These preventative measures are no less important. But sugar is a real wake-up call, especially for someone who's never had a weight problem. I cringe when I think about all those sweetened juice and tea drinks I consumed for years. Ever since I started consciously avoiding sugar, I've felt like a new person.

According to a Cleveland Clinic study published in The Journal of Family Practice, a plant-based diet not only prevents heart attacks, but it can actually reverse the damage caused by heart disease. They recommend a diet rich in whole grains, beans, and yellow, red & green vegetables. This should be welcome news for anyone who learns that they have heart disease.