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In case you didn’t know, February is American Heart Month. For the young and healthy, or seemingly so, this is probably not important news; rather just another cutesy label of the month. But there are some pretty big reasons why you should care, and why you should examine your diet for a sneaky little culprit which may be causing a lot more problems than you realize.
Let’s back up a moment. I hate naggy news, but it’s important to know that heart disease is the number one killer of women in America. One of every three women in America dies of heart disease. To get perspective, look around you at two other women, perhaps coworkers, or two friends, or two women in line with you to get smoothies. Based on current rates, one of you will die of heart disease. Pretty startling. Especially for those of us who pay attention to our health, get regular exercise and eat right.
I regularly experience a very common heart arrhythmia called premature ventricular contractions (PVCs). A lot of people get these, and they can be caused by too much caffeine, too little sleep, or even low levels of potassium or magnesium. As I am generally healthy, I do not need to worry about them. But I can tell you one thing: going to the doctor and having the heart tests necessary to obtain the prognosis that I am fine was a very scary experience. I remember crying for joy and relief in the cardiologist’s exam room when he read my results. Trust me, you never want to sit in that chair waiting to find out. And you certainly don’t want heart disease.
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You know the drill: eat right, exercise, less stress, more sleep. But there just might be something you’ve been missing, which turns out to be a risk factor not only for heart disease but for a number of terrible and life-altering diseases including cancer and diabetes: Sugar. I know that everything you have ever heard about heart disease seemed to implicate fat and cholesterol levels as the big catalysts for heart disease, and they definitely are, but sugar is a lesser-known, hidden, sweet-tasting danger.
Sugar adds calories. The average can of soda has about 10 teaspoons of sugar. If you were to drink one can of soda a day, every day for a year, you would add 150 calories a day to your daily diet. Considering a common 2,000 calorie daily diet, with no other changes to your activity level, you could easily gain up to 15 pounds over a year from just that daily can of soda. Over a ten-year period that could do some serious damage to your svelte frame, not to mention your lifespan. This is where it gets gross: the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, for an estimated 350 added calories. This works out to around 64 pounds of sugar consumed per year. Sixty. Four. Pounds. A Harvard study conducted over a 15-year period determined that participants who took in 25% or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets included less than 10% added sugar.
But you don’t drink soda, and you certainly don’t eat 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. Of course not. But are you certain? To give you a visual, according to the Harvard School of Public Health blog “The Nutrition Source,” when reading nutrition labels, 4 grams of sugar (sounds so tiny, right?) is actually one teaspoon of sugar. So we are talking about the average American consuming 88 grams of sugar a day.
To protect your heart, the American Heart Association (AMA) recommends that women limit their daily sugar intake to no more than 100 calories per day, which works out to about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams of sugar.
This is where it gets tricky. Now that you are aware of the conversion rate, that one teaspoon equals 4 grams of sugar, how do you know how much you’re getting? People vastly underestimate the amount of sugar they eat each day. This is where food labels come in, and not in a good way.
You think you understand your food labels? Just review the FDA’s page on understanding Nutrition Facts Labels. Good luck memorizing that shit. The FDA is working on changing Nutrition Facts Labels on foods to highlight sugars and salts in addition to fats, but until then, you need to look out for these ingredients, yourself. No problem, right?
Buyer beware. Even with labeling, it’s very confusing to figure out what, exactly, is in your food. For starters, the FDA considers naturally occurring sugar to be different than added sugar. Food labeling laws don’t require companies to differentiate how much sugar is added sugar versus naturally occurring sugar. So even if you read the label, chances are high you are getting way more sugar than you thought. Many would tell you that a good rule of thumb is to avoid buying anything where sugar is listed in the first three ingredients. But this can be deceptive, as well.
Food manufacturers may use multiple forms of sugar– each with a different name – and list each one individually on the nutrient label. This effectively makes the amount of sugar seem smaller, and therefore, they list later in the label, fooling you into thinking there is not much sugar in a given product. For example, a typical label may list out glucose and malt syrup and sucrose and galactose as separate sugars, each with 5 grams each, so they fall toward the end of the ingredients list. But they are all sugar, and taken as a whole, your product actually contains 20 grams of sugar. But you, looking at only the first three ingredients, may miss this information.
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Another problem is that most of us recognize corn sweetener and high fructose corn syrup as sugars, but there are over 50 commonly used sugars listed on your labels that you may not be as aware of: turbinado, barley malt, date sugar, dehydrated fruit juice, glucose solids, brown rice syrup and dextrin, to name a few. I would say a better rule of thumb is to look at all the ingredients, especially those words on the label ending in “ose,” and add up how many sugar-like ingredients are listed.
Another common tactic people use to avoid sugar is to avoid “sweets.” Makes perfect sense, but many processed “healthy” foods are filled with sugar. You know this, you have heard this. But I will bet that you don’t regularly check for sugar amounts in these products: ham, deli turkey, fat-free salad dressings, tomato sauces, and whole wheat bread. As a sidenote, if you want to avoid sugar, don’t eat sandwich meat unless you cooked it yourself. Many brands of yogurt contain more sugar than a Twinkie. Sugar sweetened beverages and breakfast cereals are two of the most common sources of added sugar in American diets. You may regularly choose granola over Honey Nut Cheerios, but did you know the sugar content is actually the same or greater in many organic granola products?
Hidden sugars are everywhere. It all seems so covertly deceptive on the part of food manufacturers. Personally heartbreaking for me is that most peanut butter brands have sugar. Now I purposefully buy only brands with the following ingredients: peanuts, salt.
This is just a reminder to you – and your heart – about what to look for, and to be more aware. Sugar is an unnatural addition to your body, no matter if it’s cane sugar, fruit sugar, or that agave stuff that everyone was into last year. Sugar is sugar. Over time, reducing or removing this silent killer from your diet could make a huge difference in your quality of life ten years from now, or may even save your life. And, for those into short-term satisfaction, if you’ve been trying to lose 10 pounds forever and can’t seem to take it off, you might find that taking a critical eye to the amount of sugar your diet might even ease you into those summer clothes. There’s your silver lining, sweetheart.