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What Is the Effect of Sugar on Cholesterol?

author image Janet Renee, MS, RD
Janet Renee is a clinical dietitian with a special interest in weight management, sports dietetics, medical nutrition therapy and diet trends. She earned her Master of Science in nutrition from the University of Chicago and has contributed to health and wellness magazines, including Prevention, Self, Shape and Cooking Light.
What Is the Effect of Sugar on Cholesterol?
A sugar cube on a wooden spoon. Photo Credit ratmaner/iStock/Getty Images

If your diet consists of more than the recommended intake of sugar, you're not alone. The typical American consumes 22 teaspoons, or 350 calories of added sugar, each day, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. That's more than triple the recommended intake for women of 100 calories. The not-so-sweet truth is that a diet high in added sugar exerts negative effects on your health, including your cholesterol levels. Having a healthy cholesterol profile plays a central role in protecting your heart health.

Making the Connection

Researchers conducted a cross-sectional study to examine the link between added sugars and blood lipid levels in American adults. The study involved 8,495 people over the age of 18, grouped based on added sugar intake. The study found that as added sugar intake increased among each group, the level of high-density lipoprotein decreased and triglycerides increased. HDL is a form of "good" cholesterol, and triglycerides are a type of fat that, when high, pose a cardiovascular risk. The study also found that women -- but not men -- who ate more added sugar tended to have higher levels of low-density lipoprotein -- the "bad" cholesterol. The study was published in the April 2010 edition of "The Journal of the American Medical Association."

Finding the Culprit

Not all types of sugar appear to have the same impact on cholesterol levels. The body processes fructose and glucose differently, resulting in different metabolic effects, according to a review published in "The Journal of Nutrition." Tufts University School of Medicine and Tufts Medical Center researchers examined existing experiments and found that a diet high in fructose significantly raises triglycerides and LDL, while glucose does not. Low levels of fructose -- from 4 percent to 12 percent of total calorie intake -- did not have this effect. This doesn't place glucose in the clear, though. Researchers found a diet high in glucose impacts insulin levels as well.

Not-So-Sweet Drinks

Sugar-sweetened drinks are one of the major sources of added sugar in the American diet. If you're concerned about your sugar intake, cutting back on sugary drinks is a good place to start. A typical orange soda contains 11 teaspoons of sugar on average, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Brigham and Women’s Hospital researchers found a link between sugary beverage consumption and metabolic risk factors when they conducted a cross-sectional analysis involving children ages 3 to 11. They found increased sugary beverage intake is independently linked to adverse cholesterol effects. Results were published in the February 2013 edition of "The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics."

Taming Your Sweet Tooth

Eating too much sugar can negatively impact your health. Other than sugary drinks, candy, cakes and cookies are the other major sources of added sugar, according to the American Heart Association. If your diet is high in these foods, consider cleaning up your eating habits and scaling back. It's recommended that women and men limit their added sugar intake to 100 calories and 150 calories, respectively. This equal 6 and 9 teaspoons, according to the association. Try eating more fruit to satisfy your cravings for sweets. Fruit is nutrient-dense and contains naturally occurring sugar.

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