“To lower your cholesterol, exercise and eat foods low in saturated fat.”
How many times have you heard that advice? We’ve all heard that a steady diet of greasy, fatty foods won’t only expand your waistline, but they’ll clog your arteries with cholesterol. But have you ever heard that how much sugar you eat can also affect your cholesterol levels? It’s true. Sugar can affect your triglycerides, the forgotten fat.
Most of us know by now that there are two types of cholesterol: HDL, or good cholesterol, and LDL, or bad cholesterol. In general, the higher your HDL and lower your LDL, the better. However, our blood contains another fat, called triglycerides. Also known as “trigs,” these fats are stored in your fat cells to give you energy between meals. A normal level is 150 mg/DL or less; anything over 200 mg/DL is considered high.
According to the American Heart Association, nearly one third of adults have very high triglyceride levels, meaning that their readings are 500 mg/DL or higher. When trigs are this high, they can lead to heart disease, including atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, as well as metabolic syndrome. Left untreated, these conditions can lead to heart attack or stroke.
What make trigs different from regular cholesterol, though, is that they aren’t always increased by eating fatty foods. In fact, trigs are more commonly affected by how much sugar you eat.
Too Much Sugar, Too Many Calories
According to the American Medical Association, most Americans eat two to three times as much added sugar as they should each day. In fact, among those they studied, those who ate the most sugar consumed as much as the equivalent of 46 teaspoons of added sugar per day — almost eight times the recommended amount. Those people also had the highest levels of bad cholesterol and triglycerides, and subsequently the greatest risk of heart disease.
The key distinction to point out is the term “added sugar.” Almost every food we eat has a certain amount of naturally occurring sugar, but most food labels do not distinguish between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar. Most food labels also do not use the blanket term “sugar,” instead using words like fructose, sucrose, dextrose and cane syrup to denote the added sugar. As a result, consumers may be misled into believing that they are consuming less sugar than they actually are.
It’s important to note that naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruits and dairy products, do not generally count toward your ideal daily sugar consumption. It’s the refined, simple sugars that are found in processed foods and carbonated drinks that are of the greatest cause of concern.
This is because doctors recommend that most adults consume fewer than 150 calories (six teaspoons) of added sugar per day, or about the amount contained in the average can of cola. Consuming more sugar each day contributes to excess caloric intake and increases the glucose levels in the blood. When the blood contains too much glucose, the pancreas has to create more insulin to process it, and the blood stores the excess calories as fat. The liver also works to remove the excess sugar from the blood — by turning it into triglycerides that are stored as fat cells.
Limiting added sugars to 100 calories per day or less for women, 150 for men
Reducing or eliminating sugary beverages from the diet, including soft drinks and flavored or sweetened coffee and tea
Limiting fruits that are high in fructose to 50 to 100 grams per day
Reducing or eliminating processed foots
Exercising at moderate intensity for at least 30 minutes five days per week; regular exercise can lower trigs up to 30 percent
Taking an omega-3 supplement daily
Limiting alcohol consumption to one drink per day for women, two for men. The liver processes most of the sugars in alcohol into triglycerides
While cutting added sugar is an important step toward maintaining a healthy triglyceride level, be leery of any expert who recommends cutting out all sugar completely, including the naturally occurring sugars in grains, fruit and dairy products. Your body needs some sugar to survive and going “cold turkey” on sugar is likely to negatively effect on your mood and overall well-being. When you cut out sugar completely, you might find that your blood glucose levels dip to unhealthy levels, causing a “crash” that leads to low energy, headaches and potentially a bad mood.
You’re better off to commit to reducing your added sugars to within the healthy range and focusing on an overall healthy diet of fresh produce, lean meats and dairy. Remember that anything in moderation is okay — an occasional ice cream cone on a hot summer night or a slice of birthday cake at a party probably won’t do lasting harm to your trig levels. As long as your habits are healthy most of the time, and you don’t overindulge in sugar, you won’t be surprised by the “forgotten fat” wreaking havoc on your health.