The more sugar you eat, the wider your girth may be, the results of a recent study suggest.
Reported last month at the American Heart Association’s Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism/Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention 2011 Scientific Sessions, the study analyzed data on food intake and body weight collected on residents in Minneapolis-St. Paul over 27 years. Although the original data focused on heart health, the new study looked at what impact added sugar had on participants’ weight during that period.
Added sugar is sugar that is added to processed foods, as well as sweeteners added in home cooking and at the table.
“When it comes to cardiovascular disease and dietary controls, most of the focus has been on fats, but carbohydrates – sugars – are a big component of weight gain and the cardiovascular risk that results,” said Cooper University Hospital cardiologist Kathleen M. Heintz, DO, FACC, a specialist in women and heart disease at the Cooper Heart Institute.
We’re eating more sugar
Among the women in the study, consumption of added sugar rose by 51 percent from 1980-82 to 2000-2002 and then declined somewhat, according to the research. Men followed the same pattern, increasing their intake of added sugar by 38 percent.
The participants’ weight mimicked that fluctuation. When sugar consumption increased, so did the average BMI (body mass index). Added sugars and body weight are increasing concurrently, the study authors reported.
These findings pose a particular threat for women, Dr. Heintz noted.
“As women reach menopause – the average age being 52 – metabolism slows down and causes a weight gain of 1.5 pounds per year for the rest of their lives. It’s mostly abdominal fat – the ‘middle-age spread’ – and the only way to combat this almost inevitable weight gain is to cut back on sugar, and exercise on a regular basis,” Dr. Heintz said.
Increases in weight can have ramifications for your heart health as well as your level of fitness, and result in metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a collection of risk factors that increases your chance of developing heart disease, stroke and diabetes. According to a national health survey, more than one in five Americans has metabolic syndrome. The number of people with metabolic syndrome increases with age. It is characterized by a waistline of 40 inches or more for men and 35 inches or more for women (measured across the belly); a blood pressure level of 130/85 or higher (or the use of blood pressure medications); and higher-than-recommended levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood glucose (sugar).
Limit added sugar
According to guidelines set by the American Heart Association (AHA), most women should eat no more than 100 calories of added sugars a day, and most men should consume no more than 150 calories of added sugars a day. That’s about 6 teaspoons of sugar a day for women and 9 teaspoons for men. (The AHA guidelines do not apply to naturally occurring sugars like those found in fruit, vegetables or dairy products.)
For those reading packaging labels, where sugar is listed in grams, 4 grams = 1 teaspoon of sugar. However, packaging labels do not differentiate between added sugars and natural sugars. For instance, one cup of skim milk has 12 grams of sugar, yet no sugar has been “added” to it.
Spotting added sugar on food labels requires a bit of detective work. You have to scan the ingredients list of a food or drink to find the added sugar. (For help, see “Identifying added sugar” below.)
The obvious sources of added sugar can be found in such foods as desserts, but also in such unexpected foods as granola bars, many fruit smoothies, and some trail mixes.
Foods that contain most of the added sugars in American diets are:
- regular soft drinks
- fruit drinks, such as fruitades and fruit punch
- milk-based desserts and products, such as ice cream, sweetened yogurt and sweetened milk
- grain products such as sweet rolls and cinnamon toast
Identifying added sugars
Reading the ingredient label on processed foods can help to identify added sugars. Names for added sugars on food labels include:
- brown sugar
- corn sweetener
- corn syrup
- fruit juice concentrates
- high-fructose corn syrup
- invert sugar
- malt syrup
- raw sugar
To counteract the slowed-down metabolism of menopause, women can take steps to keep both their weight and cardiovascular health in check.
“The good news is, any kind of aerobic exercise may preferentially tap belly fat more so than other forms of exercise,” Dr. Heintz said. Walking, jogging and bicycling, whether outdoors or on a treadmill or stationary bike, all are good forms of aerobic activity. So is swimming.
“To lose weight and burn fat, the aerobic exercise should be performed at an intensity that reaches your target heart rate, which is based on your age, for 30 to 60 minutes a day, five to seven days a week,” Dr. Heintz said.
You can calculate what your target heart rate should be by using this formula: 220 minus your age, times .85. An example for a 55 year-old-woman would be: 220 -55 = 165 x .85 = 140 beats per minute.
“Of course, check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program, and remember to start slow and work up to your target heart rate,” Dr. Heintz said. “Through diet and exercise, women can control their weight and protect their heart,” she said.
About the Cooper Heart Institute
The board-certified cardiologists of the Cooper Heart Institute have seven outpatient locations throughout South Jersey and are dedicated to providing a full range of diagnostic testing and state-of-the-art cardiac treatments.