Does Sugar Raise Cholesterol Levels?

Sugar is a term that covers various compounds within the body. It is a soluble, sweet-tasting carbohydrate found in living tissues.

Sugar comes in many forms. The type commonly found in ultra-processed foods like sugary drinks or fast foods, such as sucrose, glucose, and high-fructose syrups, is considered bad for your health. This is the kind of sugar we will discuss in this article.

The American Heart Foundation¹ recommends that women consume no more than 25 grams of sugar per day (six teaspoons or less). In contrast, men should consume no more than 38 grams daily (nine teaspoons).

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Sugar and cholesterol: What’s the link?

Sugar and metabolism

Metabolism is a complex process that occurs in every living thing’s body. In its most basic form, metabolism is the total of every chemical reaction that happens in your body each day to help you function. This includes converting the foods you eat into energy for your body to use.

Therefore, it’s essential to look at how foods affect metabolism.

Sugar is more widespread in the diet of the everyday American than you might think. Lots of food in supermarkets or restaurants have added sugars you never see.

A diet high in sugar can dysregulate your metabolism and increase your chances of developing metabolic diseases.

Is insulin resistance tied to cholesterol changes?

Because the process of metabolism is so complex, a single change can have repercussions across the body, like causing ripples by throwing a stone into a still pond. The ripples from having a diet high in sugar can also lead to diseases like insulin resistance. 

High-carbohydrate diets (e.g., sugar-rich diets) reduce high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) and raise blood concentrations of glucose, insulin, and triglycerides. 

It also increases your blood pressure, leading to a metabolic profile of insulin resistance, which is conducive to developing coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes mellitus.

How sensitive your body is to insulin is something that can be both directly and indirectly affected. A method of directly affecting insulin sensitivity is by changing the amount of some pathway components, altering the levels of the molecules needed for insulin to do its job, or simpler things such as exercise.

Conversely, changing the metabolic pathway responsible for cholesterol changes is an indirect way of causing insulin resistance. 

How else does sugar impact heart health?

In the context of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar levels), sugar may be linked to coronary heart disease. That’s because sugar is known to promote inflammation and build up plaque in the arteries. 

As a result, these plaques can rupture or erode, thus cueing heart attacks if this occurs in the coronary arteries of the heart. Sugar does not appear to be atherogenic;² it is not directly responsible for causing plaques in arteries. 

However, cholesterol does contribute to atherosclerosis when you build up too much “bad” cholesterol or low-density lipoprotein (LDL-C cholesterol). 

Eating refined sugars can dysregulate the metabolism and cause obesity, which contributes to more LDL in the bloodstream. This leads to the formation of plaques and contributes to heart disease. 

Thus, eating a high-sugar diet is a risk factor for heart disease. It can also lead to insulin resistance, which contributes to diabetes and is another risk factor for heart disease. Essentially, what you eat has a more significant impact than you might have thought on your heart health. 

Most cohort studies show that a high dietary glycemic index is associated with major cardiovascular events and mortality. For example, the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS)³ followed almost 83,000 healthy nurses for 20 years. 

The study⁴ found that a high glycemic load (i.e., high sugar intake) was associated with an increased cardiovascular risk and a strong positive association between total carbohydrate intake and the risk of hemorrhagic stroke. 

How to cut down on sugar in your diet

Reduce your daily usage of sugar

Cutting out sugar entirely is a massive task, and thankfully, not one you are likely to need to undertake. 

Instead, try cutting out sugars such as brown or white sugar being added to coffee, molasses, or other sweeteners being added to baking, swapping out drinks like sodas for water, or simply cutting back the amount of sugary food that you eat. 

Each of these steps might not completely solve the problem, but they are something you can watch out for daily. They will also help you see how much sugar you consume each day. 

Do it slowly

Going slowly might seem counterintuitive; for some people, it can seem more difficult than just throwing out all the sweet things in the house. But, speaking as someone with experience throwing away tasty, sugary snacks, it won’t help. 

Sugar is delicious, but overeating can promote the reward system in the brain to rewire. This means that when you cut sugar out of your diet cold turkey, your reward system will stop being activated, making you feel bad. 

Try slowly cutting sugar out to decrease your reliance on sugar to activate your reward system. Replace it with healthier activities or foods. 

Eat healthier snacks

Trying to eat a healthier diet can be overwhelming. Healthier snacks might include fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, grains, white meat such as fish or poultry, yogurt, or foods high in fiber. 

Fibrous foods can also have additional benefits, such as lowering the levels of LDL-C in the bloodstream and helping get your heart healthy. However, it’s important not to overeat, as this can impact your digestive system. 

Look at the labels

Food products are almost always required to have product information such as the sugar per serving on the packet (or otherwise available online if the product has no packaging). 

One key piece of information on the label is the recommended serving. This can help with cutting back on the amount you eat. 

The label also often indicates if sugars are added and can help define the type of sugar in the food. Some sugars (like sucrose and fructose) are very refined and are less healthy than raw or less processed sugars. 

Avoid soft drinks and added sugars

Sugary drinks contain a high amount of added sugar. Therefore, avoiding these drinks and replacing them with healthier alternatives like sugar-free drinks or water is best. 

Sugary drinks increase your chances of developing type 2 diabetes and obesity. Avoiding these drinks is the best way to minimize further health problems. 

Other diet changes that can help lower cholesterol

Increasing the amount of fiber in your diet can be beneficial in lowering cholesterol. 

Dietary fiber can bulk out your stool. A great source of natural fiber is whole-grain foods. These foods have fewer calories per volume of refined grain foods.

They may protect against weight gain due to their effects on satiety, post-load glycemia, insulin response, and antioxidants and minerals. 

Furthermore, several prospective studies⁵ have shown that dietary fiber and whole grain intake are inversely associated with body weight and fat distribution.

Fiber effectively lowers cholesterol by slowing gastric emptying, enhancing satiety, inhibiting hepatic cholesterol synthesis, and enhancing fecal excretion of cholesterol and bile salts. Make sure you are still eating a healthy and varied diet, though. 

Cholesterol can also be impacted by food other than sugar and fiber. The trans fatty acids we eat are partially responsible for increasing cholesterol levels, particularly LDL-C, and lowering its counterpart, the “good” cholesterol (HDL-C). 

Many foods seem good for you or better than the alternative, like margarine or commercially baked goods, which may have high levels of trans fatty acid.

Fats aren’t all the same and can even have good health benefits. It’s essential to understand what is in your food to make healthy choices.

The lowdown

Sugar is everywhere in the average American diet. Healthy food choices can help lower cholesterol and the risk of diabetes, metabolic diseases, and cardiovascular disease.

Some simple changes in daily habits can have a significant effect on your everyday life. These include exercise, reading the nutritional information labels, and avoiding adding extra sugar to your diet.

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