February is American Heart Month, a reminder that heart disease is a leading cause of death in the U.S. Take steps this month to ensure that you’re living a heart-healthy lifestyle. One way to start is to eat less sugar by skipping the heart-shaped, sugary treats lining retail shelves.
Eat less sugar for heart health
High sugar consumption is linked to obesity and is a significant factor in heart health. Eating sugar increases triglycerides ― a type of fat ― in your arteries, and too much dietary sugar also increases blood insulin. Over time, excess sugars and fats in the bloodstream damage blood vessels and organs and cause problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, and fatty liver disease ― each associated with increased risk for heart attack and stroke.
Some sugars occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, but those foods are not the sugar culprit. Plant-based foods are high in antioxidants, minerals and fiber, which help the body digest slowly, providing a steady energy supply.
Added sugars do the opposite by dumping large amounts of nutrient-deficient calories into the body at once, causing blood sugar spikes followed by dips in energy. Steer clear of candy, cookies, cakes and other sweets to avoid this unhealthy pattern. You should also avoid soft drinks, fruit drinks, flavored yogurts and cereals ― most of which are loaded with sugar.
In fact, most processed foods contain added sugars, including soups, breads, cured meats and ketchup. Read labels carefully, and avoid sugar aliases like sucrose, dextrose, cane juice, agave, honey, and corn syrup.
What about my box of chocolates?
Good news: Not every item on those red-and-pink holiday shelves is entirely unhealthy.
As it turns out, chocolate is actually good for our hearts. In 2011, research that pooled the results of seven published studies with over 100,000 participants showed that those who consumed the highest amounts of chocolate had a 37% lower risk of heart disease and a 29% lower risk of stroke than study participants who ate minimal amounts of chocolate (1).
Before you take that as a green light to gorge yourself, remember that many chocolates are filled with sugar and can cause weight gain. Moderation is key.
Research seems to show that the antioxidants in chocolate offer a beneficial influence, despite the harmful sugar that often accompanies them. The specific antioxidants in chocolate are called flavonoids, and they’re found in many foods including tea, blueberries, red wine, apples, cherries, pears and nuts. To get more of the health benefits and less of the sugar, buy dark chocolate with at least 85% cacao content.
Flavonoids lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the heart and brain, fight cell damage and prevent blood clots.
- A. Buitrago-Lopez, J. Sanderson, L. Johnson, S. Warnakula, A. Wood, E. Di Angelantonio, O. H. Franco. Chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ, 2011; 343