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What does added sugar affect your cholesterol?

What is the relationship between eating added sugar and your body’s cholesterol levels? Here’s what added sugar does to cholesterol.

Many people think that the best way to manage your high cholesterol is by avoiding cholesterol-heavy foods, but this isn’t necessarily true. In fact, many other types of foods can affect your cholesterol levels far more.

For example, diets heavier in added sugar may impact your cholesterol levels in ways you may not realize.

So, what exactly is the relationship between eating added sugar and your body’s cholesterol levels? To learn more, we talked with a couple of expert dietitians. Here’s what added sugar does to cholesterol.

1. What sugar can do to your cholesterol?

On average, Americans take in 22 teaspoons of added sugars a day; that can add up to 350 extra calories.

Added sugars are different from the ones naturally found in things like fruits or milk. Added sugars includes sweeteners you add to your food, like:

White sugar, brown sugar, honey, artificial sweeteners made from high fructose corn syrup.

Added sugars contain calories but not nutrients. These additional empty calories, besides affecting your weight and raising your chances for diabetes, also impact your cholesterol levels. And sugary foods affect your liver, which makes cholesterol.

It’s important to understand that your body needs cholesterol to work well. It’s a key ingredient your body needs to build new cells.

There are two types of cholesterol:

Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL). When you have high levels of this “bad” cholesterol, the waxy, fat-like substance can build up in the walls of your arteries and can clog it. This raises your chances for a heart attack or a stroke.

High-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL). This is the “good” cholesterol. It picks up all the extra LDL in your bloodstream, takes it back to the liver, which then removes it from your body. HDL also lowers your chances of heart disease.

When you eat too much sugar, your liver makes more LDL while lowering the amount of HDL in your body.

The extra calories from a sugary diet also leads to more of something called triglycerides, a type of blood fat that plays a role in your cholesterol health. It forms when you eat more calories than your body needs to burn for energy.

Triglycerides are stored in your fat cells and released between meals when your body needs more energy.

Sugar also blocks an enzyme that your body needs to break down triglycerides and get rid of them.

And when you have high levels of triglycerides along with high LDL and low HDL, the combination can lead to fatty build-up in the arteries and raise your chances of heart disease, heart attack, or a stroke.

“When it comes to dietary changes to improve cholesterol most of us do not think about added sugar. However, significantly reducing added sugar in your diet can improve cholesterol in major ways,” says Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD at Balance One Supplements.

But how exactly can added sugar impact these levels? “Added sugar can cause inflammation in the body and lower HDL cholesterol, which is a form of cholesterol known as ‘good cholesterol’ and is one way the body fights LDL, or ‘bad cholesterol,'” says Best. “It has also been shown that added sugars increase the body’s triglyceride levels, which is the amount of fat circulating in the blood.”

According to a study published in The Journal of the American Heart Association, people who consumed added sugar in the form of a 12-ounce soda on a daily basis increased their chances of having high triglycerides and low levels of HDL cholesterol.

What does added sugar affect your cholesterol?

2. An important note about added sugar

When talking with our dietitians, we were reminded that much of the research found online can make it seem as though even small amounts of added sugar will always greatly impact your cholesterol, which can sometimes create an unnecessary motivation for highly restrictive dieting. Instead, most of the research is looking at diets significantly heavier in added sugars, not those that include it from time to time.

“Though added sugars offer no real nutritional benefit, they don’t have to be completely eliminated from our diet,” says Rachel Fine, RDN and founder of To The Pointe Nutrition. “Total elimination of added sugar is practically impossible and can lead to obsessively restrictive disordered eating habits.”

When monitoring your cholesterol levels and watching your consumption of added sugars, Fine suggests including some heart-healthy foods as well.

“In regard to supporting cholesterol, I encourage a mindset of inclusion, not exclusion. Incorporate more foods rich in monounsaturated like olive oil and avocados, which are heart healthy as they reduce LDL cholesterol levels while increasing HDL cholesterol levels.”

3. Tips for limiting your sugar intake for minimal cholesterol impact

Here are some tips to help regulate your sugar intake:

Avoid heavily processed foods: It’s a good idea to stick to healthier, whole foods as processed foods often have added sugars.

Kick that soda habit: Sodas contain a lot of sugar. So, swapping soda with carbonated water or tea could help cut a lot of sugar from your daily intake.

Eat whole fruits instead of fruit juice or canned fruits: Fruit is naturally sweet. When you consume juice or preserved fruit, you’re consuming added sugar and cutting out healthy fiber!

Always read nutrition labels: It will help you begin to understand what food options contain added sugars or higher sugar content. As you start doing this habitually, you may notice that you naturally gravitate towards healthier choices.

Eat more protein and healthy fats: Protein and healthy fats help prevent sugar cravings and keep you feeling fuller for longer.

Ensure you’re getting enough sleep: When you’re tired, your body may crave sugar in an attempt to gain more energy, seeking it through foods.

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