American Diet Too Sweet for the Heart's Health

Most people should cut their sugar intake by 70 percent, heart association says.

August 25, 2009— -- Sugar sneaks into so much of our food -- from spaghetti sauce to salad dressing or peanut butter treats -- that it can be near impossible to stop eating added sugars all together. Despite those arrays of pink, blue and yellow packets of sugar substitutes, the average American eats 19 percent more sugar today than in 1970.

Today, for the first time, the American Heart Association (AHA) wants the average American to take a break from this love affair. Under new recommendations the AHA advises women eat no more than about six teaspoons every day in added sugars and men eat no more than 10 teaspoons.

If Americans followed the guidelines, the average person would cut their added sugar consumption by more than 70 percent.

"We know that soft drinks are the number one source of added sugars in the American diet. We really want Americans to start thinking about this," said Dr. Rachel K. Johnson, lead author of the study.

Beyond soda, the term "added sugars" includes any non-natural occurring sugar in our food including the copious amounts of extra sugar now commonly found in processed foods such as cereals, muffins, or even sauces for meat.

Johnson argues that all of these extra calories from added sugars are contributing to the obesity epidemic, which in turn leads to an upward trend in heart disease. The AHA estimates modern day sugar consumption tacks on an extra 76 calories each day over what the average person consumed in 1970.

"The high intake of added sugar has been implicated in a number of negative health outcomes, but primarily this targets obesity," said Johnson. "Sugars have been implicated in high blood pressure and inflammation which are risk factors for heart disease."

Many dietary specialists hailed the new guidelines. However some questioned whether making yet another complicated equation in the list of nutrition recommendations marketed to the public helps people eat healthier or just confuses the average consumer.

"Strictly from a health standpoint, sugar is a 'triple threat' - it provides extra calories, no nutrients, and it may displace other foods and nutrients in the diet that are more beneficial," said Dr. Donald D. Hensrud, an associate professor of Preventive Medicine and Nutrition at the Mayo Clinic.

ABC News contributor Dr. David Katz agreed.

"The recommendations are reasonable, and if anything, overdue," said Katz, the director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center and an ABC News contributor.

Can People Ever Follow Specific Dietary Recommendations?

"One of the problems with the dietary guidance offered in the U.S. is that it tends to come one nutrient at a time: the heart association frets about saturated and trans-fat; the stroke foundations fret about sodium; the diabetes association about sugar; and so on," he said. "The truth is, overall nutritional quality is what matters for all."

Yet some dieters have found that following a single recommendation, especially regarding sugar, can lead to better nutrition overall.

Sandee Kuprel, 42, was 202 pounds when she realized that a major factor in her bad eating habits was a spiraling addiction to sugar in food.

"I was a butterball," said Kuprel. "I started to see, I have a problem with sugar. When I ate the sugar all bets are off. I kept eating -- breakfast sugars, cereals, spaghetti sauce, pizza, ketchups, dressings, sauces," she said.

After her realization, Kuprel said she started eating only whole grains and foods without processed sugars. That meant no more pizza or soda. It also meant checking for added sugar in sauces, and mostly eating fruit for dessert.

Kuprel, author of the Happy2BeMe blog lost 70 pounds within a year by changing her habits.

"I love living like this," said Kuprel.

But many doctors doubt the AHA recommendation would have such an effect on the public at large.

"It will be difficult for most people to adhere to the 100 calorie or 150 calorie limit, and most people will not know what it means. The average person won't remember such a vague concept," said Dr. Jana Klauer, a New York-based expert in nutrition and metabolism and author of "The Park Avenue Nutritionist's Plan."

"It would have been better to specifically instruct people to 'avoid drinking soda' and to warn 'soda and sugary snacks have been associated with obesity and may pose cardiovascular risks," she said.

Other nutritional experts worried about the "one size fits all" recommendations put out by health organizations.

Experts Don't Think Everyone Should Cut Sugar

"Not everyone needs to restrict sugar. For people who are active, not overweight, and eating an otherwise healthy diet, extra sugar is not going to be detrimental," said Beth Kitchin assistant professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham department of Nutrition Sciences.

"I think we need to tailor our recommendations to specific populations rather than throw out these general guidelines that most people will ignore anyway," she said.

Johnson, the lead author of the study, hopes her recommendations translate into some good advice, even if the public isn't counting grams of sugar every day.

"We're not saying eliminate added sugar, we're saying use them with discretion," said Johnson.

"Try to use the added sugars with foods that will enhance the diet, for instance a sugared whole grain breakfast cereal or a sugar sweetened dairy product … they're improving the flavor of the food in a healthy diet as opposed to [spending it on] things that don't carry any other nutritional value, like soda or candy bars," she said.