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Added Sugar May Raise Cholesterol in Teens

All that added sugar in the diets of typical teens could increase their risk for heart disease, a striking new study suggests.

Jan. 10, 2011 -- All that added sugar in the diets of typical teens could increase their risk for heart disease, a new study suggests.

After analyzing data from a national health survey, researchers concluded that the average teenager eats the equivalent of 28 teaspoons -- or close to 500 calories' worth -- of added sugar each day.

Added sugars are calorie-containing sweeteners present in processed foods or beverages, and spotting them on food labels is not always easy.

Sugar, corn syrup, and high-fructose corn syrup are among the most commonly used and widely recognized added sugars. Less well known are sweeteners containing fructose, sucrose, and maltose.

In a study published last April, researchers from the CDC and Atlanta’s Emory University found that adults whose diets contained the most added sugar also had the lowest HDL, or good, cholesterol and the highest LDL, or bad, cholesterol.

Their new study, published today in the American Heart Association (AHA) journal Circulation, finds the same pattern among teens.

Adding Up the Added Sugar

The study merged a 24-hour dietary recall by teens participating in the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES)  between 1999 and 2004 with data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on added sugar content in foods.

The teens’ average daily consumption of added sugar was three to five times higher than the limit deemed acceptable by the American Heart Association (AHA), which considers a “prudent upper limit” to be about 100 calories, or 6 teaspoons, for most women and 150 calories, or 9 teaspoons, for most men.

When the researchers examined data on cholesterol levels and other heart disease risk factors among the teens in relation to their added sugar consumption, they found that:

  • Those who ate the most added sugar (30% or more of total calories) had LDL cholesterol levels that were 9% higher, triglyceride levels that were 10% higher,  and HDL levels that were 9% lower than those who ate the least added sugar (less than 10% of total calories).
  • Overweight and obese teens who ate the most sugar also had the most insulin resistance.

Although the findings raise questions about whether the added sugar in processed foods contributes to poor cholesterol profiles and other heart disease risk factors, more direct research is needed to prove a link.

“We need controlled studies to really understand the role of added sugars in cardiovascular disease,” researcher Jean A. Welsh, MPH, RN, tells WebMD.  “But it is important to be aware of the added sugar in the foods we all eat.”

Message to Industry: Get Sugar Out of Food

Sugary sodas, sports drinks, and fruit- or fruit-flavored drinks containing added sugars are among the largest sources of added sugars in the diets of children and teens, Welsh says.

Teaching children and teens about healthy eating and giving them the tools they need to do so could make a big difference in childhood obesity and, potentially, heart disease rates in the future, preventive cardiologist Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, of New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital tells WebMD.

She points to public health initiatives like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign as a step in the right direction.

“Nearly a third of kids in this country are overweight or obese,” she says. “We don’t yet know what this will mean for cardiovascular risk, but it is probably a safe bet that we are going to see younger and younger people with heart disease.”

She says the public needs to send a strong message to the food industry.

“The message is to get the added sugars out of processed foods,” she says. “That isn’t likely to happen unless consumers demand it.”

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