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  • Marie Belzile-Davidson, MS, Dietetic Intern

Blood Sugar and Heart Health

Did you just read sugar and automatically think, "bad?" You are not alone.

For years, I was scared of sugar in any form - added sugar, sugar that naturally occurs in fruits and vegetables, sugar in the form of starch, you name it! It turns out that I was just scared of sugar because I did not fully understand it.

Sugar is not "good" nor "bad" and it is not one solitary thing. Sugar comes in many forms and is necessary for a healthy and balanced life - yes I just said that! The key is providing your body with sugar in the right forms and in the right balance, based on how your body best processes it. Keeping blood sugar in check benefits your heart (and overall health) in many ways- let's talk about why.

A quick and simple breakdown of sugar:

  • "Sugar" is a word used to describe a wide variety of simple and complex molecules. (I will not dive into organic chemistry here but if you are interested in learning more, the world of sugar is expansive!)

  • There are simple sugars like sucrose (think table sugar), lactose (the sugar that naturally occurs in milk), glucose and fructose (together they make sucrose), etc.

  • There are also complex chains of sugar molecules that form starch (think potatoes, corn, rice), and fiber (think whole grains, fruits, and vegetables).

How is sugar part of a balanced and healthy life?

Sugar is a carbohydrate and carbs are the body's main source of fuel. That makes carbohydrates (sugar) an extremely important macronutrient to include in our diets!

When we eat or drink sugar in any of its forms (simple sugars, starch, fiber, etc.), our bodies ultimately break it all down to a single kind of sugar molecule known as glucose. Glucose travels in our blood and is shuttled into our cells with the help of insulin. Once in the cells, the mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell) turn glucose into energy. Crazy cool, right?!

That being said, not all forms of sugar are created equal. Additionally, there are better ways to consume sugar that help minimize or prevent some of the adverse effects that too much sugar can have on the heart.

What can happen to the heart if we do not balance and moderate our sugar intake?

Some glucose stays in our blood/does not go into cells to make energy - it is often referred to as "blood sugar." Having some glucose in our blood is totally normal and necessary. However, too much glucose in our blood over time can be problematic. It can cause serious health complications and can also worsen existing health conditions. So how does dysregulated blood glucose impact our heart?

I want you to think of water with a pinch of table sugar added to it. Now, compare that to syrup. These two liquids have very different consistencies, right? Water with some sugar still flows well (like our blood with controlled glucose levels) while syrup is thicker and does not flow as easily (like our blood when glucose levels are too high for too long).

Too much sugar in our blood not only changes its consistency but causes inflammation, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. The inflammation causes damage to the lining of our arteries. When arteries are damaged, they work to heal themselves by forming plaque. Over time, this cycle of damage, plaque building, and healing can narrow and harden arteries.

This narrowing, hardening, and plaque build-up can have a variety of adverse outcomes:

  • If arteries are too narrow, more rigid, and blood is thicker because it is carrying too much sugar, the heart has to work harder to get blood around the body. This can cause unnecessary stress on the heart and raises blood pressure.

  • Plaque in the arteries can become unstable over time. Without any warning, it can dislodge, potentially causing serious and life-threatening complications like a heart attack or stroke.

What can you do to support your heart health, from a sugar standpoint?

There are some simple steps you can take to help support healthy blood glucose levels for the benefit of your heart (and overall) health!

  • Eat meals spaced about 3-4 hours apart

  • Follow the balanced plate method for meals:

    • 1/2 plate veggies

    • 1/4 plate high-fiber, minimally processed carbohydrates- focus on sugar/carbohydrates in the form of complex starch (like whole grains and seeds) and fiber (fresh fruits and veggies), minimize simple starches (like processed grains) and added sugar

    • 1/4 plate minimally processed protein

    • don't forget the condiment-sized amount of plant-based fat

  • Aim for 9-11 servings of plants per day and 30 different plants in a week

  • Pair carbohydrates with fat and/or protein at snacks and meals

  • Eat 1-2 servings of wild-caught, cold-water fish per week (like salmon, tuna, or sardines)

  • Sleep for 7-9 hours every night

  • Take a time-out during your day to BREATHE

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