Is there a Link Between Sugar and Cholesterol?
If you love eating sweet things and have discovered that you have high cholesterol, you might be wondering, “Is there a link between sugar and cholesterol?” Perhaps you think it’s the excess fat in your diet that’s causing the problem. Although many will tell you that it’s because you’re consuming too much fat, this is not necessarily true.
Cholesterol is made in our bodies (we couldn’t live without it!) and much of it is made from the simple-carbohydrate foods that we consume. You don’t need to eat actual sugar in order to have an excess of it in your body. Many of the foods people eat nowadays are turned into sugar (glucose) in the body. That’s why it’s so important to watch what you eat!
How does the Body turn Sugar into Cholesterol?
Here is a simple explanation of what happens when you eat too much carbohydrate foods at any one meal:
As your body digests the carbs in your food, it breaks it down into glucose, which enters your bloodstream. Because of your over-consumption of carbs, you now have an excess of glucose in your blood. To make matters worse, there’s not enough insulin to move all that glucose into your cells.
What happens to that excess glucose?
Your liver will store some of it in the form of glycogen. It can release some of this “backup” store when you skip a meal, for example. However, there’s a limit to how much glycogen your liver can hold. Now, there are 3 actions your body can perform:
- It can store the glucose as body fat, which means you’ll gain weight;
- * It can convert the glucose into lipids (fats) that remain in your bloodstream in the form of cholesterol and triglycerides;
- The converted glucose can be stored in the liver as fat, giving rise to the condition known as “fatty liver disease”. (Read also: Clean Your Liver Naturally.)
* The increased insulin level raises cholesterol levels.
If you engage in over-consumption of glucose just once in a while, the above-mentioned process is not too serious. However, if you regularly over-indulge in glucose-producing foods at a single meal, your body will begin to adapt to these large injections of glucose in ways that can cause serious problems.
Problems Resulting from Excess Glucose
Your body will register that there is too little insulin available to deal with the large amount of glucose that’s in your bloodstream. The pancreas responds by making more insulin. Your body responds to the stress of these high insulin levels in 2 very negative ways:
1. Inflammation – Inflammation is responsible for a myriad of health problems. Some are relatively minor, such as infections, colds and acne, while others can be life-threatening, such as autoimmune disease, heart disease and cancer.
2. Adrenal Stress – The adrenal glands are more important than most people realize. The stress from high insulin levels can contribute to high blood pressure, diabetes, weight gain and a host of other health issues.
What About Sugars in Whole Foods?
We know that healthy, whole foods such as fruit also contain sugars. If we eat a lot of these foods, will it raise our cholesterol? If you eat fresh, whole fruits, then no, it will not. Dried fruits and fruit juices are a different matter.
Eating fresh fruit will not harm your cholesterol levels the same way as biscuits or cakes would. The reason is that your body will release the insulin in a different way.
When a portion of fruit is digested, the body will release the glucose in a regular and sustained manner. There’s no need to release large amounts of insulin as if responding to some kind of threat, which would be the body’s response to the ingestion of sugar-spiking simple carbohydrates.
The insulin is released slowly, therefore your insulin and cholesterol remain at healthy levels. It’s only when your insulin levels rise that your HDL* levels diminish. This is another reason why a high-sugar diet is synonymous with having high cholesterol levels – the HDL doesn’t stand a chance.
*HDL (High-Density Lipoproteins) are multi-protein particles that circulate through the bloodstream and pick up cholesterol molecules, transporting them to the liver and other organs. HDL is commonly referred to as “good cholesterol”.
The American Heart Association gives recommended ranges for HDL levels:
The Big Link Between Sugar and Cholesterol
The point to take home here is: we’ve been led to believe that fat consumption is the principal cause of high cholesterol when, in fact, it’s simple carbohydrates and sugary foods.
Of course, there are fats that are not good for our health but sugar is the main culprit. It’s also the main reason for the increase in heart attacks and cardiovascular disease, strokes and high cholesterol.
Not too long ago there was no such thing as statins. People ate more whole foods than fast, processed foods. The easy availability of “convenience” foods has resulted in a global cholesterol problem. So, is there a link between sugar and cholesterol? The evidence leaves little chance for doubt.
What Not to Eat if You Have High Cholesterol
Cardiovascular disease is a major cause of death in developed and developing countries. To ensure that your heart remains in good health, it’s important that you avoid high-cholesterol foods that can cause inflammation in your body as well as weight gain.
It’s not necessary that you avoid all high-cholesterol foods. You can still regularly consume foods that contain cholesterol. Just do so in moderation – eat nutrient-rich foods that fight inflammation (inflammation being the root of the problem) and be aware of high-cholesterol foods such as the following:
Top 12 Food Sources of Cholesterol
- Eggs and egg mixed dishes
- Chicken and chicken mixed dishes
- Beef and beef mixed dishes
- Regular cheese
- Sausage, bacon, ribs and franks
- Fish and fish mixed dishes
- Grain-based desserts
- Dairy desserts
- Pasta and pasta dishes
- Mexican mixed dishes
7 High-Cholesterol Foods to Avoid
We know through research that excess body weight is associated with high cholesterol. It also increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Shedding this excess weight and avoiding foods that contribute to inflammation and weight gain can help lower your total cholesterol and LDL (“bad cholesterol”) levels.
You should avoid consuming the following foods to decrease your LDL and increase HDL cholesterol levels:
1. Processed vegetable oils – When a vegetable oil undergoes hydrogenation, its level of trans fatty acids is increased. This is a type of fat that you want to avoid like the plague; they are known to increase “bad cholesterol” levels and decrease “good cholesterol” levels.
Canola oil is a well-known example of such a processed vegetable oil. Other oils that contain trans fats include soy oil, corn oil, “vegetable oil” and safflower oil.
2. Packaged “snack” foods – Alarming statistics show that American residents get about 66% of their calories from highly-processed, packaged foods and drinks! This has led to high cholesterol levels and higher rates of obesity. Avoid consuming unhealthy snacks such as fried foods, crackers, potato chips and other packaged foods.
3. Cakes, candies and other sweet treats – In the US today, more than three-quarters of processed and packaged foods contain added sugar in some form. We’ve seen that excess sugar is associated with increased “bad” cholesterol, decreased “good” cholesterol and raised triglycerides.
These unhealthy treats include baked goods such as candies, cakes, cookies, pastries, muffins and any packaged foods that contain added sugars. This applies also to sweetened drinks – sodas, energy drinks, juices and other beverages that have added sugar. These lead to weight gain, inflammation – and sugar addiction.
4. Processed meats – Studies show that unprocessed meat has little or no association with cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, there is evidence that eating processed meat can increase the risk of heart problems.
Avoid consuming processed meats such as sausage, bacon, viennas, bologna sausage, hot dogs and salami. Processed meats usually have a high sodium content as well, which in itself is not good.
5. Alcohol – Excess alcohol raises your triglyceride levels and your blood pressure. High levels of consumption increase your chances of developing heart problems. Thirty grams per day is the recommended maximum for women and 45 grams per day for men.
6. Milk and other dairy products – There is a wide range of fatty acids in milk fat, some of which have a negative impact on cholesterol-rich lipoproteins. The saturated fatty acids increase total cholesterol, especially LDL. Try replacing trans fatty acids and dairy saturated fatty acids with polyunsaturated fats to decrease the “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and thereby reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Researchers have discovered that fermented dairy products such as organic, cultured yogurt and kefir, can decrease serum cholesterol by 5-9 percent.
7. Refined grain products – A diet that is high in refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta, bagels and tortillas, has a negative effect on your “good” HDL cholesterol. Refined grains have a high glycemic index; consuming this type of carbohydrates raises your risk of high cholesterol.
You can improve your HDL levels by reducing your intake of refined grain products. High-quality, sprouted breads are a much healthier option.
High-Cholesterol Foods That Are Safe to Eat
Eggs – Although Americans get most of their dietary cholesterol from eggs and egg mixed dishes, egg consumption is shown to have little effect on LDL cholesterol and may even improve HDL levels.
Eggs have many health benefits; there’s little need to worry about consuming them.
Grass-fed beef – If you’re a lover of grass-fed beef, there’s no need to omit it from your diet in order to lower your saturated fat intake. Consuming chicken and lean beef have similar effects on total, HDL and LDL cholesterol levels and triglycerides, suggesting that they are equally “safe” to eat. You can order organic, grass-fed beef and pastured chicken here.
Dark chocolate – Dark chocolate contains antioxidants called flavonols that support heart health and are believed to reduce arterial plaque and cholesterol levels.
An interesting study using white chocolate, dark chocolate and dark chocolate enriched with cocoa polyphenols showed that the dark and cocoa-polyphenol-enriched chocolate increased HDL cholesterol while decreasing LDL cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol is essential for our bodies to thrive. The key is to maintain healthy levels of HDL and LDL lipoproteins to ensure healthy cholesterol levels.
See also: Beat It: How Understanding Cholesterol Can Reduce Your Risk For Heart Disease