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Published on April 06, 2015

Is Sugar Worse for Your Heart than Salt?

We’ve long been told that too much salt is a very bad thing, especially when it comes to our heart health. But recently, studies have come out stating a different white, grainy substance may actually be worse: sugar.

Not so fast, don’t toss out those salt shakers and sugar bowls. Table salt and sugar aren’t the bad guys here. In fact, you actually need them.

“Natural salt is actually very important to us. It's a mineral we use in our bodies for natural cell function. It's sort of a standard for us to live healthy. So it's a misconception that it's a bad thing,” said Dr. Fernando Bonanni, the director of The Institute for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery at Abington Memorial Hospital.

The same rings true for sugar.

“Sugar is absolutely necessary for your body. When you eat sugar, your brain gives your body a reward: dopamine. Sugars are very important,” he said.

How much sodium or sugar we’re consuming and where it comes from is what matters the most.

“The problem is that we take in an awful lot more sodium than we should,” Dr. Bonanni said, adding that you should stay close to or under 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day – most people consume about 3,400 milligrams per day. “We eat a lot of salt that is hiding in our foods, like restaurant foods and deli meats.”

However, Dr. Bonanni said that it’s hard to say that excess sodium is a direct cause of heart disease.

“You have to think about salt as an indirect reason for heart disease,” he explained. Taking in too much sodium causes you to hold excess fluid in your body, which can lead to increased blood pressure. High blood pressure is an added burden to your heart and is one risk factor of heart disease.

“When you go to the cardiologist, he or she might tell you to watch your sodium intake, but really you need to watch what you’re eating,” Dr. Bonanni said. Some of the sneakiest sources of excess sodium include bread, cold cuts, pizza and soups, he added.

Added sugars pose the same type of risk to your heart health. In fact, it might pose a larger risk.

“It's pretty clear that sugar has a direct link to heart disease,” Dr. Bonanni stated. “Metabolically, our bodies are very equipped to take sugars and store them as energy. The best way to store sugar is in the way of fat – fat is a very efficient energy source.”

However, when the excess sugar calories aren’t used as energy shortly after you consume them, they are converted into stored body fat. That’s bad.

"If you’re carrying more weight than your heart is designed to carry, it will have to work harder,” he said. To make matters worse, all of that extra sugar in your system, coupled with the extra pounds, can lead to diabetes – another risk factor for heart disease.

Added sugar, like sodium, hides in some of the foods we least expect to find it in.

“It's the sugar that you're not seeing that's bad for you, because you don't really know what you're taking in. Very few people know that there's sugar in ketchup, pasta sauce and barbecue sauce, but there's a lot,” he said.

The good news is that you can make lifestyle changes to cut back on the amount of unnecessary sodium and sugar you’ve been consuming.

“Across the board, we know that there is so much salt that comes from processed foods. Seventy-five percent of sodium we eat comes from processed foods. A lot of those same processed foods have sugars in them,” Dr. Bonanni explained.

You should also avoid adding even more salt and sugar to foods, stop eating sweets and treats, and make sure you’re reading food labels. According to Dr. Bonanni, doing all of this will eventually lead you to crave fewer sweets and processed foods.

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