Harvard Men's Health Watch

Sugar and your heart: Sour news about sweets

Blame it on our Puritan heritage, medical naysayers, or even nagging newsletters. Whatever the cause, many people share the view that anything that feels good or tastes good must be bad for you. Recent studies have exonerated coffee and others say that dark chocolate, nuts, and moderate amounts of alcohol may actually be beneficial. But people still worry that every pleasure has its price.

Sugar is a case in point. Perhaps because sweet foods and drinks have universal appeal, sugar has long been a target for the food police. Tooth decay is a common indictment, but sugar lovers can fight back by brushing diligently and practicing meticulous dental hygiene. When a guy with a sweet tooth hears that sugar provides only empty calories, he may simply pledge to redouble his intake of nutrient-rich foods. Although worries about obesity and diabetes have been harder to shrug off, they've failed to curb America's appetite for sweets. But new research may make it tough to stay sweet on sugar, since it links sugar with an increased risk of heart disease.

What are sugars?

Like all carbohydrates, sugars are relatively simple substances composed of just three elements: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Sugars are the smallest and simplest carbohydrates. Starches are complex carbohydrates made up of many sugar molecules strung together. Dietary fiber is a special type of complex carbohydrate made up of long strands of sugars linked into branching chains. Sugars and starches have the same caloric value, four calories per gram. Because humans cannot digest dietary fiber, it has little caloric value, but plenty of health value.

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