Which is worse for you?
When it comes to snacks, most people fall into one of two groups—those that like salty or those that like sweet. We know that too much of either isn’t good for us. For years, we’ve heard about how bad salt is for you. More recently, we’re hearing the same about sugar. Of the two, which one is worse? What health problems arise from ingesting too much of either one? What can you do to improve your health?
For years, we’ve heard that too much salt in our diet causes an influx in the sodium in our body and this can lead to fluid retention in our bodies. This extra fluid puts added pressure in our blood vessels, which causes high blood pressure. Recently, the link between salt and high blood pressure has been under intensified examination because several studies have shown conflicting information about the connection. Many researchers point out that the average sodium intake has remained relatively stable over the years, but cardiovascular disease has continued to grow. So, what could be contributing to this increase? One reason now being looked at more closely is how much sugar people are getting in their diet. Several studies have found that Americans take in about 1 ½ times the amount of sodium they need and 7 times the recommended limit of added sugar. Let’s take a closer look at both of these to see which one is actually worse for you.
If you’re a healthy person, salt isn’t automatically detrimental when consumed in moderation because it’s easily processed, and actually required by the body. Sodium is a nutrient that you need to consume from your diet since your body doesn’t produce it on its own. Salt is essential for keeping your body fluid balanced at the right concentration. If you consume too much salt, it causes your body to retain fluids. When your body has too much fluid, it raises your blood pressure, which can lead to serious heart health problems, like stroke or heart disease. On the other hand, if you have low sodium levels in your body, it can cause other undesirable effects for your heart, including a higher heart rate and increased cardiac workload/stress. This is why The Journal of Human Hypertension points out that ingesting the appropriate amount of salt actually helps keep your blood pressure at a healthy level. While it does occur naturally in foods, such as celery and beets, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 90% of people get the majority of their sodium intake from table salt. The issue for some people is that they fall into certain populations that are more sensitive to salt, such as people over 50 and people who already have high blood pressure. However, for the majority of people, problems start arising when they take in excessive amounts. The recommended daily amount is around 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day for adults, but most people consume an average of 3,400 milligrams per day, which is the difference of one-third of a teaspoon per the CDC. They also report that over 70% of sodium in our diets is from processed or restaurant foods. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 77% of the salt in our diet comes from packaged and restaurant foods, 12% from naturally occurring sources and 11% from adding salt during cooking or at the table. It’s important to note that even healthy pantry staples, such as canned beans, soup, broth or vegetables, can have excess sodium. Not only are these processed foods higher in salt, they’re usually higher in fat and calories and provide fewer nutrients. One of the other things that these foods are high in is another white crystal: sugar.
A good portion of foods, like fruit, vegetables, dairy and many different types of grains, have natural sugars. These are different from added sugars, which is sugar that is added to foods during processing or at the table to act as a preservative or make them sweeter. Some examples of added sugars are white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, honey, glucose, fructose, dextrose, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, brown rice syrup and molasses. Added sugar isn’t just in desserts and sodas, like sodium, it hides in some foods that we wouldn’t think to look for it, like condiments (ex. ketchup and barbecue sauce), bread, soup, peanut butter and spaghetti sauce. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), sugar is the most popular ingredient added to foods in the US. They state that Americans consume about three pounds of added sugar a week, or 41 teaspoons a day. This is far above the American Heart Association’s (AHA) recommendation of six teaspoons a day for women and nine teaspoons for men. This equates to about 100 to 150 calories of your daily calories from sugar, which is about one 12-ounce can of regular soda. Per the HHS, sugar-sweetened drinks, like soda, comprise 47% of the added sugars in our diets and snacks/sweets make up another 31%. When you realize that sugar is artificially added to 75% of all packaged foods in the US, it’s no surprise that we consume so much. This is very concerning though because added sugar wreaks havoc in the body.
Metabolically, our bodies need sugar in order for us to survive, so they’re very equipped at taking sugars and storing them as energy. The best way to do this is by storing sugar as fat because it’s a very efficient energy source. The issue arises when we overconsume sugar, we take in amounts that are higher than we burn off through energy, so all the extra gets stored as fat. It’s not just fat that we have to worry about, but several other things as well. One of the main types of natural sugars is fructose, which is normally found in fruits. Fructose is only processed by your liver. So, if you have too much fructose in your body on a regular basis, it can contribute to abnormal cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome and heart disease. It does this by disrupting hormonal pathways within your body. All sugars, regardless of being natural or added, have a similar effect on the body in raising blood sugar levels resulting in the production of insulin. Insulin helps move sugar out of your blood and into your cells to use it as energy. When you’re consuming large amounts of sugar, it causes an increase in insulin production that causes your body’s fat storage skills go into overdrive and can lead to insulin resistance, which forces your body to create more insulin, ultimately resulting in more stored fat. Over time, insulin resistance and the subsequent weight gain gives rise to the development of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes increases your risk for glaucoma, kidney failure, heart attack and stroke. Overindulging in sugar, especially added sugars, can cause chronic inflammation to occur throughout your body, which also puts you at risk for a variety of chronic diseases.
Added sugars might pose a larger risk to your heart health than salt. One study, published in the online journal, Open Heart, suggests that sugar is in fact worse than salt for raising our blood pressure levels. This is partly because sugar can increase the negative effects of salt. Besides moving sugar from your bloodstream to your cells, insulin tells your kidneys to retain sodium. So, the more insulin your body produces, the more sodium your kidneys retain, which causes fluid retention. This results in high blood pressure. One area that is impacted by the chronic inflammation from the extra sugar consumption is your blood vessels. The inflammation here results in the vessel interiors becoming narrower. According to the AHA’s journal Circulation, added sugars also have a negative effect on cholesterol. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s (JAMA) Internal Medicine shows excess sugar consumption may increase your risk of dying from heart disease, even if you’re not overweight, especially those who get more than 17% of their daily calories from added sugar. If you’re part of the 15% of Americans who consume 25% or more of their daily calories from added sugars, then you have an almost 3-fold greater risk of cardiac death when compared to those who consume less than 10% of their daily calories from added sugars. An article in the British medical journal Open Heart investigated how our overconsumption of dietary sugar is more hazardous to our health then overconsumption of dietary sodium. They found that sugar increases systolic (top number) and diastolic (bottom number) of your blood pressure by 5-7 points; death from a cardiovascular event is 3 times higher when the amount of added sugar we consume daily is over 25% of our daily allotted calories; consuming excessive amounts of fructose increases the likelihood of insulin resistance and increased sugar consumption elevates our heart rates. One study found that over consuming fructose, for as little as 2 weeks, showed an increase in triglycerides levels (cholesterol), fasting insulin levels and doubles the chance of developing metabolic syndrome (pre-heart disease and pre-diabetes mellitus type 2). So, if we eat more added sugars than we should on a regularly basis, we’ll end up with more people who have high blood pressure, heart disease and preventable early death.
Obviously, consuming too much of either salt or sugar can cause a wide variety of health problems. There are several ways that you can decrease what you take in. In regards to salt, the most important thing is to buy fresh instead of more processed options, this includes meats, vegetables and fruits. Instead of using extra salt to add flavor to your homemade dishes, try other herbs and spices. Look for “unsalted” or “low sodium” versions of products when at the grocery store. The nice thing is that you can then add your own seasoning while cooking if needed. If you’re looking at the label and notice the sodium content in the right column of the nutrition label is more than 20% DV (daily value), then the food is considered high in sodium. In order to qualify as low sodium, it should have a DV of 5% or less. Avoid manmade table salt because it’s been stripped of any healthy qualities. Instead, choose natural sea salt. It’s vital to realize that in order to make low-sodium prepared and processed foods taste better, some manufactures added sugar, so be sure to check for this on the label before buying. Be sure to reduce or eliminate boxed foods, such as seasoned rice, and frozen meals, like pizza or ready-dinners. Another key element is to limit the amount you eat out at restaurants.
When it comes to sugar, there are several simple changes you can make to your daily routine. If you’re craving a sugary treat, before you reach for chocolate, grab a piece of fruit instead. Although fruits do contain some natural sugar, they also have vitamins, minerals and fiber. Instead of fruit juice, which is stripped of the nutrients found in actual fruit, switch to water and replace regular soda with carbonated/tap water. If you want something with flavor, add fresh fruit or herbs to the water. Don’t put the extra teaspoons of sugar in your cup of tea/coffee. When choosing snacks, replace processed ones with whole foods, like nuts (just don’t get salted or sweetened types) and fruit. A good practice is to limit dessert to one meal a day. Note, if you drink a sweetened beverage, consider that your dessert for the day. When shopping at the grocery store, instead of buying food that contain added sugars, focus on nutritious sources, such as whole grains, milk products, and fruit. Reading labels and comparing ingredients to make sure there aren’t added sugars is key. If a product claims to be sugar-free, then it should have less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving. If the term reduced sugar or less sugar is used, it means that the product contains at least 25% less sugars per serving when compared to a standard serving size of the traditional variety. If something is labeled low sugar, this indicates that the specific amount is not defined or is allowed to be claim on food labels because it doesn’t fall into either of the previous categories. When you see no added sugars or without added sugars, this means that no sugars or sugar-containing ingredient, such as juice or dry fruit, was added during processing. Keep in mind the product might contain natural sugars.
While neither, salt or sugar, are particularly dangerous so long as they’re consumed in moderation, it’s easy to see that consuming excess sugar has more of a negative impact on your overall health. We need salt from our diet for our bodies to function properly, but consuming extra sugar is not (your body will get the energy it needs from the foods you eat). The best approach when dealing with reducing both salt and sugar is to substitute ultra-processed products with natural whole foods. This is due to the fact that in whole foods, sodium is balanced by potassium and other heart-healthy components, and the natural sugars come in physiologically sensible amounts that are buffered by water, fiber and other beneficial constituents. The bottom line is to know what and how much you’re consuming.