Heart Smarts: Is Fat or Sugar Worse?

Posted On Feb 11, 2014 By Erin Kuh, MBA, RD

heart rate walking

Let's set the scene. You have a burger and can make one of two choices in front of you: fries or a soda. Calorie-wise, they're about the same, but in terms of overall health, specifically heart health, which one is worse? One is deep-fried in oil and coated with salt. The other is laced with high fructose corn syrup and caramel coloring.  Is there a better choice?

Initially, research showed a low-fat diet to be beneficial for heart health. But the low-fat craze of the 1990s proved unbeneficial, with more Americans overweight and suffering from heart disease now than ever before. Recently, sugar became the scapegoat for all that ails us. Sugar-free products have become increasingly more popular, but sugar-free nor fat-free products are the answer to keeping your ticker strong and arteries unclogged. Here's the breakdown of both dietary evils:

Added sugars disguised as high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose, and evaporated cane sugar have a direct impact on lowering HDL levels (good cholesterol) and raising triglycerides. This is different than naturally occurring sugars found in fruits, some vegetables and dairy products. The more added sugar you eat, the greater your risk for high-cholesterol and heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends getting no more than 100-150 calories per day from added sugar. And less is better. This is equivalent to one 12oz can of soda, small cookie, or ½ cup low-fat frozen yogurt.

Eating less high-fat foods does help lower cholesterol but does not necessarily reduce the risk of heart disease and heart attacks.  Heart health is about your entire diet. Focus on eating more vegetables, fruit, and small amounts of healthy fats from nuts, seeds, fish, avocados, and healthy oils, such as flaxseed, olive, walnut, and grapeseed. Also, getting regular exercise goes a long way too!

Now, let's get back to your decision between the soda and fries. Neither one is a good choice for heart health. Beyond this decision, consider how often and how much sugar and high-fat foods you eat on a regular basis. Focus on having less foods with added sugar and more whole foods like fruit, nuts, vegetables and lean proteins. Small splurges on things like soda and fries don't have to be banished from your diet forever, but eating them a few times per month rather than on a weekly basis will help keep your heart going strong.