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eggs, bacon and pancakes on a plate and a glass of orange juice
eggs, bacon and pancakes on a plate and a glass of orange juice

There’s a lot of talk these days about the health effects of sugar. Some sources claim sugar is responsible for everything from obesity to heart disease. In contrast, others argue that sugar is not as harmful as people make it out to be. 

In the same vein, there’s also a lot of conflicting information out there about sugar and cholesterol. Does it raise your cholesterol levels as much as people assume? Does it have little to no effect at all on cholesterol? Read on to learn a little more about the relationship between sugar and cholesterol so you can make informed dietary decisions. 

What is the Relationship Between Sugar and Cholesterol?

a person eating a biscuit and drinking coffee

Cholesterol, which circulates in your bloodstream, is a lipid molecule in the membranes of the cells in your body. It is crucial for proper cell function, including the operation of the cells involved in the production of hormones and vitamin D. 

There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). An accumulation of LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream can lead to a buildup inside your arteries, leading to health problems like blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes. HDL is often referred to as “good” cholesterol because it helps keep LDL from building up in your arteries.

Sugars affect your lipids, which are substances found in your bloodstream that may contribute to heart disease. Eating excess sugar can raise your triglyceride levels (fat in your bloodstream) and inhibit the enzymes that usually break them down. 

Sugar affects more than just the glucose levels in your bloodstream. When you consume sugars or simple carbohydrates that break down into sugars, your blood glucose levels rise. As a result, your body will release insulin to counteract the level of sugar in your bloodstream. Insulin is a hormone that maintains normal blood glucose levels and regulates fat metabolism, so the release of insulin in your bloodstream can cause fat to accumulate in your adipose tissue (or body fat) as a result. 

How Sugar Impacts Both Types of Cholesterol

Most people know that sugar isn’t good for them, but they might not realize how much sugar can impact their cholesterol levels. As mentioned above, there are two types of cholesterol (HDL and LDL), and sugar can significantly impact both. Too much of either can increase your risk for heart disease, stroke, and other health complications, so it’s essential to understand how sugar impacts each type.

Sugar and Low-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol (LDL)

chocolate eggs

Overeating sugar can raise your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, a risk factor for heart disease. LDL is responsible for the accumulation of cholesterol in your arteries. So if you’re looking to keep your heart healthy, it’s essential to limit your consumption of added sugars. 

If your diet is high in sugar, it will cause your liver to create more LDL cholesterol and may result in the following:

  • Cholesterol Buildup: When cholesterol builds up in your arteries, it can result in blood clots and other health conditions. 
  • Chest Pain: When cholesterol blocks your arteries, you may experience chest pains and develop issues like coronary artery disease
  • Heart Attacks: Heart attacks can result from the buildup of cholesterol in your arteries. 
  • Strokes: Blood clots from a cholesterol buildup can inhibit blood flow to your brain, causing strokes.

Sugar and High-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol (HDL)

two croissants on a plate

To understand the role that sugar plays concerning high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL), you should first understand what HDL is. HDL is a type of cholesterol that helps remove excess cholesterol from arteries and transport it to the liver, where it can be processed and eliminated from your body. When your HDL levels are low, you increase your risk of developing heart disease. There are links between elevated levels of sugar in the bloodstream and lower HDL levels. So, it’s essential to monitor your sugar and HDL levels closely. 

The risks associated with HDL levels are due to those levels lowering and include:

  • Cardiovascular Disease: Low HDL levels significantly increase your risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. 
  • Memory Decline: Low HDL levels have been linked to a decline in memory in middle-aged patients. 

Benefits of Controlling Your Sugar Intake

a person picking salad leaves

Did you know that sugar may be one of the leading causes of obesity and weight gain? In fact, it’s one of the main factors in the fight against obesity and chronic disease. 

Many people don’t realize just how much sugar they’re consuming daily. For example, did you know that Americans consume an average of 77 grams of sugar per day? It’s more than double the recommended amount.  

Controlling and understanding your sugar intake can have a range of benefits. Besides regulating cholesterol levels, it can also improve your dental and skin health, help you maintain a healthy weight, and reduce your risk of conditions like some cancers, high blood pressure, and diabetes. 

a list of benefits of controlling sugar intake

Tips For Limiting Your Sugar Intake For Minimal Cholesterol Impact

a person being served with a salad

Do you have a hard time resisting sweets? If so, you’re not alone. Many of us have sweet cravings at times, for many different reasons, and it can be difficult to address these. But if you’re looking to cut down on the amount of sugar you consume, here are a few tips to help you out. 

Remember that sugar can be hidden in many foods you’d never expect it to be in like yogurt, barbecue sauce, and even some dehydrated or dried fruit. Be aware of what foods contain high levels of refined sugar, like sodas, candy, and baked goods. Try to avoid these whenever possible. Another strategy is to ensure that you’re filling up on healthy foods like whole fruits and vegetables. These foods are low in sugar and calories and will help satisfy your hunger pangs

You may be surprised to learn that reducing sugar intake is one of the most effective ways to prevent a wide variety of health issues. As we’ve already mentioned, consuming excessive amounts of sugar may lead to high cholesterol, which in turn increases your risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions. 

Sugar can also have negative impacts on your blood sugar levels, weight, and overall energy. But, learning what foods are hiding refined and processed sugar and making smart dietary choices can help you cut down on your sugar intake without depriving yourself of your favorite foods. Thankfully, you can take steps to keep your sugar intake in check and maintain healthy cholesterol levels. 

Here are some tips to help regulate your sugar intake:

  • Avoid heavily processed foods: It’s a good idea to stick to healthier, whole foods as processed foods often have added sugars.
  • Kick that soda habit: Sodas contain a lot of sugar. So, swapping soda with carbonated water or tea could help cut a lot of sugar from your daily intake.
  • Eat whole fruits instead of fruit juice or canned fruits: Fruit is naturally sweet. When you consume juice or preserved fruit, you’re consuming added sugar and cutting out healthy fiber!
  • Always read nutrition labels: It will help you begin to understand what food options contain added sugars or higher sugar content. As you start doing this habitually, you may notice that you naturally gravitate towards healthier choices. 
  • Eat more protein and healthy fats: Protein and healthy fats help prevent sugar cravings and keep you feeling fuller for longer. 
  • Ensure you’re getting enough sleep: When you’re tired, your body may crave sugar in an attempt to gain more energy, seeking it through foods. 
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Natalie Carroll

Reviewed by: Natalie Carroll MS, RDN, CDN, CLC

Natalie received her degree in Dietetics from Mansfield University and a Master’s in Clinical Nutrition from the University at Buffalo. Her career has included nutrition education and program development in her local community, adjunct faculty at several collegiate institutions, and clinical nutrition in both inpatient and outpatient settings.