Artificial Sweeteners vs. Sugar – Which Is Better for Your Heart

Packet of sweetener sprinkled on blue background illustrates concept of sugar versus artificial sweetener for health

Regarding lifestyle issues and the heart, metabolic disease and obesity are some of the most concerning issues we, as cardiologists, face. While the specialty of cardiology and subspecialty of electrophysiology have made leaps and bounds over the years, the treatment of many cardiovascular concerns is hampered by our decidedly less healthy society. We’ve seen a rise in cardiovascular problems in ever younger patients, and irregular heart rhythms are becoming more common. Certain arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation or Afib come with some severe potential follow-on consequences, not least of which is a five times increased risk of stroke and a significantly increased risk of heart attack or congestive heart failure.

Sugar is one of the main culprits behind a rise in Afib in the US. Simply put, excess sugar causes obesity and contributes to a metabolic status that is decidedly unhealthy, also increasing the risk for heart rhythm disorders.

However, sugar has been vilified to the point where sugarless options are a massive and still-growing industry. It is important to understand more about sugar too. Sugar in every form is not the worst thing in the world, and maybe our obsession with sugar-free may have created a derivative problem – artificial sweeteners.

First, it is essential to understand that sugar/glucose is a critical component of the makeup of every cell in our bodies. Without sugar, our bodies would not function. So, while we need to reduce the amount of sugar we consume, we should not vilify sugar itself but rather the consumption of excess sugar.

Second, the trend has been towards sugar-free foods and drinks due to this fear of sugar. However, artificial sweeteners are not exactly what we hoped. We initially saw them as the answer to reversing a growing societal waistline. However, we have come to realize that there are also significant drawbacks associated with artificial sweeteners. First, the sweetness we enjoy from artificial sweeteners is much stronger than that of natural sugar. The brain then craves sweetness and is not too concerned about how it gets it. This sweetness often leads to worsening metabolic diseases as patients begin to indulge in ever-higher fat and sugar foods to address this craving.

Artificial sweeteners also blow out our taste buds. While artificial sweeteners are many times more potent than sugar, we often use the same amount, meaning our tea, coffee, or dessert is that much sweeter than before. Yes, the artificial sweetener does not cause tooth decay, and it comes with no calories. However, it reduces our taste buds’ ability to detect the nuances in food, making healthy non-sugary foods blander and forcing us toward the heavily sweetened options. Ultimately, while artificial sweetener was invented partly to help the weight problem, it seems that it has the potential to, paradoxically, contribute to it.

So, What’s the Answer?

As with anything related to heart health, especially cardiac arrhythmias, moderation is key. The most important thing to practice is restraint whether you enjoy artificial sweeteners or natural options like sugar or honey. By avoiding the worst offenders and keeping as much excess sugar and sweetener out of your diets as possible, you give yourself the best chance to maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of atrial fibrillation and other arrhythmias. This also goes for patients that are currently being treated for arrhythmias. Losing excess weight and reaching a normal BMI can enhance the benefits of any medical or procedural option we pursue to address the arrhythmia.

If you have been diagnosed with an arrhythmia or Afib or if you are feeling a rapid heartbeat that is not an emergency, we encourage you to contact our office and schedule a consultation with Dr. Tordini, that can offer you the guidance needed to make the right decision about your future arrhythmia treatment.

Dr. Tordini is a part of Florida Medical Clinic in Tampa

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