Sugar and Your Cholesterol

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on July 14, 2023
3 min read

While it’s common knowledge that saturated fats can raise your cholesterol, there can be another culprit: A diet high in sugary foods.

From sweetened coffee every morning to a can of soda to go along with your evening meal, the added sugars in your daily diet may take a toll on your cholesterol over time.

On average, Americans take in 22 teaspoons of added sugars a day; that can add up to 350 extra calories.

Added sugars are different from the ones naturally found in things like fruits or milk. Added sugars includes sweeteners you add to your food, like:

  • White sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Honey
  • Artificial sweeteners made from high fructose corn syrup.

Added sugars contain calories but not nutrients. These additional empty calories, besides affecting your weight and raising your chances for diabetes, also impact your cholesterol levels. And sugary foods affect your liver, which makes cholesterol.

It’s important to understand that your body needs cholesterol to work well. It’s a key ingredient your body needs to build new cells.

There are two types of cholesterol:

Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL). When you have high levels of this "bad" cholesterol, the waxy, fat-like substance can build up in the walls of your arteries and can clog it. This raises your chances for a heart attack or a stroke.

High-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL). This is the "good" cholesterol. It picks up all the extra LDL in your bloodstream, takes it back to the liver, which then removes it from your body. HDL also lowers your chances of heart disease.

When you eat too much sugar, your liver makes more LDL while lowering the amount of HDL in your body.

The extra calories from a sugary diet also leads to more of something called triglycerides, a type of blood fat that plays a role in your cholesterol health. It forms when you eat more calories than your body needs to burn for energy.

Triglycerides are stored in your fat cells and released between meals when your body needs more energy.

Sugar also blocks an enzyme that your body needs to break down triglycerides and get rid of them.

And when you have high levels of triglycerides along with high LDL and low HDL, the combination can lead to fatty build-up in the arteries and raise your chances of heart disease, heart attack, or a stroke.

A sugary diet can spell trouble, not only for your cholesterol levels, but also your overall health. Limiting added sugars will help cut down on empty calories and can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which is good for heart health.

While your body doesn’t need sugars to work well, eating small amounts won’t harm your health. Women should limit themselves to 6 teaspoons per day. Men should shoot for 9 teaspoons each day.

If you’re looking to cut down on sugar in your diet, you can:

  • Limit foods with added sugars like candy, cakes, or cookies.
  • Cut back on sweetened soft drinks and sodas.
  • Avoid refined carbs like white bread and pasta.
  • Drink fewer alcoholic beverages.
  • Swap sugary breakfast cereals or bars for whole foods like fruits, oatmeal, and yogurt.
  • Check food labels for total added sugars.
  • Choose foods that are low on the glycemic index, which help keep your blood sugar level stable. This includes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Regular exercise can also help burn any extra calories you take through a sugary diet.

If you’re looking to cut back on sugar and you’re not sure how to get started, ask your doctor or a nutritionist for help.

High cholesterol has no symptoms. If you’ve not sure about your levels, ask your doctor. They may do a simple blood test to check it. Doctors recommend that all adults older than 20 years old should have their cholesterol levels checked every 4 to 6 years.

If you have high cholesterol, your doctor may ask you to change your diet and make lifestyle changes to get it under control. If that doesn’t work, you doctor may prescribe medications to help.