For the first time in US history, life expectancy has taken a slight decline. Sure, we are really talking about a small percent change, but it is pretty bleak regardless of how it is framed. Think about all of the technological advances made in medicine each year and all of the billions spent in pharmaceutical research. Most people, researchers included, assume that life expectancy will always creep upwards, even with the poor dietary habits and lack of exercise demonstrated by most Americans.

With an MPH degree and years spent in various areas of the public health arena, I can assure you that this is a bombshell heard around the world. Keep in mind that most industrialized countries saw small improvements in their population’s life expectancy, while a handful saw no change. Obviously, things are bad all around here, as there were increased fatality rates in 8 of the top 10 leading causes of death:

But deaths from heart attacks and strokes, as well as other forms of heart disease, were significantly greater, especially in younger segments of our population. How could public health efforts and initiatives be missing so badly? The American Heart Association acknowledges that saturated fat intake is lower now:

More Americans than ever before are on statins to lower their cholesterol. Others are applying additional pharmaceutical interventions to reduce their blood pressure or to change blood lipid profiles. Yet millions more Americans use aspirin daily prevent clot formation in the presence of one or more risk factors. The results: none of the above can trump our addiction to sugar.

Just like when former President Bill Clinton said "It’s the economy stupid!" anyone that’s half awake could easily see that sugar consumption and hours spent sitting at a computer are at all-time highs. However, the war against saturated fat and salt goes on, debated weekly by authors and many researchers stuck in the dogma generated 50+ years ago by Ancel Keys. The topic is in the media with just enough coverage to keep people confused and afraid to substitute the full fat yogurt for the sweetened, the guacamole for the barbecue sauce, and numerous other moves from high sugar to high fat that represent beneficial change.

How much further will we go into decline? It does look pretty grim when you consider that the USDA will not revise their dietary recommendations for another 10 years (they just finished their last revision this past summer). While the new Dietary Guidelines do recommend a cap on sugar, it really wasn’t a strong enough stance to convince Americans that sugar is killing them.

Until the collective consciousness realizes just what is going on with respect to sugar and heart disease, try and remind friends and family that:

• Anything that raises our insulin levels will raise our risk for heart disease.

• Fruit juice, fruit juice concentrates, and fruit flavored drinks are really a heavily sweetened dessert, not a healthy, hydrating beverage.

Avoid: • All sweeteners, even the most natural.

• Baked flour and grain products (rice is far less hyper-insulinemic than rice crackers!)

• Sweetened dairy products. Chocolate milk, fruit sweetened yogurt. Choose full fat, unsweetened options instead.

• Energy bars and gels. Eat nut butters or look for Functional Formularies Sustain® at a store near you!

John Bagnulo MPH, PhD. - Director of Nutrition