If you’ve ever noticed your heart pumping faster after a sugary meal, it’s not all in your head — sugar can definitely impact your heart rate. How much it affects your heart rate, though, and whether you should be concerned depends on a few factors. Read on to learn everything you need to know about this surprising connection — and whether you should discuss it with your doc.
Sugar and Heart Rate: Here’s What We Know
The best research to date on sugar and heart rate came out in 2011, in the journal from the British Diabetic Association. Those researchers found that higher blood sugar is linked to a higher heart rate — and the higher your blood sugar, the faster your pulse. And, unfortunately, that sugar-induced high heart rate does not count as cardio!
These results mean that you’ll likely see an increase in your blood sugar shortly after eating sugary foods. If you’re eating candies, sweets, or refined carbs like white pasta and potatoes — in other words, foods that raise your blood sugar quickly — you’ll probably notice a more pronounced effect on your heart rate. Foods that raise your blood sugar gradually — like whole-wheat pasta and other whole grains — shouldn’t have as pronounced an effect.
As your blood sugar returns back to normal, your heart rate should return to normal too.
But there’s a twist.
If you eat too much sugar too quickly, your body can overreact, releasing large amounts of hormones that ultimately make your blood sugar fall too low — causing hypoglycemia or a "blood sugar crash." And low blood sugar can cause heart palpitations — so you might feel like your heart skipped a beat, or feel a fluttering sensation in your chest.
Are Certain Sweets Worse than Others?
Any food with lots of sugar will increase your blood sugar levels, triggering that heart-pumping effect to some extent. And because high blood sugar levels affect your heart rate more than just moderately high blood sugar, foods that cause high blood sugar quickly — like sugary drinks, candy, baked sweets and icing — should have the most noticeable effect.
Sweets like chocolate, cola and sugary coffee drinks also contain caffeine, which also ups your heart rate. So if you notice significant changes in your heart rate after eating sugar, steering clear of these foods may help.
Who Should be Concerned?
While sugar will affect anyone’s heart rate, it’s more likely to be harmful if you have an underlying health condition. The British researchers found that people who were overweight, for example, were more likely to experience an irregular heart rate than people at a healthy weight.
If you have diabetes (especially undiagnosed or poorly controlled diabetes) you’re more likely to develop high blood sugar, or experience hypoglycemia after a carb-heavy meal. So you could potentially notice more of an effect on your heart rate than you would otherwise. However, the British study found that people with diabetes had mixed experiences — some of the study subjects with diabetes had a greater increase in heart rate after eating sugar; some of them had a less pronounced increase.
What You Should Do
If you’ve noticed your heart racing after eating sugar, the first response is the simplest: simply sit down and take long, deep breaths. Researchers in the British study found that breathing deeply was often enough to lower the subjects’ heart rate, mitigating some of the effects of the sugar.
Your next step is to avoid sugary foods (sorry — we know that’s no fun!). On top of its effects on heart rate, a diet high in sugar — especially the added sugar found in sweets and sweetened drinks — contributes to cardiovascular disease and obesity, and even increases your risk of certain cancers. If you’re prone to a noticeably increased heart rate after eating sugar, you should avoid sugary foods with caffeine (like sugary coffee) in particular.
And, most importantly, if you’re concerned about your heart rate after eating sugar, you should consult your physician. Only a doctor can examine you personally to point out potential health issues, and recommend a treatment plan based around your specific needs.
It’s especially important to see a doctor if you:
- Just started noticing changes heart palpitations or changes in your heart rate.
- Have other symptoms, like chest pain, dizziness, confusion or difficulty breathing.
- Feel especially thirsty lately, have been passing more urine than usual, or losing weight for no apparent reason.
- Take prescription medication (some medications can affect your heart rate or blood sugar control).
- Have a family or personal history of diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
In the meantime, focus on foods that help control your blood sugar levels to help avoid rapid spikes (or crashes) in your blood sugar. Try out these yummy cheesy eggs, easy salmon-and-veggies sheet pan dinner, or this gorgeous layered rainbow smoothie.