How Much Sugar Should You Actually Be Eating?
We often reserve candy, cake, and soda for celebrations. Why? Because they’re treats. And all of the sugar that makes these sweets so crave worthy can do a number on our health if we consistently overdo it.
So how many grams of added sugar is it OK to have per day? And do natural sugars count? Read on to find out more about the recommended sugar guidelines and helpful ways to reduce your sugar intake.
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What’s the Recommended Daily Sugar Intake?
- The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that no more than 10 percent of our daily calories — but ideally less than 5 percent — should come from added sugars. In the case of someone who eats 2,000 calories in a day, that five percent works out to 25 grams of sugar.
- The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting the amount of added sugars we consume to no more than half of our daily discretionary calorie allowance. So first, let’s explain what constitutes discretionary calories. We all have daily energy needs to power everything from the most minuscule bodily function to the hardest workout.
If you eat a balanced diet focused on whole foods, you may be able to eat all your recommended nutrients before reaching your daily calorie needs. What’s left over falls under the category of discretionary, meaning while you should use your best judgement, the extra calories could come from things like alcohol, fat, and added sugars.
- But when it comes to added sugars, the AHA breaks that recommendation down further:
- The average American woman should consume less than 100 calories from added sugar (roughly 6 teaspoons or 25 grams) per day.
- The average American man should consume less than 150 calories from added sugar (roughly 9 teaspoons or 38 grams) per day.
“To put that in context, just one 12-ounce can of regular soda can contain 8 teaspoons of sugar, or 130 calories,” says Michele Promaulayko, creator of Sugar Free 3. “Yup, just one can of soda can put women over the limit.”
How Much Sugar Are We Actually Eating?
The good news? Our intake is trending the right way — per-capita consumption of sugar has steadily decreased over the last few years. While that’s certainly encouraging, food manufacturers still rely on sugar to make their products more palatable.
You can count on soda, energy drinks, candy, cakes, cookies, and ice cream for tons of the sweet stuff, but sugar also lurks in some less-than-obvious foods. Salad dressing, pasta sauce, bread, crackers, protein bars, peanut butter, and nut milks, for instance, can all contain added sugar to enhance flavor and increase shelf life.
Does Natural Sugar Count Toward Daily Intake?
So we know we should devote less than 10 percent of our daily calories to added sugar but what about the 5 grams of sugar in a serving of plain Greek yogurt or the 14 grams of sugar in a banana? “This recommendation does not include sugars found naturally in fruits and dairy,” says Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN, a private practice dietitian based in Chicago.
The source of natural sugar, meaning sugar that naturally occurs in fruit, some vegetables, and dairy products (and no, this does not mean ice cream), differs from the type of sugar we add when baking in the kitchen or manufacturers add when formulating products.
“Our brains need sugar to survive—natural sugar,” Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN, who contributed to Sugar Free 3. These natural sugars appear in many healthy and essential foods, such as fruits and vegetables, which are permitted on Sugar Free 3. The natural sugar breaks down into blood glucose—an important source of energy that your brain and body need throughout the day, she explains.
While added sugar is often found in foods and drinks low in fiber and lacking in nutrients, natural sugars, known as fructose and lactose, exist in nutrient-dense foods that contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
- Fructose, also known as fruit sugar, is naturally found in fruit, honey and root vegetables.
- Lactose is naturally found in milk, aka milk sugar.
That said, while 100% fruit juice contains natural sugar, it’s been stripped of its filling fiber so you’ll want to watch your intake, especially if you’re managing your weight or have trouble managing your blood sugars.
How to Reduce Your Sugar Intake
1. Focus on Adding Instead of Subtracting
While it’s great to set a healthy intention, hyper-focusing on cutting out certain foods can set a foundation for an unhealthy relationship with food. Instead of fixating on not eating sugar-laden foods, consider filling your pantry and fridge with healthy, whole foods. “When it comes to making tweaks to your eating pattern, focus on things to add in — such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds — rather than what to take out,” Wolfram says.
2. Know that It’s Okay to Have Treats Here and There
“Sugar is not something that needs to be eliminated entirely,” Wolfram says. “In fact, the more we tell ourselves we can’t have something, the more likely we are to crave that food and potentially binge on it.” When we allow ourselves to really enjoy a small portion of a sweet treat, the risk of overdoing it can significantly decrease.
3. Understand Sugar-Related Labels
“Sugar hides in plain view,” says Dr. Whitney Bowe, who also contributed to Sugar Free 3. “It may be called something other than ‘sugar,’” she says. “Cane sugar, sucrose, fructose, agave nectar, high fructose corn syrup—but sugar is sugar, no matter how you spell it. There are more than sixty names for sugar! And it can be hard to avoid if you don’t make a conscious effort and know what to look for.”
Food manufacturers can use a handful of terms to indicate their product has less sugar than other products, but it’s important to really understand what these labels mean.
- No Added Sugars or Without Added Sugars: No sugars or sugar-containing ingredients (such as fruit juice) allowed during processing
- Sugar-Free: Less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving
- Reduced Sugar or Less Sugar: At least 25 percent less sugar per serving compared to a standard serving size of the traditional item
Humans want sugar. “Simple carbohydrates like sugar are a quick energy source for the body and brain and we’re biologically wired to seek out and enjoy the taste of sugar,” Wolfram says. While evidence points to sugar as a major culprit for weight gain and other health concerns, cookies, donuts, and ice cream can be built into a healthy, balanced lifestyle.