The excess consumption of added sugar is associated with a variety of preventable diseases.
It provides calories with no added nutrients and can damage your metabolism in the long run.
But how much is too much? Can you eat a little bit of sugar each day without harm, or should you avoid it as much as possible?
- Added vs. natural sugars
- Sugar intake levels are high
- Safe amounts
- It’s best to avoid it
- How to minimize your intake
- Processed foods
Added sugars vs. natural sugars — Big difference
It’s very important to make the distinction between added sugars and sugars that occur naturally in foods like fruits and vegetables.
These foods contain water, fiber, and various micronutrients. Naturally occurring sugars are absolutely fine, but the same does not apply to added sugar.
Added sugar is the main ingredient in candy and is abundant in many processed foods, such as soft drinks and baked products.
The most common added sugars are regular table sugar (sucrose) and high fructose corn syrup.
To optimize your health, do your best to avoid foods that contain added sugars. Even the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting calories from added sugars to less than 10 percent of total calories per day.
Also, remember that added sugars can also include natural sugars. For instance, if you add honey to your oatmeal, your oatmeal contains added sugar from a natural source.
Summary: Sugar that’s added to processed foods is much more harmful to your health than the natural sugar in whole foods like fruits and vegetables.
Sugar consumption is extremely high
In 2008, people in the United States were consuming over 60 pounds (28 kg) of added sugar per year — and this does not include fruit juices.
The average intake was 76.7 grams per day, which equals 19 teaspoons or 306 calories.
According to this study, sugar consumption decreased by 23% between the years 2000 and 2008, mainly because people drank fewer sugar-sweetened beverages.
However, current intake levels are still way too high and likely haven’t changed much since then. In 2012, the average adult intake was 77 grams per day.
Excess sugar consumption has been associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, tooth decay, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and more.
Summary: Excessive sugar intake is common. It has been linked to various lifestyle diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
What is a safe amount of sugar to eat per day?
Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to this question. Some people can eat a lot of sugar without harm, while others should avoid it as much as possible.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the maximum amount of added sugars you should eat in a day are:
- Women: 100 calories per day (25 grams or 6 teaspoons)
- Men: 150 calories per day (37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons)
To put that into perspective, one 12-ounce (355-mL) can of Coke contains 140 calories from sugar, while a regular-sized Snickers bar contains 120 calories from sugar.
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In contrast, the US dietary guidelines advise people to limit their intake to less than 10% of their daily calorie intake. For a person eating 2,000 calories per day, this would equal 50 grams of sugar or about 12.5 teaspoons.
If you’re healthy and active, these are reasonable recommendations. You’ll probably burn off these small amounts of sugar without them causing you any harm.
Still, it’s important to note that there’s no need for added sugars in the diet.
Summary: The American Heart Association advises men to get no more than 150 calories from added sugar per day and women to get no more than 100 calories.
If you’re addicted to sugar, perhaps you may want to consider avoiding it completely
Sugary, highly processed foods stimulate the same areas in the brain as illegal drugs.
For this reason, sugar can cause people to lose control over their consumption.
That said, sugar is not nearly as addictive as illegal drugs, and “sugar addiction” should be comparatively easy to overcome.
If you have a history of binge eating, failing to adhere to set rules about your eating (like cheat meals or days), and repeated failures with the “everything in moderation” approach, perhaps you’re addicted.
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In the same way that a smoker needs to avoid cigarettes completely, someone addicted to sugar may need to avoid sugar completely.
Summary: If you feel like you’re addicted to added sugar, consider avoiding it completely.
How to minimize sugars in your diet
Limit these foods, in order of importance:
- Soft drinks. A single 12-ounce (355-mL) can of soda contains as much as 8 teaspoons of sugar.
- Fruit juices. Fruit juices contain the same amount of sugar as soft drinks. Choose whole fruit or canned fruit with no additional sweetening instead.
- Candies and sweets. Try to limit your consumption of sweets.
- Baked goods. These include cookies, cakes, and pies, among other pastries. They tend to be very high in sugar and refined carbohydrates.
- Low fat or diet foods. Foods that have had the fat removed from them are often very high in sugar.
Drink water instead of soda or juices and don’t add sugar to your coffee or tea.
Instead of sugar in recipes, you can try things like cinnamon, nutmeg, almond extract, vanilla, ginger, or lemon.
Try to be creative and find recipes online. You can eat an endless variety of amazing foods even if you eliminate all sugar from your diet.
Summary: Reduce your sugar intake by limiting soft drinks, fruit juice, candy, and baked goods.
What about sugar in processed foods?
The best way to cut back on sugar is to limit your intake of highly processed foods.
This approach doesn’t require math, calorie counting, or reading food labels all the time.
However, if you’re simply unable to stick to unprocessed foods for financial reasons, here are some tips on how to make healthier choices:
- Know that sugar has many names. These names include sugar, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), dehydrated cane juice, fructose, glucose, dextrose, syrup, cane sugar, raw sugar, corn syrup, and more.
- Check the ingredient list. If the ingredient list of a packaged food contains sugar in the first 3 ingredients or more than one type of sugar, consider avoiding it.
- Be aware of “healthy” high sugar foods. Know that other high sugar foods often labeled healthy fall into the same category. These include agave, honey, organic cane sugar, and coconut sugar.
You should consider reading nutrition labels. Even foods disguised as “health foods” can be loaded with added sugars.
Summary: If you eat highly processed, packaged foods, avoiding all added sugar can be difficult. Make sure to read labels and be aware that food producers often disguise added sugar using alternative names.
At the end of the day, it’s important to figure out the sugar intake that’s right for you.
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Some people can handle a little bit of sugar in their diet, while for others it causes cravings, binge eating, rapid weight gain, and disease.
Every individual is unique, and you need to figure out what works for you.