Perhaps, the No. 1 question we get asked is, “How much sugar can (or should) I eat?” To make it easy for everyone, we’re outlining just how many grams of sugar you can eat in any given day based on your health goals.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, here’s some stats for you. The typical American adult consumes about 60 pounds of added sugar each year, or 77 grams of supplemental sugar (nearly a ½ cup!) each day, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). That’s not doing our tickers—or our waistlines or noggins—any favors.
So how much sugar is safe to eat—and how do we spot it? Read on for the scoop.
Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar – It Matters
First, let’s discuss the big differences between natural sugars and added sugars.
Added sugars are any sugars added during the processing of foods, including refined white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and slightly better sugars. These are often described as “natural” but are still “added,” and include things like maple syrup, honey and coconut sugar. These sweeteners are better than table sugar, but are still super concentrated and need to be eaten in small amounts.
Here’s the biggest difference: That spoonful of refined table sugar added to your salad dressing or breakfast cereal causes inflammation (here’s how) and turns to fat quickly if it’s not needed for energy. An apple, meanwhile, contains other nutrients that impact how your body breaks down the sugar. Fiber, for instance, slows its digestion to head off a blood-sugar spike. Yogurt, on the other hand, contains protein that helps your body process the natural sugar in it (just be sure to avoid brands with heaps of added sugar) at a slower pace. Not to mention all of the other incredible nutrients you’re getting from those foods, such as vitamins, minerals, and probiotics.
The fact is: Nature is kind of a master of design, and most of the time, sugar occurs in a food for a reason that your body will parse out as it processes a food’s complex web of nutrients. Nature also doesn’t expect you to only eat one food over and over, so just don’t overdo it.
What Happens If I Eat Too Much Sugar?
If you’re consuming large amounts of added sugar, your cells can become resistant to insulin over time. This puts you at risk for developing Type 2 diabetes, systemic inflammation, and other chronic conditions.
A 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that people who consumed about 20% of their calories from added sugars had a 38% higher risk of dying from heart disease than people who got 8% of their calories from added sugar.
Another study, published in 2016 in the journal Nutrients, found that consuming too much added sugar has been linked to weight gain and obesity, which are risk factors for cancer, fatty liver disease and heart disease.
So How Many Grams of Sugar Should We Eat in a Day?
Remember, our brains need glucose (aka sugar) for fuel. The best way to get this fuel is through whole foods such as whole grains, vegetables and fruit. On the other hand, our brains do not require any added sugar at all. It’s this added sugar that is linked to the harmful effects discussed above.
The AHA recommends:
- Women consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day (100 calories or 6 teaspoons).
- Men stick to less than 36 grams (150 calories or 9 teaspoons) of added sugar per day.
- Children (ages 2 to 18) should consume no more than 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, of added sugar daily.
- Children and toddlers under 2 should avoid added sugars
Wondering how much added sugar is in certain foods? Here’s some perspective:
- 1 cup of Fruit Loops has 13 grams of sugar
- one fun-size 3 Musketeers bar has 19 grams of sugar
- one (12-ounce) can of Pepsi has 41 grams of sugar
- a 5.3-ounce, fruit-on-the-bottom blueberry yogurt will have 20 grams of total sugar, 14 of which are added.
Lesson here: Read those labels!
Sugar Intake Guidelines for People With Diabetes
People with diabetes are typically advised to eat less sugar than the general population, but the exact amount will vary based on your blood sugar levels, which fluctuate throughout the day.
“The amount you can eat and stay in your target blood sugar range depends on your age, weight, activity level, and other factors,” according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Here’s what the CDC suggests:
On average, people with diabetes should aim to get about half of their calories from carbs. That means if you normally eat about 1,800 calories a day to maintain a healthy weight, about 800 to 900 calories can come from carbs. At 4 calories per gram, that’s 200–225 carb grams a day.
Check the Ingredient List for Sugar
The first step in becoming aware of the refined or added sugars in the foods you eat is to check the ingredient list.
When refined or added sugars are listed among the first few ingredients, you know the product is likely to be high in sugar.
The good news is that food manufacturers are now required to list the amount of added sugars on the Nutrition Facts label. An analysis “found that this labeling could potentially prevent nearly 1 million cases of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes over the next two decades,” according to the AHA.
Sneaky Synonyms for Sugar
Sure, it’s simple to spot “sugar” on the Nutrition Facts label, but it’s still important to study up on the 61 synonyms for sugar you might see in the ingredient list, so you can be a savvy sweetener consumer.
- Agave nectar
- Corn syrup
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Sorghum syrup
Sugar Health Goals: The Best Ways to Reduce Sugar Consumption
The simplest way to cut back on added sugars in your diet is to eat whole foods (in other words, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, etc.) that often don’t even have nutrition labels you need to scan. Chances are, they have zero added sugars.
If you do choose to snack or sip on convenience or processed foods, steer clear of these biggest added-sugar sources in the American diet as much as possible.
- Soft drinks
- Fruit juices
- Sports or energy drinks
- Sweetened coffees and teas
- Baked goods
As a general rule, try to limit or avoid a food if:
- The ingredient list includes “sugar” or any of those alternate monikers for a sweetener in the first three ingredients.
- The product contains more than one type of added sweetener.
With reporting and expertise provided by Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN