One of the most common questions we get 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 a day based on your health goals.
Before we get into the details, here’s some stats for you: The typical American adult consumes about 60 pounds of added sugar each year. That is 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 in a day—and how do we know where sugar is coming from it? Read on for the scoop.
Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar – It Matters
Let’s discuss the big differences between natural sugars and added sugars.
What are Added Sugars?
Added sugars are just that—any sugars added during food processing. This includes refined white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and even naturally occurring sugar substitutes..
What are Natural Sugars?
Some sugar replacements are also “natural” and include options like maple syrup and honey. Although natural themselves, these sugars are often “added” to foods in place of table sugar to add sweetness.
These sweeteners are considered slightly healthier choices than table sugar as many include more vitamins and minerals. But, they should be treated similar to table sugar as they have similar impacts on blood sugar levels and overall health. We recommend eating them in small amounts.
Here’s the biggest difference between naturally occuring sugar and added sugar: 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. Whole foods, meanwhile, contain other nutrients that impact how your body breaks down the sugar. Think about it like this: The naturally occuring sugar in an apple is very different from the added sugar in a cookie!
Need examples? Fiber slows sugar digestion to head off a blood-sugar spike. Yogurt contains protein which helps your body process the natural sugar (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 whole foods, such as vitamins, minerals, and probiotics.
The fact is: Nature is a master of design. Sugar often 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 no matter what kind of sugar you’re eating, the key is not to overdo it. When it comes to naturally occuring sugar, there can still be too much of a good thing.
What Happens if I Eat Too Much Sugar?
If you consume large amounts of added sugar, your cells may 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 You Eat in a Day?
Remember, your brain needs 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, your brain does not require added sugar at all. It’s added sugar that may cause the harmful effects discussed above.
Remember, your body doesn’t need added sugars of any kind to function optimally. In fact, it functions best when you’re limiting added sugars as much as possible.
That being said, the American Heart Association still sets healthy limits if you do choose to include added sugars in your daily routine. Note: At Nutritious Life, we recommend finding a healthy diet that works for you with no regularly consumed added sugar. Save it for special occasions and conscious indulgences!
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) consume no more than 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, of added sugar daily.
- Children and toddlers under 2 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.
- One serving (170g) of Chobani 0% Fat Vanilla Greek Yogurt has 15g of total sugar, 10 of which are added.
Lesson here: Read those labels!
How Do I Know if My Food Has Added 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 added sugars are listed among the first few ingredients, you know the product is likely high in sugar.
The good news is that food manufacturers are 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.). If a food doesn’t have a nutrition label you need to scan, chances are, it has 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