According to Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, we would be smart to follow the American Heart Association’s sugar-related recommendations instead.

By Betty Gold
March 31, 2021
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Fun fact: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans has been issued and updated by the federal government—specifically the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS)—every five years since 1980. "The Dietary Guidelines for Americans provides advice on what to eat and drink to meet nutrient needs, promote health, and prevent disease," says its website. "It is developed and written for a professional audience, including policymakers, healthcare providers, nutrition educators, and federal nutrition program operators." Each edition aims to reflect the most up-to-date body of nutrition science and provides "a customizable framework for healthy eating that can be tailored and adapted to meet personal, cultural, and traditional preferences."

And while all of the above is true, a number of registered dietitians, chronic disease physicians, academics, policy officials, and other health experts have voiced concerns about some components of the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. First, the guidelines ignored the proposals from the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to lower the recommended alcohol intake for every American to one drink per day. (They still state that just women should consume no more than a drink a day, while men can drink up to two, despite conclusive evidence showing that capping consumption at one drink a day for men could decrease their risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer.)

In addition, the guidelines state that Americans should limit their added sugar intake to no more than 10 percent of their total calories per day. To help us understand the complex problems with this recommendation, we tapped nutrition expert Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, author of Sugar Shock: The Hidden Sugar in Your Food and 100+ Smart Swaps to Cut Back. "There are several issues with this advice," she says. "For one, how many people can accurately assess how many calories they eat? People aren't good estimators of their calorie intakes. And even if you set that aside, how does a percentage of calories translate into common measurements for added sugar, such as teaspoons or the number of grams you see on a food label?"

Since the point of the Dietary Guidelines is to provide the general public—as well as those who work in federal agencies, public health, healthcare, education, and business—with easily digestible diet and health recommendations, this murky advice is clearly problematic.

However, there's an even bigger issue at hand: According to Cassetty, the reality is that most people should eat even less than the 10 percent limit. "You can think of added sugars as calories you don't need, similar to alcohol. There's no nutritional value in them. A healthy eating pattern focuses on mostly nutrient-dense foods and allows a little wiggle room for foods and drinks consumed just for pleasure. Those foods have a place in your diet, but it's a fraction of a place compared to the other foods." Similar to the alcohol issue above, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended that the guidelines be modified to suggest Americans consume less than 6 percent of calories from added sugars, citing high rates of obesity and chronic disease directly correlated with excess sugar in the diet. Again, no dice.

"When you eat a sugary diet, it puts you at a higher risk of heart disease, dementia, cancer, and type 2 diabetes," Cassetty says. "It increases your chances of weight gain. But it may be a factor in other problems, too. For example, a typical American diet high in added sugars has been linked with anxiety and sleeping problems. A sugary diet is also tied to more wrinkles and acne."

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So How Much Sugar Should We Really Be Eating?

For all of the reasons above, Cassetty recommends limiting added your sugar intake as much as possible—and instead of seeking sugar recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines, she says that the American Heart Association's guidance is far more practical and beneficial. "I agree with the American Heart Association's recommendations to limit added sugars to no more than 6 teaspoons per day for women and no more than 9 teaspoons per day for men." Since there are roughly four grams in each teaspoon of sugar, this translates to 25 grams of added sugar per day for women and 36 grams a day for men.

"To give you some context, there are 39 grams of added sugar in a 12-ounce soft drink. But even if you aren't drinking soda, you can easily exceed the targets. For instance, a trendy oat milk has 7 grams of added sugar per cup, and a seemingly healthy brand of whole grain bread has 10 grams for two slices. If you start your day with an oat milk latte and a couple of slices of avocado toast, your 'healthy' breakfast could put you over the limit for women," Cassetty adds.

4 Easy Ways to Curtail Your Added Sugar Intake

Choose a Low- to No-Sugar Dessert

Sugary drinks, desserts, and candy combined represent about 50 percent of our added sugar intake. “So if you’re regularly eating and drinking these things, you can easily bring your sugar intake way down by having them less often,” Cassetty says. And if you’re eating dessert or candy daily, there’s no need to stop—the trick is tracking down a healthier dessert that satisfies your sweet tooth without giving you a sugar crash. “The easiest swap is to replace it with a botanically-sweetened dessert, like those from Lily’s Sweets. They don’t contain any added sugar, so this swap will drastically reduce your added sugar levels.”

Replace Soda With OJ

Another simple swap Cassetty suggests is replacing soda with 100 percent orange juice. “Soda doesn’t contribute anything but sugar to your diet, but 100 percent orange juice doesn’t have any added sugars. And unlike soda, it’s packed with nutrients.”

Mix Up Your Breakfast Bowl

If you like sweetened cold or hot cereal, Cassetty recommends mixing a half-serving with a half-serving of unsweetened cereal. You could try this with yogurt, too. 

Make a Naturally Sweet Sauce With Frozen Fruit

"One of my favorite hacks is heating frozen fruit in the microwave," Cassetty says. "When you do this, it releases its juices. When stirred into yogurt or oatmeal or added to pancakes and waffles, it lends its sweetness and adds bonus fiber, vitamins, and minerals. You can also mix the warm fruit with chia seeds and wait about 15 to 30 minutes for it to thicken. The consistency is perfect for topping toast and as a replacement for sweetened jellies and jams."