How Much Is Too Much Sugar? Here's Where to Cap Your Sugar Intake Every Day
We've been conditioned to think that all sugar is bad for you, when that's not entirely true. The biochemistry term "sugar" is defined as a certain type of carbohydrate. There are natural sugars—like those occurring in fruits, milk, and even some vegetables—and there are the refined, processed sugars, the human-made, added sugars, that show up in our foods, sometimes without our knowledge.
"When you eat the naturally occurring sugars, your body has to do the extraction and refinement," says Alejandro Junger, MD, cardiologist and functional medicine doctor. "You have to 'work' for the sugar, which in a way counteracts the excess energy they bring."
But with added, refined sugars, it's different. "If the extraction is already made in a factory, you get the reward without the effort, and that tips your metabolism into an unhealthy imbalance," he says.
Why You Should Pay Attention to Added Sugars
Added sugars are really the ones that have a negative impact on your body. Nutrition labels now have an added sugar column, so you can see what you are putting in your body, but it can still be tricky to spot, because it's not just in the expected dessert foods like cake or ice cream. There are so many foods that have sneaky amounts of added sugar: store-bought salad dressings, flavored yogurts, dairy-free milks, and tomato sauce. It's important to read food labels, since you could easily be consuming multiple grams of added sugar every day without even knowing it.
But why are refined sugars so bad for you? "It's like air to the fire of inflammation, which starts by showing up as insulin resistance, then hardening of your arteries, followed by a snowballing effect that ends in an avalanche," Dr. Junger says.
Over time, an excess amount of sugar starts to make your body sluggish, causes weight imbalances, and can eventually lead to dangerous conditions including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
How Much Added Sugar Per Day Is OK
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 10 percent of daily calories comes from added sugars. The American Heart Association recommends even less: For most American women, no more than 100 calories per day, or about 6 teaspoons of sugar. For men, it's 150 calories per day, or about 9 teaspoons.
As you probably guessed, most Americans consume far more than that, averaging around 17 teaspoons per day.
What About Natural Sugars?
Fundamentally, it's important that your body does have some sugar. As Dr. Junger says, "sugars are important for cellular life and repair." Avoiding all sugar in all forms entirely isn't the way to go—our bodies need some form of carbohydrates. Carbs equal fuel.
"All carbohydrates break down in our body like sugar," says Holly Lorusso, RD, a diabetes instructor at Yale New Haven hospital. This includes starches (grains, legumes, potatoes), vegetables, fruit, and dairy. "Many of these foods contain natural sugar, but are beneficial with all of the other nutrients they contain."
That said, a balanced diet is still important. Although these naturally occurring sugars are nutritionally better for you than processed sugars—you don't want to consume an endless supply. The bottom line is that it's still sugar, which on the whole, you shouldn't eat in excess. "Aim for 40 to 50 percent of total calories from carbohydrates," Lorusso says.
Of course, this will depend greatly on your lifestyle. "If you're running a marathon or working hard physically, you may need more carbohydrates than if you're just lounging at the beach," Dr. Junger says. "If you're pregnant or if you are battling the flu, or COVID-19, your sugar requirements may be tenfold compared to other times."
But Don't Deprive Yourself
It's vital to keep tabs on your sugar intake for lifelong health, but a no-sugar-ever diet isn't a sustainable choice for most people, nor is it a healthy one. "Our bodies do need some sort of carbohydrates," says Lorusso. "When you aren't having those foods, you feel sluggish and tired."
But even Dr. Junger indulges sometimes. His advice: "pick the least nasty choice." Although no added sugar is typically the healthier option, making choices that are whole or "closer to nature" is often better—in other words, it's smarter to have a banana with 14 grams of sugar than a low-sugar processed snack.