How many grams of added sugar should you have per day?
Gina Van Thomme
‘Added sugar’ is used to describe any sugar in food beyond what its whole food ingredients naturally contain. It includes both chemically manufactured artificial sweeteners, as well as natural sugars that come from food, such as fructose, glucose, lactose or sucrose.
Here, clinical dietitian Jessica Tilton answers common questions about how the body uses sugar, how much added sugar adults should eat per day and easy ways to decrease sugar intake.
How does added sugar affect health?
“Sugar is the readily used source of energy for the body,” Tilton says. “Added sugars are typically processed quickly, used immediately for energy or sent directly to the liver for fat storage.”
Tilton says that consuming too much sugar can cause health issues such as metabolic syndrome, as well as high blood sugar and insulin resistance, which can cause Type 2 diabetes.
“If you're consuming more calories than you need, sugar is going to be deposited as fat,” Tilton says.
While Tilton says there is no research that shows sugar is directly linked to cancer, obesity can indirectly increase the risk of some cancers.
How many grams of added sugar should we eat each day?
MD Anderson follows the American Heart Association recommendation that men should consume no more than 36 grams, or 9 teaspoons, of added sugar a day, while women should consume no more than 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, of added sugar a day.
MD Anderson dietitians recommend a diet rich in healthy, nutritious foods. Two-thirds of what you eat should be vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruits, nuts and seeds. The remaining third can be lean protein like chicken, fish or tofu.
“The best advice is to simply eat less sugar, except for whole foods,” Tilton says. “Ideally, our diets should be low in sugar and high in fiber, primarily fruits, vegetables, whole grain and lean proteins.”
What foods contain added sugar?
What do tomato sauce, cereal, granola, yogurt, mayonnaise and salad dressing have in common?
They all include added sugar. That surprises many people, says Tilton.
In recent years, it has become much easier to tell if a food contains added sugar: simply check the nutrition label.
In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said product labels must include how much added sugar a food contains. This information can be found under the Total Carbohydrate section of the label.
One sneaky category Tilton says can contain lots of added sugar? Beverages.
“We find that people don't think liquid calories count,” she says.
Tilton says many sports drinks, coffees, sodas and smoothies include added sugar. Those added sugars can add up fast. She uses a 12-ounce can of soda as an example, noting that it can contain up to 32 grams of added sugar.
“If a woman is consuming one of those sodas a day, she's already gone over on her sugar,” she says.
How can I reduce the amount of added sugar in my diet?
Begin by checking nutrition labels to determine how much added sugar a product contains. Once you recognize which foods contain added sugar, you can get ideas for healthy swaps.
For example, when Tilton discovered the blueberry yogurt in her fridge contained 5 grams of added sugar, she came up with a lower-sugar alternative: plain yogurt with fresh blueberries.
Tilton says whole fruit contains fiber, which allows the body to digest and absorb the fruit's natural sugar more slowly. This prevents a sugar crash caused by a rapid drop in blood sugar levels, which can leave you feeling tired and crabby.
To decrease the amount of sugar in your drinks, Tilton recommends opting for sparkling water over soda or adding a sprinkle of cinnamon to coffee instead of sweetener.
Another way to consume less sugar is to break the ‘sugar cycle’ that occurs when one sweet treat leads you to crave another and another.
To do so, Tilton recommends drinking water and choosing a healthy snack.
“Try a piece of fruit and some kind of nuts,” she says. “Things like that that have good fat and protein and are healthy.”