Food and Nutrition

How Much Sugar Is Okay to Eat?

Originally published October 12, 2017

Last updated April 29, 2024

Reading Time: 3 minutes

How Much Sugar Is Okay to Eat?

When it comes to heart health (and overall health) butter used to be the bad guy. Now all eyes are on sugar — and, in particular, added sugar.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American adults are consuming too much sugar. Added sugars offer zero health benefits, and these empty calories can lead to a range of health issues, when eaten in excess.

“There have been several studies that show a relationship between increased daily added sugar intake and a higher risk of various cardiovascular and metabolic disorders, including high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and fatty liver disease,” says Helga Van Herle, MD, a cardiologist at Keck Medicine of USC and associate professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Where are these added sugars coming from?

A report from the CDC shows that sugary beverages, such as soda, sports drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks and sweetened waters, are the leading source of added sugars in the American diet.

Scientists are looking at the impact of sugary drinks on overall health, and the evidence isn’t reassuring.

“A large study published in JAMA suggests that death from all causes was higher among people who drank two or more sugar sweetened or artificially sweetened soft drinks,” Dr. Van Herle adds.

Snacks and sweets, including cakes, cookies, ice cream, jams, syrups and candies, are the second-leading source of added sugars in the American diet.

Fructose, lactose, sucrose, glucose — what’s the difference?

Sugars are the simplest type of carbohydrate and provide energy for the body. There are two types of sugar in the American diet: naturally occurring sugars, such as fructose (found in fruit), and lactose (found in milk) and added sugars. Examples of added sugars include sucrose, glucose and dextrose.

How much added sugar should I be eating?

The latest statistics show that added sugars constitute 13% of total daily calories for the average American adult. The CDC recommends that Americans two years and older keep added sugars to no more than 10% of total daily calories.

Meanwhile, the American Heart Association recommends a maximum of just 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day for women and 9 teaspoons for men. For reference, a typical 12-ounce soft drink contains 10 teaspoons of sugar, while a 16-ounce soft drink contains 13 teaspoons of sugar, according to Dr. Van Herle.

What’s the best way to manage how much sugar I’m eating?

First, check the ingredient list of processed foods and look for added sugars. The higher up they are on the label, the more there is in the food. And, when you do, be aware of added sugars in disguise. They can hide as corn sweetener, corn syrup, raw sugar, molasses, malt sugar, invert sugar, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate and sugar molecules that end in “-ose” (such as dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose and sucrose).

When thinking about your daily calorie needs, the American Heart Association suggests spending most of your calories on foods with essential nutrients and using only leftover calories for things like sugar, fats and alcohol. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends eating foods that contain naturally occurring sugars, such as fruits, vegetables and fat-free or skim dairy products, and asking for nutrition information when eating out.

Reducing added sugar intake could be one of the best things you do for your health.

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Deanna Pai
Deanna Pai is a freelance writer and editor.