Nature can be cruel. More often than not, we find that the things we love are usually bad for our bodies. One of such things is sugar, especially the added variety. It can cause metabolic disease, obesity, and a whole range of heart diseases that no one would want to experience.
This is the reason why most people who think about changing an aspect of their diet reconsider their sugar intake. The thing about sugar is that it has a sneaky habit of trickling into your plate through the most unsuspecting food sources – from tomato sauce to salad dressings. So even if you’re lucky enough to not have a sweet tooth, you could still be eating plenty of sugar.
This is why it’s helpful to not just understand how much sugar you really ought to be having, but also to figure out the various kinds of sugar and their sources. Here goes.
Natural Sugars Vs Added Sugars
Added Sugars: As the name suggests, these are sugars that are added to foods and beverages to make them sweeter and more palatable. Sugar, being a natural preservative, also helps increase the shelf life of a wide range of foodstuffs and products. This is why companies try to sneak in large quantities of added sugar in an attempt to bring down their cost of manufacturing and increase their profitability.
High fructose corn syrup and regular table sugar (also known as sucrose) are the most common added sugars that can increase your risks of fatty liver disease, pancreatic cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. 1 2 3 4 5 Therefore this is the kind of sugar you should be most careful about when it comes to consumption.
Much Added Sugar Should You Be Eating In A Day?
Nevertheless, the American Heart Association declares that the maximum amount of added sugars you can eat in a day are:
- For Men: 150 calories per day (37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons).6
- For Women: 100 calories per day (25 grams or 6 teaspoons).7
- For Children Between 2 to 18: Less than 100 calories per day (25 grams or 6 teaspoons).8
Let’s put this into perspective to help you understand the quantities better. A regular-sized Snickers bar contains 120 calories of sugar while one 12 oz can of coke gives you 140 calories of sugar. If you’re of a healthy weight and have no health complications, these are fairly reasonable amounts of sugar and you can burn these calories within no time before they can harm you.
That being said, added sugars are completely unnecessary for they contain zero nutrients, hence serving no physiological purpose. Therefore, the less you eat, the healthier you will be.
Is There A Daily Limit On Natural Sugars Intake?
There are really no specific recommendations about the amount of natural sugar one should be eating every day. However, there are certain guidelines about eating the sources of natural sugars – for instance how much fruit or dairy or how many vegetables you should incorporate into your menu for the day.
Sugars From Fruit And Vegetables
Different countries use different guidelines, so the ideal recommendation for fruit and vegetable intake is still a debatable topic. But according to the general consensus, as long as one is consuming natural sugars well within the healthy eating daily recommended intake, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about.
- For Adults: By that logic, eating 2 servings of fruit and 3 servings of vegetables each day is the ideal daily recommended intake of natural sugars for adults who engage in moderate physical activity.9
- For Children: The daily recommended intake of fruit and vegetables for children depends largely on the child’s age, gender, and level of physical activity. However, on an average, the recommendations generally range from 1-2 cups for fruit and 1-3 cups for vegetables.10
Natural Sugars From Dairy Products
Unflavored, low-fat dairy products are usually full of a natural sugar called lactose. Research has indicated that dairy products can actually protect you against type 2 diabetes and improve your overall sugar metabolism thanks to the presence of lactose and other naturally existing milk components like whey, vitamin D, calcium, and fatty acids.11
As per the 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines, current dairy food group recommendations for adults and children are as follows:
- Between 19- 50 years: 2 ½ servings14
- Over 50 years: 4 servings15
- Pregnant or lactating women: 2 ½ servings16
For Children: The daily recommended intake of dairy for children depends largely on the child’s age, gender, and level of physical activity. However, on an average, the recommendations generally range between 1 ½ to 3 ½ servings for both boys and girls between 2-18 years of age.17
About Natural Fruit Juices
As far as natural fruit juices are concerned, the matter can be a little tricky. Juice discards the fiber from the fruit, giving you only the liquid extract and the natural sugars. Because sugar is digested quickly by the stomach, it can cause a sudden spike in your blood sugar and insulin levels. So if you’re diabetic, you may want to avoid fruit juices as much as possible, even if they have no added sugar.
Opt for whole fruits and vegetables instead. That way, the fiber will help slow down the process of digestion, thus, further slowing down the release of sugar into your bloodstream. This will also help your body utilize this sugar better for its energy needs.
Note: Natural sugar consumption is more about looking at reducing your intake of added sugars. As mentioned earlier, there is literally no need for added sugar in one’s diet, so the more careful you are about sticking to your fruit, vegetable, and dairy intake – the less room you leave for overdosing on harmful snacks that are loaded with added sugar.
Also, when it comes to eating fruits, stay away from canned fruit and store-bought fruit juices. These have high amounts of added sugar, even if the label mentions things like “light syrup.” Similarly, when buying dairy, always go for the unflavored, unsweetened, low-fat variety as much as possible.
What About Natural Sweeteners?
Natural sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, or agave are not to be mistaken for natural sugars just because they come from a natural source and may be less processed. According to the World Health Organization guidelines, natural sweeteners fall under a category called “free sugars” which are similar to added sugars.18
Essentially, any form of added sugar is a “free sugar”, even if it contains some natural sugars.
The bottom line? Even if you’re using natural sweeteners in your food which are a healthier alternative to table sugar, they are still having to be “added.” Hence, natural sweeteners are as good as added sugars and count toward your daily added sugar limit just as much as regular sugar would. For this reason, you’d be better off using natural sweeteners in careful moderation.
For instance, honey is healthy, but if you go overboard with it, you’ll end up adding a lot more sugar than you really need. This is as bad as adding regular table sugar to your food.
What If I Have Obesity?
A waist measurement of more than 40 inches in men and more than 35 inches in women, high triglyceride levels, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar are usually common indicators that you have obesity. In which case you should definitely be steering clear from added sugar as much as possible. At the very least, you should try and limit your sugar intake to once a week, even twice a week, if possible.
Remember, we’re talking about added sugars here, as they have zero nutritional value. Natural sugars, existing in fruits and vegetables are totally fine as long as you stick to your daily recommended intake as these come with additional nutrients. On the other hand, soft drinks, store-bought juices, baked food items, and processed foods are to be completely avoided if you’re serious about protecting your health.
Binge-Eaters, Be Especially Cautious!
Sugary junk activates the same parts of your brain as various drugs of abuse do.19
Bingeing on foods with added sugars and artificial sweeteners, can, over time, disrupt your body’s natural ability to accurately estimate energy or calorie intake and remaining energy needs. So no matter how hard you try to set sugar consumption rules like “everything in moderation” or “cheat sheet guides” – you will never be able to truly control your sugar intake simply because your body already lost its ability to gauge the right amount of calorie intake.
True abstinence is the only way one can overcome any addiction, be it drugs or smoking or alcohol. It’s no different when it comes to sugar. Thus, if you’re a sugar addict, you need to cut added sugars from your diet completely.
Deciphering Processed Food Labels
The food industry is full of ambiguity when it comes to ingredients. In fact, many products marketed as “health foods” have been found to contain added sugars. This is why learning to read the labels on the back of your processed food package is essential if you’re determined to control what you’re eating. Here are some tips:
- Sugar comes under many different names. These are sugar, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), corn syrup, syrup, fructose, glucose, dextrose, dehydrated cane juice, cane sugar, raw sugar, and more.
- If a packaged food contains sugar in the first 3 ingredients, avoid it.
- If a packaged food contains more than one type of sugar, avoid it.
- The closer to the beginning of the ingredient list the sugar is, the more sugar the product contains.
- If you want to see how much sugar the product contains for every 100 grams, look closely at the “Carbohydrates (of which sugars)” figure in the nutrition label. If the figure reads more than 22.5 grams of total sugars per 100 grams, it means the sugar content is high. A low sugar content would be denoted by a figure that reads 5 grams of total sugars or less per 100 grams. If the figure per 100 grams falls anywhere in between the aforementioned readings, the product contains a moderate amount of sugars.
- A gentle reminder: be aware that so-called “healthy sugars” like honey, agave, organic cane sugar, and coconut sugar fall under the “added sugars” category and still contribute toward your daily limit of added sugar consumption.
|↑1||Ackerman, Zvi, Mor Oron-Herman, Maria Grozovski, Talma Rosenthal, Orit Pappo, Gabriela Link, and Ben-Ami Sela. “Fructose-induced fatty liver disease.” Hypertension 45, no. 5 (2005): 1012-1018.|
|↑2||Larsson, Susanna C., Leif Bergkvist, and Alicja Wolk. “Consumption of sugar and sugar-sweetened foods and the risk of pancreatic cancer in a prospective study.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 84, no. 5 (2006): 1171-1176.|
|↑3||Fung, Teresa T., Vasanti Malik, Kathryn M. Rexrode, JoAnn E. Manson, Walter C. Willett, and Frank B. Hu. “Sweetened beverage consumption and risk of coronary heart disease in women.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 89, no. 4 (2009): 1037-1042.|
|↑4||Basu, Sanjay, Paula Yoffe, Nancy Hills, and Robert H. Lustig. “The relationship of sugar to population-level diabetes prevalence: an econometric analysis of repeated cross-sectional data.” PloS one 8, no. 2 (2013): e57873.|
|↑5||Ludwig, David S., Karen E. Peterson, and Steven L. Gortmaker. “Relation between consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and childhood obesity: a prospective, observational analysis.” The Lancet357, no. 9255 (2001): 505-508.|
|↑6, ↑7||Johnson, Rachel K., Lawrence J. Appel, Michael Brands, Barbara V. Howard, Michael Lefevre, Robert H. Lustig, Frank Sacks, Lyn M. Steffen, and Judith Wylie-Rosett. “Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health.” Circulation 120, no. 11 (2009): 1011-1020.|
|↑8||Children should eat less than 25 grams of added sugars daily.
|↑9||Moore, Latetia V., and Frances E. Thompson. “Adults meeting fruit and vegetable intake recommendations—United States, 2013.” MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 64, no. 26 (2015): 709-713.|
|↑10||Children eating more fruit, but fruit and vegetable intake still too low.
|↑11||Sugar in Milk. Dairy Council of California.|
|↑12, ↑13, ↑15, ↑17||Dairy foods: How much is enough? Nutrition Australia.|
|↑14||Dairy foods: How much is enough?
|↑16||Dairy foods: How much is enough? Nutrition Australia.|
|↑18||WHO calls on countries to reduce sugars intake among adults and children. World Health Organization.|
|↑19||Avena, Nicole M., Pedro Rada, and Bartley G. Hoebel. “Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 32, no. 1 (2008): 20-39.|