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Sweet Spot: How Much Sugar Is OK To Eat Per Day?

Updated food label guidelines make it easier to track added sugars in your diet

Closeup up of a pile of sugar with sugar cubes on top.

It’s easy to look at candy and know it’s a sugary food. Ditto for dessert table delights like cakes and cookies. Nobody’s going to be surprised to see ooey-gooey ice cream on the list, either.

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But do you think “sugar bomb” when you look at a jar of pasta sauce? Or whole-grain cereal? Or fruited yogurt? Certain varieties of those foods actually have gobs of added sugar — and that’s really not good for you.

Limiting sugar intake is important for your overall health. Too much added sugar can increase your risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

But where is the line between what’s OK to consume and what might cause damage to your body? And how can you best avoid going over that line? Let’s find the “sweet spot” in this dietary dilemma with registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD, LD.

How much sugar is too much?

Discussions about sugar consumption and health typically focus on “added sugars.” These would be sweeteners added to foods while they’re being processed and prepared. (More on that in a bit.)

All of this “added sugar” makes what you eat and drink taste pretty delish. But it also adds a lot of calories with no real nutritional benefit.

“Other than happy tastebuds, your body gets no benefit from added sugars,” reiterates Czerwony.

That’s why current dietary guidelines recommend keeping added sugars to less than 10% of your daily caloric intake. So, if you consume 2,000 calories a day, no more than 200 of those calories should come from added sugar.

Those 200 calories equal 12 teaspoons (48 grams) of added sugar. To put that in perspective, a single can of soda may contain a full day’s worth of added sugar.

Where added sugar is found

The truth is that added sugar can be tough to avoid. Researchers scanning American grocery shelves found that 68% of barcoded food contained added sweeteners. That’s more than 2 out of 3 items in the average cart.

The really sneaky part? Added sugar goes by many names on ingredient lists, shares Czerwony. Aliases include:

Updated nutrition labels

Now some good news: Recent changes to the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods and drinks makes it easier to identify added sugars. The redesign by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) includes a designated spot for added sugars.

The new standard requires manufacturers to share the amount of added sugar per serving in the food product, as well as how that fits (% daily value) within a 2,000-calorie diet.

“Looking at the label is important if you want to manage sugar intake,” says Czerwony. “You’ll probably be surprised at the amount of added sugar in food where you really don’t expect to find it.”

Examples include:

  • Pasta sauce.
  • Ketchup and barbecue sauces.
  • Protein bars.
  • Granola bars.
  • Sports drinks.
  • Chocolate milk.
  • Breakfast cereals.
  • Canned fruit.
  • Dried fruit.

Learn more about how to read nutrition labels.

What about natural sugars?

Sugar isn’t just “added” to foods. In some cases, such as fruit and dairy milk, sugar is just there naturally. So, why isn’t that a big worry?

“Your body typically handles natural sugars better than sugar added to food for a sweetener effect,” explains Czerwony. “Plus, many of the foods with natural sugar offer other nutritional benefits that aren’t in processed foods.”

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So, while a banana or glass of milk may be higher in sugar, other vitamins and nutrients help offset that dose of sweetness.

You’re also less likely to overdo it on fruit or milk as opposed to annihilating a bag of cookies. “We don’t have many people coming to us in healthcare with worries that they’re overdoing it on apples,” notes Czerwony.

Tips to manage your sugar intake

I’m addicted to sugar. It’s a self-assessment that Czerwony often hears in her line of work. So, let’s start with some good news: A sugar addiction is NOT a diagnosis you’re going to have on your medical record.

But if you’re worried about eating too much sugary food, try these tips:

  • Start tracking. Understanding where your added sugar is coming from is the first step to reducing the amount. Sometimes, cutting back on one or two items can make a significant change.
  • Read labels. A good rule of thumb is to try to avoid foods and drinks that have 10 grams or more of added sugar. “Keeping that number in the single digits can keep your total from jumping too high,” suggests Czerwony.
  • Limit portions. Eat one donut instead of two when the urge strikes.
  • Eat a balanced diet. If you skip meals or your diet is lacking in nutrition, your body may crave sugar as a quick pick-me-up. “If you’re filling up on fruits, vegetables and lean proteins, odds are you won’t go looking for the sugary treat later,” says Czerwony.

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