How Much Sugar Should You Eat in a Day? The Experts Explain
Sugar has a sneaky way of creeping in your diet. Here’s how to be more mindful about your daily sugar intake.
When talking about sugar, it’s important to clarify the kind of sugar.
I’m a big fan of sugar: I love the doughnuts and lattes from the coffee shop down the block, and I love having a small bag of candy as a late afternoon pick-me-up, and I always look forward to the glass of white wine I have after dinner. But as much as I enjoy these treats, this lineup is above the recommended sugar intake per day.
That’s right, health authorities recommend capping sugar intake at 50 grams per day for most adults. While 50 grams of sugar may sound like a lot, sugar has a sneaky way of creeping in your diet — and creeping up on you throughout the day.
As harmless (and delicious) as it may seem, overdoing sugar in your diet can lead to health problems down the line like heart disease and diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For this reason, and others like generally feeling better throughout the day, it’s important to keep daily sugar intake in check.
I spoke to registered dietician Amy Shapiro to find out exactly what smart sugar intake looks like and how to keep sugar levels down throughout your day.
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Not all sugar counts
“Generally speaking we want to keep added sugars to less than 10% of total calories. The recommendation for men is no more than 9 tsp. of sugar or 150 calories from added sugar daily and for women and kids 6 tsp. sugar and 100 calories daily,” says Shapiro.
When talking about sugar, it’s important to clarify the kind of sugar, since there is a real difference between the sugar that’s added to food and the sugar that’s found naturally in foods. The recommendations above are meant for added sugars, according to Shapiro. So what should you know about sugar that’s found naturally in food like fruit?
“Natural sugars come along with additional health benefits like water, fiber, vitamins and minerals so those aren’t as widely limited. However, if you have a weight issue or if you are trying to prevent diabetes you may need to watch naturally occurring sugars, too,” says Shapiro.
Always talk to your doctor about the best way to manage and prevent diseases like diabetes, by the way. In general, Shapiro says that the main culprits behind excess sugar intake are processed foods.
Shapiro says that two common foods that can contain a lot of sugar are sweetened granola and yogurt.
Sneaky ‘healthy’ foods where extra sugar hides
According to Shapiro, most people get their sugar intake from foods like cereal, granola, yogurt, energy bars, baked goods, juice, coffee drinks and even diet or fat-free foods. What’s pretty surprising about this is that many of these foods are labeled as “healthy” or seem like healthier, everyday food staples. But these foods are some to be wary of, or at least double-check the sugar content before you down them thinking they are healthier options.
“Granola is all-natural and often sweetened with honey or something that sounds healthier but is still added sugar. They think it is a healthy breakfast, but oftentimes flavored yogurts, even Greek yogurts, have upwards of 18 grams of sugar per 5 oz. serving. That is a lot,” says Shapiro. “Add the granola to it and you have hit your daily intake and it’s only breakfast time.”
Other common foods that seem healthy but can pack in the sugar are vegan or gluten-free baked goods, according to Shapiro. “Having a vegan or gluten-free baked good or cookie seems healthy, but they still contain a decent amount of sugar,” says Shapiro. This is because vegan simply means no animal products are used in the product, and gluten-free is typically a similar nutrition profile as another baked good with gluten — the flour is just made from a gluten-free source. In both cases, there’s plenty of room to add sweeteners and sugars to recipes and label them “gluten-free,” “vegan,” or even “organic,” so don’t be fooled by wellness buzzwords that are often labeled on processed, packaged foods or baked goods.
Another easy way to pack in more sugar than you might plan to is to drink specialty coffee drinks. “Grab a quick coffee drink in the middle of the day to pick up your energy and you are in for over 20g of sugar,” says Shapiro. Specialty lattes and coffee drinks are often packed with flavored syrups, which may taste great in your java, but are an easy way to load up on sugar fast. A better option is to try an unsweetened coffee, or sweeten it yourself with a packet of sugar so you can at least control how much is going in your drink.
How to keep your daily sugar intake in check
Since sugar can add up really fast throughout the day when you’re eating processed or fast foods, Shapiro recommends sticking to mostly whole foods as much as possible. “Whole foods contain natural sugars but also have fiber, vitamins and minerals. So if you are craving something sweet, grab a piece of fruit,” says Shapiro. With whole foods, you’re much more likely to find sweet foods with overall lower sugar content, plus you get the added benefit of other good-for-you nutrients.
Another tip is to get into the habit of checking nutrition labels for sugar content whenever you can. “Look for the amount of added sugars so you can make sure you stick to a healthy portion; also read ingredient lists since ingredients like honey, maple syrup and coconut sugar sound healthy but are still considered added sugars,” says Shapiro.