Added sugar is the single worst ingredient in the modern diet. It provides calories with no added nutrients and can damage your metabolism in the long run. Eating too much sugar is linked to weight gain and various diseases like obesity, type II diabetes and heart disease.
But how much is too much? Can you eat a little bit of sugar each day without harm, or should you avoid it as much as possible?
Added Sugars vs Natural Sugars – Big Difference
It is very important to make the distinction between added sugars and sugars that occur naturally in foods like fruits and vegetables. These are healthy foods that contain water, fiber and various micronutrients. The naturally occurring sugars are absolutely fine. However, added sugars are those that are added to foods. The most common added sugars are regular table sugar (sucrose) or high fructose corn syrup. If you want to lose weight and optimize your health, then you should do your best to avoid foods that contain added sugars.
Sugar Consumption is Extremely High
It is difficult to find exact numbers because sources vary on this. According to data from the U.S. in 2008, people are consuming over 60 pounds (28 kg) of added sugar per year and this does not include fruit juices (1). In 2008 the average intake was 76.7 grams per day, which equals 19 teaspoons or 306 calories. According to this study, sugar consumption went down by 23% between the years 2000 and 2008, mainly because people drank less sugar-sweetened beverages.
So we are on the right track, that’s the good news! However, current intake levels are still way too high and are a key player in making people fat and sick. Specifically, excess sugar consumption has been associated with obesity, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, tooth decay, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and a lot more (2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
What is a Safe Amount of Sugar to Eat Per Day?
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question. Some people can eat some sugar without harm, while others should avoid it as much as possible. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the maximum amount of added sugars you should eat in a day are (7):
- Men: 150 calories per day (37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons).
- Women: 100 calories per day (25 grams or 6 teaspoons).
To put that into perspective, one 12oz can of coke contains 140 calories from sugar, while a regular sized snickers bar contains 120 calories from sugar. If you are healthy, lean and active, these seem like reasonable amounts. You’ll probably burn off these small amounts of sugar without them causing you much harm.
But it’s important to note that there is no need for added sugars in the diet. They don’t serve any physiological purpose. The less you eat, the healthier you will be.
What About if You’re Overweight or Obese?
If you are overweight, obese, diabetic or suffering from the western diet in any way, then you should probably avoid sugar as much as possible. In that case, you should NOT be consuming sugar every day, more like once per week or once every two weeks (at most). But if you want to be healthy, then you really shouldn’t be consuming foods that have sugar added to them. Soft drinks, baked goods, processed foods… these foods have no place in the diet of someone who is overweight. Stick to real, single ingredient foods and avoid processed foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates.
If You’re Addicted to Sugar, Then Perhaps You Should Avoid it Completely
Sugary junk foods stimulate the same areas in the brain as drugs of abuse (8). For this reason, sugar can cause people to lose control over their consumption.
If you have a history of binge eating, failure at setting rules about your consumption (like cheat meals / days) and repeated failures with the “everything in moderation” approach – then perhaps you are addicted (like I was). The same way that a smoker needs to avoid cigarettes completely, a sugar addict needs to avoid sugar completely.
Complete abstinence is the only reliable way for true addicts to overcome their addiction. I have personally made the choice to never eat added sugar again. I now haven’t touched it in over 7 months. I’ve lost a lot of weight and I feel awesome.
How to Minimize Sugars in The Diet
Avoid these foods, in order of importance:
- Soft drinks: Sugar-sweetened beverages are awful, you should avoid these like the plague.
- Fruit juices: This may surprise you, but fruit juices actually contain the same amount of sugar as soft drinks!
- Candies and sweets: You should drastically limit your consumption of sweets.
- Baked goods: Cookies, cakes, etc. These tend to be very high in sugar and refined carbohydrates.
- Fruits canned in syrup: Choose fresh fruits instead.
- Low-Fat or Diet Foods: Foods that have had the fat removed from them are often very high in sugar.
- Dried fruits: Avoid dried fruits as much as possible.
Drink water instead of soda or juices and don’t add sugar to your coffee or tea. Instead of sugar in recipes, you can try things like cinnamon, nutmeg, almond extract, vanilla, ginger or lemon. Just be creative and use google to find recipes. You can eat an endless variety of amazing foods even though you eliminate sugar from your diet. A natural, zero-calorie alternative to sugar is Stevia.
What About Sugar in Processed Foods?
The best way to cut back on sugar is to simply avoid processed foods and satisfy your sweet tooth with fruits instead. This approach doesn’t require math, calorie counting or obsessively reading food labels all the time. However, if you’re simply unable to stick to unprocessed foods for financial reasons, then here are some tips on how to make the right choices:
- There are many different names for sugar: Sugar, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), dehydrated cane juice, fructose, glucose, dextrose, syrup, cane sugar, raw sugar, corn syrup 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.
- Be aware that other sugars often labelled healthy like agave, honey, organic cane sugar and coconut sugar fall into the same category.
Take Home Message
At the end of the day, it’s important to experiment. Some people can handle a little bit of sugar in their diet, while for others it causes cravings, binge eating, rapid weight gain and disease. We’re all unique and you need to figure out what works for you. Just keep in mind that when it comes to a harmful substance like added sugar…the less the better!
Article by Kris Gunnars