Real talk: How much sugar should a healthy person eat in a day?
Give me a bowl of strawberries, and I’m a happy camper. Even better if they’re covered in chocolate or whipped cream. With a rampant sweet tooth, thinking about how much sugar a day I consume admittedly makes my heart patter a bit faster.
It bears repeating that not all sugar is as evil as wellness influencers make it out to be, and attempting to cut it all out is not a great idea. Yet it is important to be mindful about how much of it you’re getting in a day. Too much sugar over time is connected to some serious health issues, like an increased risk of diabetes and potentially chronic inflammation in your body. In the short term, of course, too much sugar can spike your energy levels and then lead to a major crash later on (and increased anxiety in some).
So, what does our daily allowance of sugar look like? Here’s what experts have to say.
How much sugar a day you can eat
Here’s the thing: How much sugar one should be consuming somewhat depends on the type. There are broadly two types of sugars: natural sugars, which occurs naturally in fruit and other foods, and added sugar, which includes refined sugars found in many processed foods. (It also technically includes sugars one is adding to a food from natural sources—like stirring in honey instead of sugar into your coffee still counts as an added sugar!) Added sugars, experts say, are the ones people are at most risk of over-consuming.
“We have enough research at this point to support that added sugar isn’t going to be doing us any favors on its own,” says Jessica Cording, RD. She notes added sugars are on an equal footing, because they give you an elevated blood sugar response. “No matter which type of sweetener you’re consuming, a little goes a long way.”
A good rule of thumb: Keep added sugars to no more than 25 grams a day, or six teaspoons’ worth.The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines state up to 10 percent of your daily calorie intake can come from added sugars. Cording considers that a bit too liberal, especially since that doesn’t account for natural sugars. Say you eat 2,000 calories a day. Based on these guidelines, you could consume around 50 grams of added sugar, or about 12 teaspoons. Instead, Cording favors the American Heart Association’s recommendation of limiting added sugars to 25 grams a day, or six teaspoons. “I feel comfortable saying consume as little added sugar as possible,” she says. “If numbers are helpful, I’d say 5 to 6 percent of your daily calorie intake is a good ballpark.”
Looking for a lower-sugar dessert that actually tastes delicious? Let me introduce you to these lemon bars:
Wait, what about natural sugars?
Unlike added sugars, there aren’t set guidelines about how much sugar you can consume that is naturally present in food. “It’s really easy to obsess over this, and get really confused and overwhelmed,” Cording says.
For most healthy people, it’s not necessary to fixate overmuch on how much natural sugar you’re eating if it’s coming from whole foods sources. (People with diabetes or other health conditions may have to be more mindful of their intake of all sugar sources and should work with their doctor to come up with a good dietary plan that fits their needs.) Foods with occurring sugars like fruit often also contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients to help balance out the impact of sugar on your system. They’re even better when eaten with sources of protein or fat to further level things out. “When we’re eating a balance of different macronutrients, it helps promote stable blood sugar, because we’re having a slower breakdown of those naturally present sugars,” Cording says. With a slower rate of digestion, you can better avoid the crashes and mood swings, and stay satiated longer.
Still scratching your head over what this actually looks like? Imagine your lunch or dinner plate. Cording suggests filling half of the plate with non-starchy vegetables, a quarter with your choice of protein, and the last quarter can be food with natural sugars. For a quick snack example, pair a piece of fruit with nut butter or tahini for added fat and protein.
How to cut back on added sugars
Although sugar pokes its way into countless foods, cutting back to that 25 grams recommendation doesn’t have to feel daunting—and you don’t have to meticulously count grams. First, Cording suggests getting clarity on your relationship with added sugar. “Understanding where it’s coming from is going to help you figure out which approach will work for you when you’re trying to reduce your sugar intake,” she says. Rather than going cold turkey, Cording suggests making small lifestyle tweaks to cut back on your intake, like opting for plain yogurt instead of the flavored stuff or leaving sugary sauces and condiments on the grocery shelves. It’s also a good idea to get smart about reading labels and seeing how much sugar is in a serving of your favorite foods (and how much of that is added sugar). With a little extra diligence, you can still have a pretty sweet life without relying too much on added sugar.
I swear I’m not overstating it when I say you won’t miss the refined sugar in these brownies. And if you have more common nutrition questions, these dietitians have the answers.