People sometimes describe calories from sugar as “empty calories” because they do not provide any nutrients.
In this article, we look at the recommended sugar limits for different types of people and provide information on how to reduce the intake of sugar.
Recommended sugar limits
Recommended daily sugar limits vary depending on age and sex.
Discretionary calories are those that are left over once a person has met their daily nutritional needs.
A person who has consumed calories from high-nutrient foods throughout the day can use up this extra calorie allowance on treats, such as sugary or fatty foods.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommend that sugary foods comprise no more than half of a person’s daily discretionary calorie allowance.
This allowance differs for men, women, and children.
According to AHA guidelines, most men should consume no more than 150 discretionary calories of sugar per day. This is equivalent to 38 g or 9 teaspoons (tsp) of sugar.
Women should use no more than 100 discretionary calories on sugar per day. This is around 25 g or 6 tsp of sugar.
Children between the ages of 2 and 18 should consume no more than 25 g, or 6 tsp, of added sugar daily.
People with diabetes
Diabetes makes it difficult for the body to use glucose effectively. Since the body converts both naturally occurring and added sugars into glucose, people with diabetes must monitor their overall sugar intake.
But some foods affect blood glucose levels more than others, depending on their glycemic index (GI). Foods with a higher GI raise blood glucose more than foods with a lower GI.
A person with diabetes should regularly check their blood glucose level to ensure that it is within a safe range. This range will vary slightly from person to person.
Avoiding added sugars and focusing on consuming the right amounts of fiber and nutrient-dense carbohydrates from whole foods can help stabilize blood sugar levels.
Added sugar vs. natural sugar
Honey and maple syrup are examples of natural sugars manufacturers add to foods.
Certain whole foods contain naturally occurring sugars.
For example, fruits and some vegetables contain the sugar fructose, and milk contains a sugar called lactose. These foods also contain nutrients and may be sources of dietary fiber.
Added sugars are sugars or caloric sweeteners that manufacturers put in foods or drinks.
Added sugars can be natural or chemically manufactured. A type of sugar can be “natural” (i.e. unprocessed) without being “naturally occurring.”
Examples of natural sugars that manufacturers add to provide sweetness include honey, maple syrup, and coconut sugar.
Even fructose and lactose qualify as added sugars in many processed foods.
Examples of added sugars to look for on food labels include:
- refined white sugar
- brown sugar
- raw sugar
- invert sugar
- malt sugar
- coconut sugar
- maple syrup
- corn syrup
- high-fructose corn syrup
- corn sweetener
- fruit juice concentrates
- sugar molecules ending in “ose,” such as fructose, glucose, dextrose, lactose, maltose, and sucrose
How to reduce sugar intake
People can reduce their intake of added sugar by:
Avoiding liquid sugar
Juices and smoothies can be high in sugar
Liquid sugar is in soft drinks and juices. The body digests it more quickly than the sugar in foods, and as a result, liquid sugar causes a greater spike in blood glucose levels.
If a person drinks sugary liquids on a regular basis, the repeated spikes in blood glucose can overload the pancreas and liver, causing health problems.
Sodas tend to contain the highest amounts of liquid sugar. A 12-ounce can of soda contains about 8 tsp of sugar, or 130 empty calories.
The following drinks may also contain liquid sugar:
- fruit juices and smoothies
- high-energy drinks or sports drinks
- chocolate or flavored milk
Avoiding packaged foods
Research suggests that about 75 percent of packaged foods in supermarkets contain added sweeteners.
Examples of packaged foods that may contain added sugar include:
- candies and chocolate
- breakfast bars
- breakfast cereals
- savory snacks
- sauces and salad dressings
- milk and soy beverages
- canned, frozen, and dried fruit
Swapping added sugars for natural alternatives
The following tips can help a person replace the added sugar in their diet with more healthful alternatives:
- Try adding mint leaves, cucumber, berries, or citrus fruit to plain or sparkling water.
- Swap sweets and desserts for fruit, but avoid canned fruit in syrup.
- Prepare homemade sauces and salad dressings.
- Replace store-bought granola and snack mixes with homemade varieties that include unsweetened dried fruits and non-frosted wholegrain cereals.
- When cooking or baking, use unsweetened applesauce or mashed bananas instead of sugar.
- Stop using sugar in tea and coffee or reduce the amount.
- Use herbs and spices instead of sauces that contain added sugar.
Trying sugar alternatives
Non-nutritive sweeteners (NNSs) contain few or no calories.
Researchers have investigated whether replacing sugary foods and drinks with sugar-free options containing NNSs may help people consume fewer calories and maintain a healthy weight. They have reached differing conclusions.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved the following NNSs for use in food:
- acesulfame K, such as Sweet One
- aspartame, such as NutraSweet and Equal
- saccharin, such as Sweet’N Low
- sucralose, such as Splenda
Stevia is another type of NNS that the FDA consider to be “generally recognized as safe.” This means that experts agree that recommended amounts are safe to use.
It is best to limit the intake of NNSs and pay attention to overall calories consumed per day, as NNSs can lead to cravings and overeating.
Emerging research suggests that artificial sweeteners may have negative effects on metabolism, gut health, and cravings, but confirming these findings will require more research.
The average person in the U.S. consumes an excessive amount of added sugar, and experts have linked high sugar consumption to a range of diseases.
People can reduce their health risks by cutting down on the amount of added sugar in their diet. This may require a person to carefully check food and drink labels for different forms of sugar.
People can also gain more control over their sugar intake by preparing homemade meals and snacks using fresh, whole produce.