We're not going to sugarcoat it—how much you should eat per day, the difference between natural and added sugars, and how much sugar is too much.
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Aah, sugar—the sweet stuff we all love to eat. Brownies, cookies, candy and ice cream just wouldn't be the same. But how much sugar should we eat a day? The truth is, most of us eat too much sugar. So, how can you balance your sweet tooth with your health? Read on to learn more about sugar, including the sources of added sugar, how much is considered healthy and what happens when you eat more than you should.

Natural vs. Added Sugar

Sugars are carbohydrates, and they're the body's preferred source of energy. There are many types of sugars, including:

  • Glucose: A simple sugar that is the building block of carbohydrates
  • Fructose: Like glucose, it is another type of simple sugar found naturally in fruits, root vegetables and honey
  • Sucrose: Commonly known as table sugar, it includes equal parts of fructose and glucose
  • Lactose: The sugar that naturally occurs in milk that is made up of equal parts of glucose and galactose

When you eat carbohydrates, the body breaks them down into glucose, which is used for energy.

Fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and dairy contain natural sugars, with fructose, glucose and lactose being inherently part of these foods.

Sugar also occurs naturally in sugarcane and sugar beets as sucrose. However, these are processed to make white sugar, which can then be added to processed foods and beverages.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is another type of added sugar made from corn, per the USDA. While sucrose is 50% glucose and 50% fructose, HFCS comes in two types:

  • HFCS-55, a type of HFCS with 55% fructose and 45% glucose that is used in soft drinks
  • HFCS-42, a type of HFCS with 42% fructose and 58% glucose that is used in baked goods, beverages and more

While honey, maple syrup and agave are natural sugars, they are considered added sugar when added to foods. Sugar can also be processed and added to foods under various names including inverted sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, molasses, brown sugar, brown rice syrup and more.

The main sources of added sugars in the American diet are desserts, soft drinks, juices, sweetened dairy products like flavored milk, yogurt, and ice cream and sweetened refined grain products like sugary cereals.

How Much Sugar Should You Eat per Day?

According to the USDA, on average, an American adult eats 17 teaspoons (68 grams) of added sugar per day. This amount is more than the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, which recommend limiting calories from added sugars to less than 10 percent per day. That's 12 teaspoons or 48 grams of sugar if following a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet.

The American Heart Association (AHA) has stricter limits and recommends that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons or 24 grams of added sugar per day and men stay under 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of added sugar per day.

While you might not be eating dessert every day, remember that added sugar can be found in foods and beverages you enjoy. A flavored coffee, a store-bought yogurt parfait a green juice are some potential sources of added sugar. You may also find hidden added sugar in sauces, salad dressings and many more, putting you over your daily recommended consumption.

How Do You Identify Natural and Added Sugar in Foods?

You can now find out whether there is added sugar in packaged foods, thanks to the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) for mandating the update of the Nutrition Facts label to help you make informed choices. With the new label regulations, food companies now have to add a line for added sugar on the Nutrition Facts panel. You may see "Includes X grams of added sugar" under "Sugars" on the panel.

For instance, if a food has 10 grams of sugar and says, "includes 8 grams of added sugars" on the nutrition facts label, then you know that only 2 grams of sugar in the product are naturally occurring.

Check the ingredients list, too. A dried fruit product, for example, may say "mangoes, sugar," so you know some of the sugar comes naturally from the mango but the rest is added. If the ingredients list only says, "mangoes," then you know that all the sugar in the dried mangoes is naturally occurring and none has been added.

A good rule of thumb is that fruits, vegetables and plain dairy products all contain natural sugar. Anything else is probably added.

What If You Have Diabetes?

The AHA's recommendation for added sugar "is no different for people with diabetes," says Molly Cleary, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian of Molly Clearly Nutrition based in New York City. "Almost everyone would benefit from limiting added sugar intake, including those with diabetes; however, small amounts of added sugar can be worked into a balanced diet," she says.

The thought that sugar causes diabetes is a myth, according to the American Diabetes Association. However, excess sugar can lead to weight gain, increasing your risk of type 2 diabetes. Drinking too many sugary beverages has also been linked to type 2 diabetes.

If you do drink soda, sweet tea or other sweetened beverages regularly, it's a good idea to cut back. Try using less sugar in your tea and coffee, drinking unsweetened flavored seltzers or adding herbs and fruits (think mint, strawberry or lemon) to your water to make it more exciting.

What If You Want to Lose Weight?

"The problem with sugar and weight loss [for many] isn't candy, soda and cookies," says Megan Kober, RD, a registered dietitian and founder of Nutrition Addiction. "The problem is juice bars [offer] smoothies...with 2 cups of fruit...and acai bowls [that] people are loading up on for weight loss...yet [these bowls could include] 40, 50, even 60 grams of sugar...[similar to] a [can of] pop."

"Honey, agave, coconut sugar—it's all sugar," she adds. "It all causes a blood sugar spike. It all causes a rush of insulin to be released. It all puts your body into fat-storage mode."

For those who wonder how much sugar they should stay under to lose weight, Kober says, "Are you really going to tally up how much sugar you're eating all day long, added sugar versus natural sugar? No. I doubt it," she says. Instead, "Eat one or two servings of fruit every day. Choose berries more often because they're high in fiber and lower in sugar than other fruit."

What Happens If You Eat Too Much Sugar?

While the body needs sugar for energy, have you ever wondered what happens when you eat too much of it?

Extra sugar is stored as fat, which leads to weight gain, a risk factor for many chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Studies link eating too much sugar to an increased risk of heart disease, per a 2019 article published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. In fact, a high intake of refined carbohydrates (including sugar, white flour and more) has also been linked to metabolic syndrome, which is marked by myriad conditions including obesity, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar and abnormal cholesterol levels, per a 2021 publication in Atherosclerosis.

On the contrary, evidence from multiple research studies published in 2018 in Expert Review of Endrocrinology & Metabolism suggests a diet low in overall added sugar is associated with a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Reducing added sugar intake wherever possible benefits your health.

The Bottom Line

Sugar is often demonized but remember, it's the body's preferred energy source and adds flavor to food. While there are healthy snacks to satisfy your sweet tooth, keep an eye on added sugar, which can sneak into seemingly healthy foods. Added sugar has no nutritional value and is stored as fat if consumed in excess. Too much sugar over time may put you at risk of heart disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and cancer.

Nevertheless, don't stress over every bite of sugar, especially sugar from whole foods like fruits and vegetables. If you are curious about lowering your overall sugar intake, consult a registered dietitian who can work with you to reach your health goals.