How Much Sugar Should You Eat In a Day?

SEAN LOCKE / STOCKSY
SEAN LOCKE / STOCKSY

Sugar can taste delicious, and it provides a quick source of energy. However, many people are becoming more mindful of what they eat, including how much sugar is too much.

Popular diets describe the benefits of cutting out sugar and carbohydrates, but not all sugars are the same. Many foods contain natural sugars. For example, fruits contain fructose and dairy products contain lactose. Added sugars are added to foods either during processing or as you prepare them—such as adding honey to cereal.

Many people in the United States consume about 17 teaspoons of added sugar daily, which is more than the recommended amount. Eating too much added sugar is linked with conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and dental caries. This doesn't mean you need to avoid sugar altogether. Still, it's important to be mindful of your intake and which foods might contain unexpected sugar.

There aren’t set recommendations for the amount of naturally occurring sugars you should eat, but there are guidelines for added sugars.

Americans get an average of 13% of their calories from added sugar, which is higher than current recommendations. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults limit added sugars to no more than 10% of their total caloric intake. For reference, if you consume 2,000 calories a day, the guidelines recommend limiting your added sugar intake to 12 teaspoons (50 grams) per day.

The American Heart Association (AHA) has more ambitious recommendations. They suggest adults limit added sugars to no more than 6% of total daily calories. That’s 6-9 teaspoons, or about 30 grams of sugar, for a 2,000-calorie diet.

The recommendations are lower for children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, infants below 2 years old should not consume any added sugars. Teenagers and children above the age of 2 years old should consume no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day.

Read the Nutrition Label

You can check the natural and added sugar content of a food by reading the nutrition label:

  • Total sugar: This number includes both natural and added sugars.
  • Added sugars: This number will either be the same or lower than the total sugar. If it equals the total sugar, that means that all sugar in that product is added sugar. On the other hand, a product might contain 10 grams of total sugar, but only 1 gram is added sugar.

Natural vs. Added Sugar

Your body generally processes all forms of sugar in the same way—with a few exceptions. Carbohydrates in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains contain a variety of starches, including complex carbohydrates and fiber. Table sugar and other sweeteners are simple carbohydrates.

Complex carbohydrates contain three or more types of sugar and also offer nutrients like fiber. As a result, they digest more slowly, which prevents blood glucose (sugar) spikes. Your body also produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) to digest fiber in complex carbohydrates. SCFAs can also promote gut health because they're fermented in the colon and can increase the growth of good bacteria.

In short, when it comes to being mindful about how much sugar you eat, focus on added sugar.

Health Effects of Eating Too Much Sugar

Sugar—especially natural sugar—is fine in moderation. However, excess sugar intake can lead to excess calorie intake, which can cause weight gain. Excess body fat is associated with many health conditions, including:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep apnea (a chronic breathing disorder that causes your breathing to stop and restart repeatedly while you sleep)
  • Osteoarthritis (a joint condition that occurs when the cartilage—the connective tissue surrounding the bones—around a joint gradually breaks down over time)
  • Chronic pain
  • Cancer

Dental Caries (Tooth Decay)

You may remember adults warning you that candy would give you cavities. Sugars, particularly added sugars, are a key risk factor for developing dental caries—also known as tooth decay or cavities—for both children and adults.

Studies have found that people with higher added sugar intake also had more dental caries. Meanwhile, consuming less than 10% of total calories from added sugars greatly reduces the risk of tooth decay and cavities.

Foods with natural sugars—like milk and fruit—may not pose the same risk to dental health. Researchers believe this is due to other nutrients in these foods, such as fiber, water, calcium, and antioxidants. That said, dried fruit can be problematic for teeth because it gets stuck between them.

Heart Disease

The American Heart Association has a strict added sugar recommendation because added sugars have been linked with cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk. However, the relationship isn’t as concrete as you might think.

A few recent reviews and meta-analyses have examined this relationship. Some reviews found a strong relationship between added sugar intake and CVD risk, particularly when it comes to sugar-sweetened beverages. Other studies had mixed results.

These differences could be because most studies are observational. With observational studies, researchers collect information from participants or look at past information. This can make it difficult to determine cause and effect—in this case, that added sugars cause CVD. More high-quality research is needed to examine this possible relationship.

Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is often associated with sugar and other carbohydrates. You do want to be mindful of your sugar intake if you already have diabetes, as this can help prevent blood glucose spikes. However, it’s not so straightforward if you’re trying to prevent the disease. Research regarding added sugars and diabetes risk is largely inconclusive.

Diabetes risk factors include genetics, a sedentary lifestyle, and being over 45 years old. Added sugar consumption is not considered a primary risk factor.

The American Diabetes Association states that sugary drinks are linked with type 2 diabetes, so they recommend limiting these beverages in favor of water whenever possible. They also state that consuming added sugars in addition to solid fats and excess calories has been linked with type 2 diabetes. Therefore, it may not be added sugars alone that increase the risk of diabetes.

Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a condition where excess fat accumulates in your liver. It’s one of the most common causes of liver disease in the U.S. There’s some evidence that eating a lot of added fructose—often found in sugar-sweetened beverages—can increase your risk of NAFLD.

Research on NAFLD and sugar largely focuses on sugar-sweetened beverages. For example, one 2019 study found a significant association between higher sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and NAFLD.

Again, these studies are largely observational. They suggest an association between added fructose and NAFLD, but they don't show clear evidence that fructose causes NAFLD. Many factors can increase your risk of developing NAFLD, including type 2 diabetes and genetics.

Foods With High Sugar Content

Beverages are the most common source of added sugars. This includes soft drinks, fruit drinks, sports drinks, coffee, and tea. These beverages account for about 50% of all added sugars.

Foods like candy, desserts, and other sweet snacks are more obviously high in sugar, but some high-sugar foods might surprise you. The most common food sources of added sugars for Americans are:

  • Sandwiches
  • Breakfast cereals and bars
  • Sweetened yogurt

Sandwiches account for 7% of Americans’ added sugar intake. Sugar is often used as a preservative in bread or condiments. Breakfast cereals, granola bars, and sweetened yogurt are other common sources of added sugar in the diet. For example, one serving of a popular vanilla Greek yogurt contains around 9 grams of added sugars.

How To Reduce Your Sugar Intake

Since many Americans consume more added sugars than guidelines recommend, you may be wondering how to be more mindful of your sugar intake. Start by considering which high-sugar foods you consume most often. Then, consider how you might still enjoy the foods and drinks you love while minimizing added sugar. Here are some ideas:

  • Request less sweetener (or no sweetener) in your go-to coffee order
  • Focus on lower-sugar drinks like water, unsweetened tea, milk or low-sugar dairy-free milk, and sparkling water
  • Eat a variety of foods that have fiber, protein, and healthy fat throughout the day to prevent constant cravings for high-sugar foods in the evening
  • Choose snacks like whole fruit, nuts, seeds, veggies, and hummus rather than relying on high-sugar, more processed options
  • Prioritize products free of added sugars when possible—for example, buy yogurts nut and seed butters without added sugar
  • Purchase unsweetened products and sweeten them yourself with fruit or a little bit of honey or other sweetener

A Quick Review

When it comes to daily sugar intake, focus on added sugars versus natural sugars found in whole foods like fruit and milk. Natural sugars in complex carbohydrates are packed with fiber and other beneficial nutrients. Many types of added sugars are calorically dense and excess consumption is linked to certain health conditions.

Try to limit your daily sugar intake to no more than 6–10% of your total caloric intake. Consider which high-sugar foods and drinks you eat regularly and how you might replace them with lower-sugar alternatives.