How Much is Too Much Sugar?

Do you ever wonder "how much is too much sugar?" The research is clear.


Do you ever wonder "how much is too much sugar?" The research is clear.

Soft drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, coffee drinks, cupcakes, cookies, muffins, donuts, granola bars, chocolate, ice cream, sweetened yogurt, cereal, candy. The list of sweet temptations is endless.

The average American now consumes 22 to 28 teaspoons of added sugars a day—mostly high-fructose corn syrup and ordinary table sugar (sucrose). That’s 350 to 440 empty calories that few of us can afford.

How much is too much sugar? Cutting back to 100 calories (61⁄2 teaspoons) a day for women and 150 calories (91⁄2 teaspoons) a day for men might mean slimmer waistlines and a lower risk of disease.

The research on how much sugar is too much

Do sugary foods and drinks deserve more blame for America’s obesity epidemic than other foods?

“There is strong evidence linking sugar-sweetened beverages to weight,” says Vasanti Malik, a research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health.

For example, when she and her colleagues tracked more than 50,000 women for four years, they found that weight gain was greatest (about 10 pounds) among women who went from drinking no more than one sugar-sweetened drink a week to at least one a day.

What about the added sugars in solid foods? “We focused on sugar-sweetened beverages because they’re the largest contributor of added sugar intake,” Malik says, “and because of the lack of compensation for liquid calories.”

Studies find that people may “compensate” for the calories they get from solid foods by eating less later in the day. But that doesn’t seem to happen when people drink liquid calories.

“In one study, people given jelly beans consumed less at subsequent meals than those who were given the same calories as liquid sugary beverages,” says Malik.

Sugar and health

More evidence that sugary beverages can plaster on the pounds: In three studies, scientists randomly assigned people either to consume sugary beverages (made with sugar or high- fructose corn syrup) versus diet beverages (usually made with aspartame) for three to 10 weeks. Sure enough, only those who consumed sugar or high-fructose corn syrup gained weight.

How much is too much sugar? In 2009, the American Heart Association suggested a limit: no more than 100 calories a day for women and no more than 150 calories a day for men.

The heart association wasn’t just concerned about “the worldwide pandemic of obesity and cardiovascular disease,” but also about the healthy foods that added sugar replaces.

“To follow recommendations to lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, hypertension, you name it, you have to use most of your calories for fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, meat, fish, poultry, and oils,” explains Susan Krebs-Smith of the National Cancer Institute. “Very few calories are left over for empty calories.”

In her analysis of a nationally representative survey of more than 16,000 people, roughly 78 percent of women and 67 percent of men ate too much added sugar.

“For example, for someone who eats 2,000 calories a day, ‘too much’ was more than 130 calories’ worth of added sugar,” she says.

Not surprisingly, more than 90 percent of the people also came up short on green and orange vegetables, beans, dairy, and whole grains. “Most calories need to count for something nutritionally,” adds Krebs-Smith.

But growing evidence suggests that added sugars aren’t just empty calories. They’re harmful calories.

“We saw huge metabolic differences between people who consumed fructose instead of glucose, despite the same weight gain,” says Stanhope.

“Many people believe that excess calories are the problem, and it doesn’t matter where they come from. But now we know that that’s not true.”

What to do:

  • Shoot for 100 calories (6 1⁄2 teaspoons) a day of added sugars if you’re a woman and 150 calories (9 1⁄2 teaspoons) a day if you’re a man. Even less may be better for your heart.
  • Don’t drink sugar-sweetened beverages. Limit fruit juices to no more than 1 cup a day.
  • Limit all added sugars, including high-fructose corn syrup, cane or beet sugar, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, agave syrup, and honey.
  • Don’t worry about the naturally occurring sugar in fruit, milk, and plain yogurt.
  • If a food has little or no milk or fruit (which contain natural sugars), the “Sugars” number on the package’s Nutrition Facts panel will tell you how many grams of added sugars are in each serving. Multiply the grams by 4 to get calories from sugar. Divide the grams by 4 to get teaspoons of sugar.

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