Consuming too much sugar in your diet can have negative long-term consequences for your health. To avoid that, it’s essential to decrease your added sugar intake. There are also alternatives to added sugars that may help reduce your long-term risk.
Americans consume too many added sugars in their diet.
According to the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, national surveys in the U.S. found that sugar-sweetened beverages accounted for 8% and 6.9% of total daily calories among children and adults, respectively. One study associated sugar-sweetened beverages with an additional 180,000 obesity-related deaths globally in 2010.
Find out more about added sugars, the risks they cause, and how you can avoid them.
What Are Added Sugars?
Some sugars occur naturally in foods and drinks like fruit or dairy products. Added sugars, on the other hand, do not occur naturally in food or drink. As the name implies, their manufacturers add them during the processing or preparation of food and drink.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, examples of added sugars include:
- Brown sugar.
- Cane juice.
- Corn syrup.
- Fruit nectars.
- High-fructose corn syrup.
- Malt syrup.
- Maple syrup.
- Raw sugar.
- Sucrose (table sugar).
- Sugar cane.
- And many more.
You can often find added sugars in sweetened/sugary drinks, such as soda, energy drinks, and juices. You can also see them in desserts, baked goods, candy, sugary cereals, yogurt, and more. Check the nutrition facts on your food products and drinks to see how much added sugar they contain.
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How Much Added Sugar Can I Have?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends that Americans 2 and older limit added sugars to 10% or less of their daily calorie consumption. Children under 2 should not have added sugars at all.
Following the 10% recommendation, an adult on a 1,500- to 2,000-calorie diet should limit their sugar intake to 150 to 200 calories or less. That equates to about 37 to 50 grams or about 9 to 12 teaspoons of added sugars per day.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends even less added sugar. Its guidelines are 9 teaspoons of sugar (36 grams) per day for men and 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for most women and children over 2.
Going by either recommendation, Americans consume too much added sugar.
According to the CDC, both children ages 2 to 19 and adults consume about 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day. Among children, boys consume more sugar on average than girls. Among adults, men consume more sugar on average than women.
Almost half of Americans’ sugar intake comes from sugary drinks, the American Heart Association says.
Is Added Sugar Bad for You?
Consuming too much added sugar can have long-term consequences for your health. However, these negative health consequences are often not only due to sugar overconsumption.
A 2023 report from the British Medical Journal shared that people who drink more sugar-sweetened beverages also tend to eat more saturated fats, carbohydrates, and sodium. Those same people eat less fruit, fiber, dairy, and whole-grain foods on average.
The report also associated this unhealthy diet pattern with unhealthy lifestyles. Those who overeat sugar, fat, carbohydrates, sodium, and sugary beverages were less physically active. They also frequently smoked and had more sedentary time.
With this in mind, in addition to a focus on reducing added sugars, overall lifestyle habits play a large role in one’s health.
There are links between long-term high intake of added sugar and many different health conditions, including:
- Cognitive problems.
- Dental cavities.
- Heart disease.
- High blood pressure.
- High cholesterol.
- Kidney disease.
- Liver disease.
- Muscle/nerve damage.
- Skin aging/wrinkles.
- Some cancers.
- Vascular disease.
- Weight gain.
How to Cut Back on Added Sugars
According to the American Heart Association, 8 out of 10 Americans are trying to reduce their sugar intake. Cutting back on sugar can help you lower your risk of short-term and long-term health problems from sugar consumption.
There are many different ways you can lower the amount of sugar in your diet.
- Eat more nutrient-dense foods, and avoid empty calories. Nutrient-dense foods contain vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and other key nutrients. They are generally low in added sugar. Examples include:
- Greek yogurt.
- Lean meats.
- Low-fat cottage cheese.
- Low-fat or fat-free milk.
- Raw and cooked vegetables.
- Soups and salads with beans.
- String cheese.
- Unsweetened canned fruit.
- Whole fruits.
- Whole grains (bread, tortillas, or crackers).
- Limit the amount of empty-calorie foods you eat. These foods have minimal nutritional value. Examples include candy, desserts, soda, sugary beverages, and other sweets.
- Snack on fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables contain plenty of nutrients that are good for your health, without added sugar. The recommendation is for five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day. These should fill half of your plate two to three times per day. Fruit and
vegetables also contain fiber, vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants. Some examples of great snacks including fruits and vegetables are celery and carrots and hummus, Greek yogurt dip with fruit, frozen grapes, or apples with cinnamon.
- Limit the amount of sugar that you add to food. Sometimes, we complicate the problem of added sugar by adding sugar ourselves — even if the product already has added sugar! Try to cut back on adding various sugary substances to your food and drink.
- Cut back on those sugary drinks. The American Heart Association says about half of Americans’ sugar consumption comes from drinks alone. There are many ways to cut back on your sugar intake from drinks. Try drinking more water and adding fruit like lemons, limes, or berries for flavor. Go for 100% fruit or vegetable juice instead of drinks with added sugar. Go for unsweetened tea or coffee — or use low-fat or fat-free milk or unsweetened milk alternatives instead of other sweeteners.
- Read those nutrition labels. When you’re grocery shopping, take a look at the labels on the products you buy. Try to choose options with less added sugar.
- Remember portion sizes. Some added sugar is OK to have in our diets. But don’t overdo it. Pay attention to the amount of sugar you’re consuming per serving to avoid going overboard. Remember, every 4 grams of added sugar is a teaspoon of sugar. According to the AHA guidelines, people should consume no more than 6 to 9 teaspoons of sugar per day.
- Use sugar alternatives. Instead of added sugar, go for naturally occurring sweeteners or non-sugar substitutes.
Alternatives to Added Sugar
One way to cut back on the amount of sugar in your diet is to opt for naturally occurring sweeteners or sugar substitutes.
Naturally occurring sweeteners
Many believe that naturally occurring sugars added to other foods don’t add to the overall consumption of sugar. However, it is important to limit all sugars, naturally occurring or not, when maintaining a healthy diet.
Examples of these naturally occurring sweeteners include:
- Date palm.
- Grape sugar.
- Sugar beet.
Sugar substitutes are also known as non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS). They provide sweetness to food and drinks without the calories of sugar. You can often find them in foods and drinks labeled as “diet” or “low sugar.”
Sugar substitute production is either natural or artificial. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves six high-intensity sugar substitutes as food and drink additives:
- Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K). Brand names include Sunett® and Sweet One®.
- Aspartame. Brand names include Equal® and NutraSweet Natural™.
- Neotame. The brand name is Newtame™.
- Saccharin. Brand names include Sweet’N Low® and Sugar Twin®.
- Sucralose. The brand name is Splenda™.
The FDA also recognizes three plant- or fruit-based high-intensity sweeteners as generally regarded as safe (GRAS). The GRAS designation means those sweeteners do not need specific approval. The GRAS sweeteners include:
- Monk fruit extracts. Brand names include Monk Fruit in the Raw and PureLo.
- Steviol glycosides (stevia extracts). Brand names include Pure Via and Truvia.
- Thaumatin. Thaumatin was first found
as a mixture of proteins isolated from the katemfe fruit.
Sugar substitutes can help you avoid calories and serve as a better option for preventing dental cavities than sugar. But like sugar, you should consume them in moderation. A May 2023 analysis from the World Health Organization reported that sugar substitutes did not show any long-term benefit in reducing body fat or weight. Long-term use of sugar substitutes could also put you at risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems.
However, it’s important to note that changing just one part of a lifestyle generally doesn’t produce significantly improved health outcomes. Sugar is just one piece of an overall healthy lifestyle.
Combining a decrease in sugar, fat, and calories with other lifestyle changes is more likely to improve health. Other things you can do include stopping smoking, consuming less alcohol and sugary beverages, and increasing your physical activity.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for a way to improve your health, a focus on reducing added sugar in your diet is a good place to start. The best way to do it is by consuming more natural sugars and unsweetened drinks. Do your best to avoid sugary products and don’t think of sugar substitutes as a get-out-of-jail-free card.
UPMC Bariatric Services provides a variety of nonsurgical and surgical options for weight loss. Our registered dietitians and nutritionists are available to guide you to further strategies to improve your health.
To find a location near you, visit our website.
American Academy of Family Physicians, Sugar Substitutes. Link
American Heart Association, How Too Much Sugar Affects Your Health. Link
American Heart Association, Sugar 101. Link
Food and Drug Administration, How Sweet It Is: All About Sweeteners. Link
Shiza Arshad, Tahniat Rehman, Summaya Saif, et al, Heliyon, Replacement of Refined Sugar by Natural Sweeteners: Focus on Potential Health Benefits. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Get the Facts: Added Sugars. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Know Your Limit for Added Sugars. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rethink Your Drink. Link
United States Department of Agriculture, Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. Link
World Health Organization, WHO Advises Not to Use Non-Sugar Sweeteners for Weight Control in Newly Released Guideline. Link
About UPMC Bariatric Services
UPMC Bariatric Services is here to help if you’re struggling with obesity and want to lose weight. We offer both surgical and nonsurgical weight loss plans and can help you find the right path for a weight-loss journey. We will work with you to discuss your needs and develop and individualized treatment plan. We meet the highest level of national accreditation for bariatric surgery centers, and our team provides complete care. We offer our services at UPMC locations throughout Pennsylvania and New York. Visit our website to find a provider near you.