What You Need to Know About Sugar

By: Sarah Gold Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN

If you’ve resolved to cut sugar from your diet this January, you’re not alone. One of the most demonized ingredients out there, sugar is on many people’s “no” list. 

Let’s start with some real talk: small amounts of added sugar aren’t cause for concern. Don’t stress about a swirl of honey in your morning yogurt or the occasional chocolate after dinner.  It’s part of a healthy lifestyle to enjoy your favorite sweet foods occasionally. 

But that said, consuming too much added sugar has been linked to increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, fatty liver disease, and metabolic syndrome

What’s too much sugar?

Experts estimate that most Americans consume over 20 teaspoons of added sugar per day. If that sounds like a lot to you, you’re right. 

The World Health Organization recommends limiting added sugar to less than 10 percent of calories, but notes there may be additional health benefits that come with limiting in take to 5 percent of calories (which is aligned with the American Heart Association’s recommendations).

So how much sugar should you really eat? On average, that’s six teaspoons per day for women and nine teaspoons for men. 

Hidden sugar

When you eat something sweet or add a teaspoon of sugar to your coffee, you’re making an active, informed choice. Surprisingly, sugar is found in many packaged foods — even ones that aren’t overly sweet —making it challenging to cut down your intake.

Sugar’s in condiments like teriyaki sauce, barbecue sauce, and some nut butters, cereal, yogurt, and energy bars to name a few unexpected instances. Of course, sugar sweetened beverages and desserts contribute significantly as well — one 12 ounce can of soda has 8 teaspoons of sugar alone.

How to identify added sugar

Soon, food companies will be required to call out added sugar on the nutrition facts panel. While we wait for that to go into effect, you’ll need to put on your detective hat and do a little ingredient sleuthing. 

The best thing you can do to limit sugar in your diet is to read the ingredients list. Added sugar comes under the guise of many names — there are over 60 terms, in fact! It could be listed as something you recognize like cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup, but it may also be called something less obvious such as dextrose, fructose, molasses, or brown rice syrup. 

“Natural” sugars count, too

Maple syrup, honey, and agave are often toured as better-for-you sweeteners, yet they all contribute toward your added sugar intake. And, although maple syrup and honey offer small amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, it’s not enough to outweigh the fact that they are sugar. 

Some also point out these these natural sugars have a lower glycemic index than can sugar. This means, they may not spike your blood sugar quite as much as cane sugar. However, the differences aren’t significant enough, and glycemic index is not a great measure of the healthfulness of a food. 

Fruits, vegetables, and dairy are a different story 

There is some good news, though! You don’t need to worry about the sugar found in fruits, vegetables, and unsweetened dairy (are you confused yet?). 

There’s sugar in these foods, but combined with the food’s natural fiber and protein the rate of digestion of the sugar is slowed down. This, along with the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients found in these foods outweighs the concern of the small amount of sugar they contain. In addition, research connects regular consumption of fruits and vegetables with reduced disease risk. In other words, eat up!

Eat a diet of mostly whole foods

The easiest way to limit sugar intake is to fill your plate with whole foods. Focus more on what you can add to your plate like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. When you eat with a focus on those foods you’ll naturally eliminate some of the packaged foods that are filled with sugar without having to think too much about it. 


Sarah holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Marketing from The George Washington University and a Master of Science in Nutrition Communication from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She completed her Dietetic Internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard University teaching hospital in Boston, MA.

When not in the kitchen, you can find Sarah seeking out the latest restaurant opening, teaching indoor cycling, running, training for triathlons, or hiking or skiing with her husband, son,  and golden retriever pup.


Photos: Purple Carrot & Unsplash