What is added sugar? And why is it bad for you?
Sugar isn’t actually toxic, despite what some overly zealous health bloggers might say.
The federally appointed committee’s reasoning for cutting added sugar: It’s just empty calories. If more than 10 percent of the calories you consume are coming from sweets, it would be impossible to get all the healthy nutrients you need without eating way too much.
That’s why you don’t need to worry about the sugar that’s naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, says Frank Hu, M.D., Ph.D., a nutrition professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a member of the committee. Those foods are rich in other nutrients, like fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
But doesn’t sugar cause diabetes? Traditional thought says that’s the case, but your genes and your belt size may play a bigger role in the development of the disease, Aragon says.
Excess body fat—especially if you’re genetically predisposed to carrying it around the middle—can create insulin resistance, he says. That sets the stage for a decline in glucose control, which can lead to prediabetes and diabetes.
Sugar’s main crime, in some cases, is making food so delicious that we overeat, says Aragon.
“It’s the overconsumption of added sugar—packaged desserts and snack foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, etc.—and underconsumption of nutrient-dense foods, and insufficient physical activity, that can play a role in the development of a range of health issues, including metabolic syndrome,” he says.
How much sugar should you eat?
The government’s recommendation to get less than 10 percent of your total calories from added sugar is a good guideline, Aragon says.
Only problem: You have to do a lot of math to follow that rule.
Most guys need 2,000 to 3,000 calories, depending on your age and activity level, according to the Dietary Guidelines report. If you’re over age 60 and inactive, stick to the low end, and active 30-somethings are fine at the high end.
For a 2,000-calorie diet, the limit works out to 12.5 teaspoons, or 50 grams, of added sugar. And for the 3,000-calorie diet, you’re looking at 18.75 teaspoons, or 75 grams.
But some of the foods you eat contain both added sugar and naturally occurring ones, like sweetened yogurts. And it’s tough to tell how much of each kind you’re consuming, because nutrition labels don’t break the two types out—they just list the total sugar.
You can try comparing your snack, like a sweetened yogurt, to an unsweetened version to find out how many grams of sugar have been added.
But you don’t have to worry about all that arithmetic, says Dr. Hu.
Half of the added sugar in the American diet comes from sweetened drinks like soda, he says. So if you kick the can—or already have—you’re probably safe.
“I wouldn’t go crazy about counting how much added sugar is in your daily diet,” Dr. Hu says. “As long as you follow a general healthy dietary pattern by not drinking soda, not drinking too much fruit juices, not adding much sugar to your coffee or tea, and paying attention to the quality of the foods and ingredients in your diet, in general you should be fine.”
And again, there is no reason to stop eating fruit, he says. The amount of sugar in an apple is tiny compared to the amount in a soda, and with the apple you’re getting beneficial nutrients like fiber and Vitamin C.
If you want to be even more cautious, keep an eye on how many grams of sugar are in your yogurts, energy bars, condiments, and other processed foods, and compare them to the 50 to 75-gram limits mentioned above.
For example, some energy bars contain 23 grams of sugar. If your snack comes uncomfortably close to your total for the day, consider another brand.