Hear this: A life without sugar is not one we want to live. But chronically overdoing the sweet stuff also comes with consequences — namely, a higher risk for things like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Still, keeping your intake in check is often easier said than done. With that in mind, we asked registered dietitians how they manage their daily sugar intake for optimal metabolic health.
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But first, an important note: When we're talking about sugar here, we're mostly referring to added sugars, not natural sugars.
Added vs. Natural Sugars
"Natural sugars are naturally found in food, like fructose in fruit or lactose in milk," says Marina Chaparro, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and the founder of the bilingual family nutrition practice Nutrichicos. "Added sugars are those not found naturally, as the name implies. [These sugars] are 'added' to the food preparation."
You can think of added sugars like the ones you might add to coffee or baked goods, Chaparro says. Ingredients like table sugar, brown sugar and honey are all added sugars. Agave, high-fructose corn syrup and maple syrup also fall into this bucket.
"Added sugars are a source of calories but often are devoid of other nutritional properties," Chaparro says. That is, you'll get some protein along with the natural sugar lactose in Greek yogurt or some fiber along with the natural sugar fructose in an apple. Straight up brown sugar? Not exactly nutrient-rich.
Chronically overeating added sugars — be it from soft drinks, cocktails, condiments, snack foods or desserts — can up our risk of chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease over time. Newer research, like a prospective November 2020 study in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease, has even linked higher sugar consumption from beverages to a greater risk of dementia.
How Much Sugar Should You Be Eating?
Our current food system makes it all too easy to exceed our daily sugar needs.
Friendly reminder: “The American Heart Association recommends that women stay under 24 grams of added sugars per day and men stay under 36 grams of added sugars per day,” says Maryann Walsh, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and the founder of Walsh Nutrition Consulting. “This is a good rule of thumb for people living with diabetes as well.”
Here are eight things RDs do to keep their added sugar intake in a healthy range.
1. They Avoid Drinking Their Sugars
Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are among the leading sources of added sugars in the American diet, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's hardly surprising once you realize that a 17-ounce Coke contains a staggering 55 grams of added sugars per bottle, more than twice the amount of added sugars recommended for some people in a day.
Juices, energy drinks, vitamin waters and sweetened coffees and teas also contribute to the SSB trap.
Nutrition experts say one of the simplest ways to cut back on liquid sugars is to rethink your drinks. "I choose beverages without sugar or calories," says Chaparro. "If I don't feel like water, I might do sparkling water…or add fresh herbs and cut-up fruit to infuse it."
If you're prone to starting your day with a flavored coffee, consider slowly dialing back the amount of sweetness in your cup. A grande (not even venti) vanilla latte from Starbucks serves up 35 grams of sugar alone. Try ordering a classic brewed coffee instead, and ask for a touch of foamed almond milk on top for a hint of sweetness, sans the blood sugar crash and empty calories.
2. They Enjoy Fruit but Don’t Make It Their Whole Meal
There's no reason to be afraid of fruit. Full stop. But it's best not to make fruit the bulk of your meal.
A seemingly virtuous pitaya bowl from your favorite acai spot, for example, can contain 95 grams of sugar. Sure, they're mostly natural — not added — sugars, but 95 grams of any type of sugar in one sitting is far too many.
"Smoothies are a great vehicle for getting maximum nutrients in one sitting but it's easy to 'over-fruit' by throwing many different types of fruit into your blender, especially if you're not adding enough protein or healthy fat to balance out their natural sugars," says Rachel Brief, RD, a registered dietitian at Culina Health. "I recommend sticking to a half-cup of fruit [in smoothies] and choosing one or two types, such as blueberries and half of a banana."
Blending smoothies with cow's milk, unsweetened nut milk or water instead of fruit juice can also help stabilize your blood sugar after sipping a smoothie.
And remember: "Fruit or any sources of natural sugars do not just provide natural sugars," Chaparro says. "They usually include other essential nutrients. In the case of fruits and milk, for example, they provide vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium and fiber."
Put simply: Fruit is your friend, just don't go ahead and adopt a fruitarian diet.
So It’s Possible to Overeat Natural Sugars?
Yes and no. “I'm still perplexed when clients come to me worried that they are consuming too much sugar because they believe they are consuming too much fruit,” Chaparro says. “Since when did eating too much fruit become a health hazard?”
In general, whole fruits are full of key nutrients and fiber that support optimal health. But meals like the pitaya bowl mentioned above can deliver more natural sugar than we’d recommend in one day, let alone one meal.
As for the exact amount of natural sugar you should aim for daily, it depends. “Like everything else in nutrition science, the right level of consumption of natural sugars is very nuanced and varies from person to person,” Walsh says. Most of us would do well to incorporate a serving of fruit two to three times per day.
3. They Practice Smart Portions
Regularly enjoying sweets is an important part of cultivating a healthy relationship with food. The more 'off-limits' we make certain foods, the more we tend to overeat them when they're finally allowed.
That's why Walsh says she enjoys a smart portion of something sweet every night. "This [helps me] enjoy lots of my favorite foods...while still being able to maintain a weight that feels comfortable [as well as] healthy blood sugar levels."
If you struggle with portion control, try buying sweets that come individually wrapped. We love Trader Joe's mini dark chocolate bars, with just 5.5 grams of added sugar per bar ($12.90 for 3 boxes, Amazon), and UNREAL's dark chocolate caramel peanut nougat bars, which have only 6 grams of added sugar per bar ($23.44 for a 3-pack, Amazon).
4. They Minimize (or Skip) Sugar-Free Foods
Though it sounds counterintuitive, swapping sweetened foods and drinks for artificially sweetened alternatives isn't always better for our health.
While sugar-free foods can help you cut back on calories, research suggests chronic consumption of these products may interfere with glucose metabolism, negatively affect the makeup of the gut microbiome and actually hike up sugar cravings over time.
"Even though I live with type 1 diabetes, I personally find that [sugar-free] foods often leave me feeling less satisfied and may give me more cravings," Chapparo says. Instead, Chaparro buys items with either natural or limited added sugars and practices mindfulness when eating them.
A little bit of the real deal trumps a lot of the fake stuff.
"My job as a registered dietitian is to educate and guide people to optimize their nutrition and feel good about it," Chaparro says. "The answer is not to replace sugar with 'sugar-free' products, but rather to change our habits and mindset…[The aim is to] start to enjoy more foods with natural versus added sugars, yet also make space to enjoy the foods we love in a balanced way."
5. They Pair Their Sweets With Protein or Fat
Pairing sugary foods with lean protein and healthy fats helps to slow down the rate at which glucose, the product of carbohydrate metabolism, enters our bloodstream. The slower glucose enters circulation, the less energy spikes and crashes we experience (and the lower our chance of developing insulin resistance over time).
"When I consume sugar, like in the case of the dark chocolate that I eat every day, I pair it with some walnuts or other nuts," Chaparro says. "It satisfies me so much more, not to mention it works great for my blood sugars."
Consider pairing your favorite cookie with some plain Greek yogurt for protein or eating dried apricots alongside some cheese for fat.
6. They Check Nutrition Labels
You don't need to count every gram of added sugar you consume. But having a point of reference for the max amount of sugar we should be eating every day can be helpful when assessing nutrition labels.
For example, if your strawberry yogurt serves up 22 grams of added sugar per serving, it's providing most of your added sugar 'allotment' for the day.
Chaparro says she is "mindful of labels and looks for foods with 5 to 6 grams of added sugars [per serving]," but also stresses that added sugar goals should be considered general recommendations, not overly restrictive rules.
"Some days you may consume 20 grams of added sugars and another day 27 grams of added sugars, and that's OK," Chaparro says. "These guidelines should not feel like a diet. Instead, they are recommendations that push us toward consuming more wholesome foods that are naturally sweet."
Some people, like those engaging in intense exercise training, may even benefit from eating more sugar to support their high physical activity levels. This is one more example of how sugar recommendations may shift depending on the person, their health status and their goals.
7. They Flavor Their Own Food
Most flavored foods — like that strawberry yogurt — are sweetened, so it can be helpful to choose unflavored products and mix in your own additions if you're looking to cut down on how much added sugar you eat.
Here are some examples:
- "Choose plain Greek yogurt and stir in fresh or frozen fruit," says Christine Russell, RD, CDCES, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist with Nourish. Canned fruit that comes packed in water instead of syrup is also a good option.
- Buy plain oatmeal and add your own naturally sweet additions, like fresh or dried fruit, nut butter and cinnamon instead of buying pre-flavored packets like the maple brown sugar varieties.
- Instead of a sweetened vitamin water, "add a slice of orange, lemon, lime or cucumber to your water," Russell recommends.
- If you're a non-dairy milk drinker, choose unsweetened almond or soy milks for no added sugars.
8. They Omit Sugary Condiments
Soda's an obvious sugar bomb, but condiments like ketchup and salad dressings can contain sweeteners too.
Pasta sauce is another sneaky source of added sugars.
"Since tomatoes are a fruit, tomato sauce will have about 4 to 5 grams of naturally occurring sugar per serving," Brief says. "But because tomatoes are very acidic, most brands will add extra sugar to the sauce to balance out the acidity. I recommend choosing [tomato sauce] brands with zero added sugar to help keep total sugar consumption for the day low."
The Bottom Line
Sugary foods can be eaten by everyone, including people with diabetes, Russell reminds us. The key is to move away from an all-or-nothing mindset and instead practice balance.
"As a pediatric dietitian, mom and person living with type 1 diabetes, I don't believe sugar is evil," Chaparro says. "Most of the time, the problem stems from not having a healthy relationship with 'sugary foods' because of how we grew up and the messages we received [about sweets]. We were taught that sugar is evil and thus restricted it, which just made us crave it more, or we were given [treats] as a reward for eating our veggies or cleaning up our bed."
Those approaches taught us that sugar needs to be avoided at all costs or earned, mindsets that can throw us into a cycle of restricting and then eventually going overboard with sweets once we finally allow ourselves to eat them.
Still, there's no denying that the Western diet is sky-high in added sugars and many of us could benefit from eating less of the sweet stuff.
Instead of banning sweets altogether, or replacing them with sugar-free alternatives, find simple ways to reduce your added sugar intake from the foods you eat every day — and enjoy the treats you love in moderation.