Sugar is one of the most common food additives in America, used to improve the taste of foods and beverages and prolong the shelf-life of countless packaged food products. And all that sugar is hiding in some pretty unexpected places. (Case in point: Did you know that, cup for cup, there's more sugar in ketchup than vanilla ice cream?)
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Most of us get much more sugar in our daily diets than we probably should. And that can pave the way for several different health problems, according to the Mayo Clinic, from weight gain to tooth decay.
Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar
"Sugar, a derivative of carbohydrate-based foods, is required as an energy source for the body," says Rachel Fine, a registered dietitian nutritionist at To the Pointe Nutrition in New York City. "Ideal sources of sugar are those that occur naturally in foods with other beneficial nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals." Examples include fruit and dairy products.
Sugar added into processed foods has no nutritional value. It comes with extra calories, but none of the vital nutrients your body needs to stay healthy. Added sugar goes by a slew of different names on ingredient lists, including (but not limited to) honey, cane syrup, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, and most anything ending in "ose," like sucrose.
"The goal is to limit the amount of added sugar you're eating from packaged foods," Fine tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Often times people forget the word 'added' and focus too heavily on sugar as a whole, which shouldn't be deemed evil." Humans are naturally equipped to prefer sweet flavors, a survival mechanism since the body relies on sugar as an energy source, adds Fine.
So, How Much Should You Actually Be Eating?
The daily recommendations for added sugar provided by the American Heart Association are an upper limit. This means that there is no minimum amount you need to take in each day, but there is a maximum.
- Women should limit sugar intake to no more than 6 teaspoons per day, which provides about 100 calories.
- Men should limit sugar intake to no more than 9 teaspoons, or about 150 calories.
The separate recommendations for men vs. women can be explained by differing caloric recommendations. "Men have a higher percentage of lean body mass, which correlates to a higher metabolic rate," explains Fine. "Therefore, men naturally require more calories than women."
As a basis for comparison, the average American adult consumes 22 teaspoons per day.
To look at it another way, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services states that added sugars should account for no more than 10 percent of the calories you eat. If you are on a standard 2,000-calorie diet, this means that you should be eating no more than 200 calories from sugar, or 50 grams. (Like all carbohydrates, sugar contains 4 calories per gram.)
By sidestepping added sugars in your diet, you can take in fewer calories without losing nutrients in the process. Easy ways to start are drinking water or seltzer instead of sweetened drinks; choosing low-sugar jams and syrups; buying canned fruit packed in water rather than syrup; reaching for salsa, mustard or hot sauce over ketchup and barbecue sauce and opting for low-sugar breakfast cereals.