A teaspoon of the stuff might make your medicine go down, but exceeding your recommended sugar intake could lead to obesity, heart disease, and not-so-healthy eating habits. But how much sugar is sweet, and how much turns your health sour? For the first time ever, the American Heart Association (AHA) has released guidelines giving people an idea of what a healthy daily sugar intake really is.
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The AHA statement, published in the journal Circulation, makes the point that added sugars, such as high-fructose corn syrup or ordinary table sugar added to sodas, breads, and other processed foods, are likely responsible for the increase in calorie consumption and the subsequent rise in obesity of the past few decades. Furthermore, people who have unhealthy sugar intake levels also consume lower levels of vital nutrients, such as zinc, iron, calcium, and vitamin A. And one study has suggested that too much sugar could raise blood pressure levels. The report also notes that over the past 30 years, we've consumed an average of 150 to 300 more calories per day than we used to, 50 percent of which come from beverages. And our physical activity levels remain unchanged, so those extra calories don't get burned off.
Surveys have also found that the average American consumes around 22.2 teaspoons of added sugar every day. According to the new guidelines, we should really be eating a fraction of that amount. The recommended sugar intake for adult women is 5 teaspoons (20 grams) of sugar per day, for adult men, it’s 9 teaspoons (36 grams) daily, and for children, it's 3 teaspoons (12 grams) a day.
Not All Sugar Is Bad
Naturally occurring sugars in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains don't need to be avoided, and make up part of a healthy diet, says lead author Rachel K. Johnson, PhD, MPH, RD, associate provost and professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Even the occasional soda isn't a bad thing. "We're not saying that you should eliminate sugar from your diet or that you can't have sugar-sweetened foods," she says. But when you can't stay within the recommended sugar allowances, you need to make up for it with extra exercise. And rather than waste your sugar intake on sodas and other empty calories, she adds, "use it in a way that enhances the flavor and palatability of already nutritional foods like flavored yogurt or flavored milk."
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Of course, knowing how much sugar you should be eating is completely different from calculating what you're actually eating. Daily intakes of added sugar aren't easy to estimate, says Johnson, as the Food and Drug Administration doesn't require that nutrition labels list the amount of naturally occurring sugars separate from the amounts of added sugars. The American Society of Nutrition's new Smart Choices Program, which launched this past summer, can help you to a certain extent. Products that qualify must get fewer than 25 percent of their calories from added sugar, but some products that qualify have as many as 17 grams per serving (nearly a full day's worth for women), and the nutrition labels still don't note whether those are naturally occurring or added.
The best way to cut added sugars out of your diet is to limit processed foods as much as possible, and satisfy your sweet tooth with fruit. Make a practice of this, and you won't need to spend so much time staring at food labels and counting sugar grams.