Sugar. How much is too much?

By Maribeth Evezich, MS, RD

If you’re not monitoring your intake, sugar could be sabotaging your health and weight. Because when it comes to sugar, ignorance is not bliss. Here’s why.

Not long ago, added sugars were only a concern due to being “empty calories” promoting obesity and dental cavities. While considered an “unhealthy indulgence,” sugar’s only known risks were to our teeth and waistline and perhaps inadequate nutrition. But then the research started piling up.

Today we know better. Overconsumption of added sugar is recognized as an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease as well as many other chronic diseases, including diabetes mellitus, liver cirrhosis, and dementia—and is linked to dyslipidemia, hypertension, and insulin resistance.1 So the concern related to added sugar overconsumption has broadened to our whole body with potential health issues from head to toe, literally. In fact, according to UCSF School of Medicine professor Dr. Laura A. Schmidt’s invited commentary in JAMA Internal Medicine, “Too much sugar does not just make us fat; it can also make us sick.”1 Further, excess sugars are associated with premature aging as their by-products build up in connective tissue, promoting stiffness and loss of elasticity.2,3 Think wrinkles.

How much is too much?

Not surprisingly, major health institutions, such as the Institute of Medicine, World Health Organization (WHO), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting added sugars. Further, the American Heart Association (AHA) has set specific daily limits (see graphic).4 However, while the WHO echoes these guidelines, it encourages further limitation to 5% of daily calories for additional health benefits. That’s 6 teaspoons, 100 calories, 25 grams for a 2,000 calories diet.5

How are we doing?

Not well! According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines, on average we’re eating almost 270 calories, or more than 13 percent of calories per day, in added sugars. That’s about 17 teaspoons (approximately 1/3 cup) of added sugars per day, about double the AHA guideline.6

Concerned about your weight? Do the math. That’s 11 teaspoons over the WHO’s more conservative recommendation. So, by simply reducing your added sugars to the lower WHO recommendation, you could be 20 pounds lighter a year from now.

Where is all this added sugar coming from?

Most added sugar comes from processed and prepared foods. Beverages (soft drinks, fruit drinks, sweetened coffee and tea, energy drinks, alcoholic beverages, and flavored waters) are the biggest culprit. For example, with as many as 11 teaspoons (46.2 grams) of added sugar in one 12-oz. soda, a single serving is close to double the recommended limit for women and children. The other major “sugar bombs” are snacks and sweets (grain-based desserts, dairy desserts, puddings, candies, sugars, jams, syrups, and sweet toppings).7

Further, sugar is pervasive in our food supply. You’ll find it lurking in some not-so-obvious places, including savory foods, such as bread and pasta sauce, fruit juices, and bottle sauces, dressings, and condiments, such as ketchup. In fact, you’ll find added sugar in 74% of packaged foods sold in supermarkets, including those marketed as “healthy,” “natural,” “low-fat,” or “gluten-free.”7 They’re everywhere. The only way to keep them at a minimum is to eat whole, minimally processed foods.

In the next post in this series, we’ll look at why sugar cravings are so tough to conquer and help you identify hidden sugars in your diet.



  1. Schmidt LA. New unsweetened truths about sugar. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(4):525–526.
  2. Lee EJ et al. Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) promote melanogenesis through receptor for AGEs. Sci Rep. 2016;6:27848.
  3. Today's Dietitian. Accessed November 28, 2017.
  4. Vos MB et al. Added sugars and cardiovascular disease risk in children: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2016;135(19):e1017-e1034.
  5. World Health Organization. Sugars intake for adults and children, Guideline. Accessed April 18, 2018.
  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015.
  7. Ng SW et al. Use of caloric and noncaloric sweeteners in US consumer packaged foods, 2005-2009. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(11):1828-1834.


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