Okay, okay, I know that eating bars of snickers or mars chocolate every night while I binge Game of Thrones is bad for me. (Even though it feels so, so good.)
But there are lots of other hidden sources of sugar out there—fruit! yogurt! honey!—that are a little trickier to deal with. Like, they’re healthy foods but…how much sugar can I eat in a day, even if it’s from healthy stuff? Is my love of farmer’s market fresh fruit actually really bad for me? Should I just cut everything out? Should I be panicking right now?
Okay: how much sugar can you eat every day?
Here’s the thing: there’s no official recommended daily intake of sugar.
However, there are recommended limits on how much added sugar you should eat in a day. But even those vary. The FDA suggests that no more than 10 percent of your day’s calories should come from added sugar. So if you’re eating a 2000-calorie diet, that works out to about 52 grams (12 teaspoons) of sugar daily, or 364 grams (84 teaspoons) of sugar in one week.
Other organizations are even more conservative with their added sugar recommendations. Both the American Heart Association (AHA) and World Health Organization (WHO) both suggest about 25 grams (six teaspoons) per day of added sugar for women, or 175 grams of sugar (42 teaspoons) per week.
What A Day’s Worth Of Added Sugar Really Looks Like
Wait…what’s the difference?
To be clear: Added sugars are when processed (like white granulated sugar) or naturally-occuring sugars (like honey or fruit juice) are dumped into foods to make them sweeter. Added sugars are most commonly found in packaged foods like cookies and candy bars, but you’re technically using added sugar when you’re putting organic honey on top of your yogurt, or baking with maple syrup.
Nutritionists and health experts aren’t as concerned about the sugar naturally present in whole foods like fruits, veggies, dairy, and whole grains. They have limited amounts of sugar (most fruits, for example, have only 15 grams per serving), and come with other nutritional benefits (like fiber and vitamins) that foods with added or processed sugars generally lack. It’s always better to eat a whole apple than to drink a glass of apple juice.
When sugar is added to foods, however, it’s usually in super-high doses, minus nutrients like fiber that slow down absorption. A 12-ounce can of soda, for example, serves up more sugar than three whole oranges (39 grams of sugar versus 36 grams, according to the USDA).
And yes, all sugars (no matter the source) generally affect your body in the same way, as they get broken down into energy for your muscles, organs, and brain. But foods with loads of added sugar (like that soda) are broken down by your body very quickly, making your blood sugar levels spike and then drop very, very rapidly.
What happens when you eat too much added sugar?
In the short-term, the side effects of too much sugar include trouble concentrating and mood swings due to sudden drops in blood sugar. Too much sugar (specifically in foods high on the glycemic index) has also been linked to acne breakouts and premature wrinkles. So…it’s literally doing you zero favors.
Over the long term, regularly spiking your blood sugar with a diet of super-processed, sugary foods can lead to inflammation throughout your body and weight gain, and may even up your odds of other chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.
No one is gaining too much weight because of the sugar in milk. The same thing goes for whole fruit. The problem is with foods that are high in added sugars.
How do I watch my added sugar?
That’s a little tricky. Right now, most food labels show just the sugar content per serving—where all sources of sugar are lumped into one category.
However, you’ll soon start to see how much added sugar a food has thanks to a 2016 ruling by the FDA, which should make tracking that intake a bit easier. Some brands are already doing this, where you’ll see “added sugar” as its own category on the nutrition label.
In the meantime, when eating packaged foods, it’s better to stick to those with no more than 10 grams of sugar per serving. And since it is easy to overdo it on blended-down fruit at the smoothie bar, make your goal a max of two cups of fruit per day. This can be used as a guide to figure out if you’re getting too much sugar in your acai bowl.
The bottom line: All sugars, whether they’re natural or processed, affect your body in a similar way. But sugars from whole foods tend to come with other good-for-you nutrients that make them worthwhile. So focus on limiting your added sugars to no more than 25 grams a day, and don’t stress too much about the sugar in fruit.