How Much Sugar Should We Actually Be Eating Anyway?
Updated: Jan 5
By Rebecca Fallihee, MS, CNS, LDN
With the turning of the calendar to colder months comes the return of holiday spices, cooking cozy meals, and a favorite holiday pastime by many: baking and eating more sweets!
We don’t demonize food groups at Hope Wellness and we try to instill that same relationship with food to you, but there are certain foods that it’s helpful to know what they’re doing in your body so you can better learn to observe how they affect your mind, body, and long-term health...
All About Types of Sugar
When it comes to carbohydrate-rich foods (grains, fruits, legumes, and vegetables), the majority of the carbohydrates they contain ultimately break down into the simple sugars. There are three types and they include glucose, galactose, and fructose. They each are made of one sugar molecule. This stuff puts the science in “nutrition science,” but join us for a quick minute of nerding out to learn about these science-filled sugar molecules. 🙂
Glucose is the most abundant sugar in blood and is stored in the body in the liver and muscle tissues.
Fructose is the most abundant sugar in fruits and vegetables.
Galactose is primarily found in dairy products.
----> Next we have sugars that are increasingly more complex but still fairly simple and quickly digested. The most common sugars we think about in foods usually fit in this group.
Sucrose, often referred to as table sugar because it is abundant in sugar cane and sugar beets, is made of glucose and fructose. (Within this category is also high fructose corn syrup. HFCS is not a natural product but is usually manufactured from corn. Most versions contain about 55% fructose and 45% glucose).
Lactose, found in milk and dairy products, is made of glucose and galactose.
Maltose, formed in the production of beer, is made of two glucose sugars. Maltose is also formed in the digestion of other starches, but not necessarily found in many foods before digestion.
Beyond those, there are increasingly more Complex Carbohydrates. These carbs are also made up of “sugar” molecules, but they are long chains of simple sugars, which make them slower - and sometimes more difficult - to digest.
Examples include the complex carbohydrates found in beans, split peas, lentils, and soy, as well as human breast milk.
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And then there are polysaccharides, which are much larger carbohydrate chains. Common examples are starch, glycogen, and dietary fiber (more on these and why they're important to know about below).
These types of “sugar” are big, complex chains, and because of that, it takes longer for the body to break them apart into smaller pieces and into simple sugars. For starch and dietary fiber, they also take longer to digest and don’t tend to spike blood sugar as rapidly. These complex carbs can also be food for beneficial bacteria in the gut, and contribute to health in many ways.
Why Do We Care?
Glycogen, mentioned above as a very large complex carbohydrate, is the storage form of glucose in the liver and muscle tissues. Having topped up glycogen stores is something you generally want to maximize on if you’re an endurance athlete. It’s fuel for when you need it, and why carbohydrates are needed and used in exceptionally high amounts by certain individuals. But when you overdo consumption of sugars, and carbohydrates in general, the body only has so much “room” to store glycogen in the liver and muscle tissues, and excess beyond that is stored away as fat.
Eating too much sugar can mess with our hunger cues. It turns down our hormone, leptin, that signals the brain to tell us when we are full and to stop eating. If our brain doesn’t tell us to sot eating…we inadvertently overeat…oops.
Added sugars contribute a significant portion of calories to the Standard American Diet. Eating refined grains, and foods with refined and added sugars is associated with several disease risk factors, including elevated triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, and decreased blood sugar control (1).
Excess sugar promotes growth of non-beneficial, disease-promoting bacteria in the digestive system. This is extremely common and the consequences often show up far beyond compromised digestive function.
Excess refined sugars are incredibly inflammatory. This doesn’t always show up as a swollen knee per se, but you can think of inflammation in the body like internal rust, building up in the system and blocking the normal goings-on of maintaining balanced health.
Have you ever been in an elementary school on the day after Halloween? If so, or you’ve been around children after a dose of sweets, you’ll notice the impact sugar has on the brain and mood. While this can be super obvious in children, if you stop eating all sugar for a while and then have a sugar-rich food, you’ll likely soon notice a similar strong reaction to sugar. Perhaps it won’t be a “hyper” mood. It might even be depression, increased anxiety, poor concentration, brain fog, or low energy in general.
Sugar on a Food Label
Sugar shows up on a food label in all sorts of ways. Here is a list and it is not completely comprehensive! Agave nectar / syrup, sucrose, fructose, glucose, brown rice syrup, maltitol, mannitol, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, fructose, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, brown sugar, demerara sugar, invert sugar, maltodextrin, maltose, maple syrup, confectioner’s sugar, turbinado sugar, fruit juice concentrate, honey, barley malt, cane sugar, date sugar, caramel, and more!
Recommendations on Added Sugar
Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that added sugar makes up no more than 10 percent of total energy intake.
For a 2,000 calorie diet, that means no more than 200 calories and 50 grams of added sugar per day. One standard size Starbucks (or other coffee house) sweetened beverage will often exceed this recommendation. If your calorie requirements are much lower because you’re a smaller person, it can be as low as 30g of added sugar per day.
The American Heart Association (AHA) has set more stringent sugar guidelines with the upper daily limit from added sugar being 100 calories for women and 150 calories for men. That means 25 grams of added sugar for women and approximately 37 grams for men. At Hope Wellness, we tend to lean closer to this recommendation as we see better health outcomes in this range than with the WHO and USDA guidelines.
What’s Considered Added Sugar?
Added Sugars are sugars that are added to a food during processing, and they do not include sugars that naturally occur in a whole fruit, vegetable, grain or dairy product.
Concentrated fruit or vegetable juice added to a canned or packaged product would be considered an added sugar, as would honey, maple syrup, or other less processed sugars.
The same would be true if you’re making a recipe from scratch. Adding a drizzle of honey to a dessert of baked pears is considered an added sugar, while the naturally occurring sugar in the pears is not.
The U.S. Nutrition Facts label has been updated in recent years and now lists both total sugars and added sugars, so you can easily see how much has been added in processing.
What do we do with this info?
Simple sugars, and in particular sugar added to foods, don’t generally contribute to health, and in most cases, it is best to limit them in the daily diet. An exception to this is that consuming fast-absorbing simple sugars during high intensity exercise enhances performance in endurance athletes.
Otherwise, remember that carbohydrates aren’t “bad,” but different types of sugar are absorbed differently. At the most macro level, complex carbohydrates are digested slower and many of their components (such as fiber and several micronutrients) contribute to overall health, as well as balanced blood sugar, cholesterol, and digestion.
Want to know more?
In our upcoming email newsletters, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of artificial sweeteners, and look into “is there really too much sugar in fruit?”
Join the Hope Wellness newsletter to be the first to get access to more future articles and to hear more about a new group program focused on reversing diet culture mentality damage and transforming your relationship to food. We’ll be launching the program in the new year. Stay tuned!
Know that we are here anytime you need us and, to start, all you have to do is set up a complimentary discovery call with one of our team members.
Check out our other recent article: Sugar Alternatives: Are They Better or Worse Than Real Sugar?
Have a question or blog topic you’d like us to cover? Contact us and let us know!
References: 1. The Institute for Functional Medicine, (IFM). Cardiometabolic Food Plan Comprehensive Guide. 2016. 2. Gropper, S. and Smith, J. (2013). Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism, 6th ed. Wadsworth Cengage Learning: Belmont, CA.