The truth about sugar and how much you should really be consuming

If you search online for “sugar” and “health,” you will be overwhelmed by a wave of headlines making you think twice before consuming something sweet ever again.

The problem is that sugar, and specifically added sugar, has been lumped into a larger category of toxic foods we should avoid.

But a sprinkle of brown sugar on your oatmeal or a dash of honey in your tea probably isn’t the cause of societies’ anti-sugar frenzy.

So how bad is sugar, really?

Common misconceptions about sugar

Most major health organizations agree that our average sugar intake is a real public health concern.

Sugar consumption is so bad that Dr. Mark Hyman, physician and New York Times bestselling author, estimates that more than 70% of Americans consume 10% of their daily calories from sugar — and about 10% of Americans consume 25% of their calories from sugar.

Serious health issues like obesity and cardiovascular disease can be triggered by high volumes of processed sweets.

However, demonizing a food group or nutrient without fully understanding it can be more harmful than helpful. One issue is that a lot of people don’t know the difference between “naturally occurring” and “added” sugar.

According to the American Heart Association, naturally occurring sugars are found naturally in foods such as fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). Added sugars are sugars and syrups put in foods during processing or added at the table.

Besides fresh fruits and vegetables, most products containing sugar use a combination of naturally occurring and added sugar. Think about a bag of trail mix, which probably contains some granola sweetened with honey (added sugar) and dried fruit (natural sugar).

Packaging and clever marketing campaigns have led us to believe that added sugar is the enemy. In reality, added sugar is the same as naturally occurring sugar in terms of how the body processes it.

As Colleen Tewksbury, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., a senior research investigator and bariatric program manager at Penn Medicine told Self Magazine, “Our bodies can’t tell the difference whether it’s found in nature or added to a recipe, because they’re not any different in terms of their chemical structure.”

How much sugar you should consume

“Ultimately, a serving of common sense goes a long way towards tempering the heated discussion around sugar — and the mental energy you spend thinking about it.”Carolyn L. Todd, Senior Health Writer

It’s important to keep in mind that dietary recommendations are complex.

They are often based on trends observed from large populations over time. And every individual is dealing with very different factors that paint a broader picture of their overall health.

With that said, the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines, created by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and of Agriculture (USDA) recommend limiting calories to less than 10 percent per day.

That would mean a 3,000 calorie diet should aim for under 300 calories of sugar every day. Most Americans are hovering closer to 13 percent and higher. For natural sugar, the guidelines can be a little more confusing which is why it’s important not to let sugar overwhelm your eating habits.

If you’re looking to reduce sugar intake in your diet, it’s important to consult with a professional.

As Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, warns, severe cutbacks of sugar can backfire: “You may find yourself reaching for other foods to satisfy your sweet cravings, like refined starches, such as white bread and white rice, which can increase glucose levels, and comfort foods high in saturated fat and sodium, which also cause problems with heart health.”

In a growing health-conscious society, it is common for people to feel that they are a “bite away from certain disease” building unhealthy relationships with food.

The psychological toll of social media and food marketing has made it difficult for the common consumer to eat without feeling ashamed, sometimes creating an inverse effect of overindulging.

With sugar, our perception triggers fear and anxiety, even for people who eat it in moderation. We are pressured to be healthy at all times, while simultaneously facing unhealthy food options everywhere: lining grocery aisles, on every street corner, at public events. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I have felt guilty after consuming something “unhealthy” even if it is on rare occasions. The reality is, added sugar becomes bad when consumed excessively. And categorizing sugar as poison doesn’t make life easier for anyone.

Instead, we need to focus on mindful eating and realize that consuming sugar doesn’t need to be met with such a negative attitude.

The bottom line: Nothing beats balance

“Remember, wellbeing does not grow from fearing what’s on your fork. It grows from thinking about reasonable changes that still allow you to experience pleasure and birthday cake.”– Rebecca Scritchfield, R.D.

Try to get a majority of your sugars from whole foods, but don’t beat yourself up for consuming something sweet once in a while. Real health requires routine exercise, a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and other mental components.

Work to create a food environment that is good for your mental and physical health, built on what works best for you. Sugar is only part of the equation.