How Much Sugar is Too Much?

Gif by John Kuczala

Gif by John Kuczala


Smack in the center of worthwhile nutrition knowledge is one overarching point: eating a healthy diet not only increases energy levels but also reduces our risks of developing conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and other dreaded maladies.

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But what does that elusive “healthy diet” actually entail? According to Viver Health, if we conceptualize our daily food intake as one figurative plate (the Viver Plate), half would be covered by fruits and vegetables; one-quarter would be covered by protein such as turkey, chicken, or fish; and one-quarter would be covered by whole grains such as whole wheat pasta, brown rice or quinoa and beans. In addition, we’d also consume one-third cup of nuts, seeds, fats, or plant oils per day.      

Can you tell what’s conspicuously missing from that balanced Viver Plate? Added sugars. Added sugars and syrups mixed into processed or prepared foods and drinks—or added at the table—are found in noticeably sweet foods, including deserts such as candy, cakes, and cookies; beverages such as soda, fruit drinks, and energy drinks; and dairy items such as ice cream and sweetened yogurt. They’re also insidiously present in many pasta sauces and condiments such as ketchup and salad dressings.

But focus on the term “added,” since other sugars occur naturally in nutritious foods such as milk and fruits. Unlike these healthier choices, however, most of the calories from added sugars are so-called “empty” calories, without a redeeming blend of fiber, vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients. These calories often contribute to extra pounds that can impact heart disease and cancer risks.

It’s also clear that Americans eat way too many added sugars—nearly 66 pounds each year, according to SugarScience, an authoritative source for evidence-based, scientific information about sugar and its impact on health developed by a team of health scientists from the University of California, San Francisco. 

Calculating Healthy Limits  

How can we turn the tide? By trying to adhere to daily sugar intake recommendations from the American Heart Association (AHA). In a nutshell, the AHA advises women to consume no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar each day and men, 9 teaspoons. With 1 teaspoon of sugar equating to a bit more than 4 grams, these amounts equate to 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men per day. AHA recommendations for children vary but range between 3 and 6 teaspoons (12 to 25 grams) daily, depending on age and calorie needs.

How do these guidelines translate to everyday use? When reading food labels. A quick caveat: it can be baffling to discern if a boxed, bagged, bottled food or beverage contains added sugars. Sugar goes by many names, some ending in “ose”—such as sucrose or dextrose; others have monikers such as high-fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener, molasses, honey, or agave. Additionally, labels often list total sugar amounts but don’t distinguish just how much are from natural sugars and how much are from added sugars.  

Despite these drawbacks, for many popular everyday foods and beverages, we can readily calculate added sugar levels and determine the proportion of added sugars in our daily sugar allotment. Here are a few key examples of “sugars” in commonly consumed products.

  • Coca-cola or Sprite, 12-ounce can: 8 teaspoons (32 grams)

  • Blueberry muffin, 4 teaspoons (16 grams)

  • Quaker Instant Oatmeal, 1 envelope (strawberries or peaches and cream flavors): 3 teaspoons (12 grams)

  • Milky Way candy bar, 9 teaspoons (36 grams)

  • Yoplait Original 99% fat-free yogurt, 6-ounce cup (lemon burst flavor): 8 teaspoons (31 grams)

  • Kellog’s Nutri-Grain cereal bar, any flavor: 3 teaspoons (11-12 grams)

Notice how easily the added sugars, well, add up? Even drinking a Coke and grabbing an ostensibly healthy cereal bar puts an adult over the recommended daily limit. This revelation can be frustrating, no doubt. But, we can also use this information for good. As we aim for the ideal of a healthy diet, simply be aware of the added sugars packed into many of the common foods and beverages we eat each day. As the proverb says, forewarned is forearmed.

Maureen Salamon is a widely published health and medical writer who has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic,, HealthDay, The Dallas Morning News and other major publications.