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May 6, 2016

Sugar series part 3: How much is too much?

How do you keep yourself from eating too much sugar? The first step is to figure out what "too much sugar" is.

For the past two months, I've been talking about all the reasons to limit how much added sugar you eat. To recap: everyone knows that added sugar can give you cavities, and that eating a lot of sugar puts you at risk of developing diabetes. But recent studies are linking high sugar consumption to a wider range of health problems, especially health risk factors for heart disease and stroke. The good news is that studies have also shown that reducing your sugar consumption can immediately reduce risk factors like blood pressure and high cholesterol.

The next question is what to do with that information. For some people who want to limit their sugar consumption, the only way to really do this is to cut it out entirely. If they let themselves have one piece of candy, they'll eat the whole bag. Other people need to let themselves have a little bit or they won't be able to think about anything else. It's not always obvious which type you are, so if one approach isn't working for you it's worth trying the other.

I'm decidedly the second type. The more I think about the sugar I shouldn't be eating, the more I eat. So when I realized that my sugar habits could be setting me up for really bad health problems down the road, my goal was to figure out how to eat less without having to think about it much.

The first step was to figure out what the upper limit of my sugar consumption should be. The FDA recommends that Americans get no more than 10% of our calories from sugar, or 50 grams a day for anyone 4 or older. The American Heart and the World Health Organization recommend 25 g. In the end, you don't get any health benefit from any added sugar, so the best goal is the one you'll meet. Limiting sugar consumption to 25 grams a day is the goal I'll be assuming here, but you know your own diet the best.

What is 25 grams of sugar? Measured in table sugar it's 6 teaspoons, but most of the sugar we consume is added for us so that doesn't help much. Here are some things that could instantly put you past the 25 gram limit:

  • Soda and teas: A can of coke has 33 grams of sugar. Even "all natural" drinks can be deceptively sugary - Honest Tea Honey Green Tea has 19 g in a bottle. Plus, watch out for serving sizes - Snapple iced tea has 23 g of sugar in a serving, but 46 in a bottle.
  • Coffee drinks: Black coffee has no sugar, but a small Dunkin Donuts caramel iced coffee has 24 g. A Starbucks small Mocha Frappuccino has 42 g.
  • Store-made baked goods: A Hannaford blueberry muffin has 26 g of sugar. Their glazed donut, however, has just 9 g. Read the label, just because something looks healthy doesn't mean it is. And vice versa!

Most large companies post the nutrition information for their products online. Google your favorite packaged or fast food or drink to find out how much added sugar is in the food you eat most frequently.

The last part of this series will be tips for keeping your sugar consumption under this limit. I have a bunch of things that have worked for me, but I'd love to hear what's worked for you. Email me your own tips for keeping sugar consumption low at skaplan@whitemountainhealth.org, and I'll include them in the next article!

Siena Kaplan-Thompson is an executive assistant at White Mountain Community Health Center