When Should I Worry About...

Added Sugar: How Bad Is It?

Sep. 23, 2020 - Katie McCallum

Sugar. So sweet, so addicting, so confusing. Is it good for you? Is it really that bad for you? Two donuts in, do you really care either way?

"No food is completely off limits, not even sugar," says Nathalie Sessions, wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist Wellness Services. "However, we always want to practice moderation and conscious indulgence when it comes to our diet — especially when it comes to the foods that are more likely to contribute to weight gain and increase your risk for unfavorable health conditions, such as added sugar."

Added sugars are refined forms of sugar added to packaged food items during processing, typically to make the food taste better. Natural sugars, on the other hand, are the ones inherently found in whole foods, such as a piece of fruit or a glass of milk.

"We have no nutritional need for added sugars," says Sessions. "This doesn't mean you can't enjoy foods containing added sugars from time to time, but the vast majority of your nutrition should be based on wholesome foods that contain natural sugars along with other important nutrients and vitamins."

It's a bittersweet reality, but here's everything Sessions says you need to know about added sugar.

What added sugar does to your body

Let's start by addressing the mound of sugar in the room: Sugar isn't actually bad for you. In fact, it's a great source of energy — when consumed in the right way and in moderation.

"Healthwise, we're not too concerned with the natural sugar found in whole foods, such as fruit or dairy," explains Sessions. "The natural sugars found in these foods are accompanied by other important nutrients, such as fiber, protein or fat, all of which come with their own health benefits."

By contrast, these healthy co-nutrients are often stripped out of, or missing altogether from, the prepackaged food items that are high in added sugar.

"When you eat a source of natural sugar, such as a piece of fruit, you benefit from the accompanying fiber," explains Sessions. "First, this fiber contributes to a feeling of fullness — helping to prevent overeating. Second, this fiber helps your body absorb and process the sugar you're consuming gradually over time, creating a more lasting source of energy and preventing a spike in your blood sugar."

At its most trivial, a spike in your blood sugar can result in a dreaded "sugar hangover" (yes, it's a real thing). At its worst, frequent blood sugar spikes over time can lead to insulin resistance and, ultimately, diabetes.

"Remember, your body doesn't need added sugar. In fact, it can easily live without it," says Sessions. "It's important to understand the difference between natural sugar and added sugar, as well as limit added sugar when you can."

Video: Does sugar make you hyper?


How much added sugar is too much?

Prepackaged foods containing added sugar don't come with the health benefits of whole foods, but, instead of trying to avoid added sugar altogether, Sessions suggests knowing the recommended limits and making sure you're reading nutrition labels.

"Health experts generally recommend keeping added sugar to just 10% of your daily calories, and some propose this percentage should be even lower," says Sessions. "Unfortunately, the average adult consumes quite a bit more than what's recommended."

For a 2,000-calorie diet, the 2015 — 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that:

  • Men should have no more than 9 tsp. equivalents (just under 40 grams) of added sugar per day
  • Women should have no more than 6 tsp. (about 25 grams) of added sugar per day


"Fortunately, 'Added Sugar' amounts are now typically listed under the carbohydrates section of most nutrition labels. Take advantage of this!" adds Sessions. "If you don't read the ingredient list of a food item, it's like buying a house without ever going inside — something you probably wouldn't do. I always recommend flipping the package over and scanning the nutrition label."

When checking nutrition labels, you may not only be stunned by just how much added sugar some of your favorite snacks contain, but you may also be surprised to find that added sugar sneaks its way into a lot of food items you may not have expected. This is especially important if you're looking for ways to cut some sugar out of your diet.

There are the usual suspects full of added sugar...

Some things we know and expect to be full of sugar, such as sodas, cookies and candy bars. And then there are the less obvious (but not particularly surprising) treats full of added sugar, such as coffee drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks and juices that aren't 100% fruit juice.

"The trick with these foods and drinks is to understand how much added sugar each item contains per serving, which might be higher than you think," says Sessions.

...But then there are the unusually sneaky sources of added sugar

"Yet another issue is that, when it comes to prepackaged foods, added sugar is almost everywhere — even in the health aisle," says Sessions.

Some unexpected foods that contain added sugar include:

  • Sliced bread
  • Cereal (even the "healthy" ones)
  • Ketchup and other condiments
  • Salad dressing
  • Flavored yogurt (including Greek yogurt options)


"Even if added sugars are found in small amounts in these products, think about how often they're included in your meals throughout the day. If you're not checking nutrition labels, you may be inadvertently sneaking way more added sugar into your diet than you thought," warns Sessions.

How to subtract added sugar from your diet

"A single sugary beverage or snack you find in the grocery store can easily surpass the amount of added sugar recommended per day," says Sessions. "And even something you may consider to be healthy, like a package of trail mix, can almost take you to your limit."

Fighting back isn't easy, but Sessions first recommends rethinking your drinks and snacks — i.e. switching from sugary sodas to sparkling water or building your own healthy homemade trail mix.

Next, when browsing the snack or packaged food aisles, Sessions says it helps to know what added sugars actually look to be completely sure you know what you're eating.

"Having 'Added Sugar' called out on nutrition labels is a new feature, but it's not necessarily a requirement," warns Sessions. "This means it's important to check the ingredient list for the many names that added sugar can go by."

Common types of added sugars include:

  • Agave
  • Cane sugar, raw sugar and turbinado sugar
  • Corn syrup, including high fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup and cane juice


"Gram for gram, all sugars contribute the same amount of calories. And it doesn't matter what type of added sugar is in your food, it's still added sugar," says Sessions. "The three things to know, though, are how much added sugar is in the foods you're eating, how much added sugar is too much and how excess added sugar can increase your risk of unfavorable health conditions — then just reach for an apple instead of that candy bar more often than not."

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Categories: When Should I Worry About...