Sugar Guidelines

Sugar does not have its own special stripe on MyPyramid, yet recommendations about sugar consumption are an integral part of the USDA Dietary Guidelines, and their message is carried through in the pyramid.

The USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend eating fewer sweets to reduce calorie intake, ensure adequate vitamin and mineral intake, and control weight. Eating a lot of foods with added sugar typically crowds out more nutrient-dense foods, which is detrimental to your health and to your waistline. This article will help you to understand the role that sugar plays in your daily diet.

Sugars: Discretionary Calories

Added sugars, including sugars and syrups added at the table or in food processing or preparation, are empty calories because they have no nutritional value, yet they are loaded with calories. Sugars not naturally present in food are part of your discretionary calorie allowance. You need to carefully consider where to spend those discretionary calories, especially since they also include solid fats and alcohol. If you consume alcohol or higher-fat foods on one day, you'll need to really limit or avoid sweets altogether that day.

On the other hand, if you avoid fats and alcohol, you may have room in your calorie plan to have that favorite sweet treat. It's up to you to balance your discretionary calories. Read labels carefully. Sugar masquerades under many names in the ingredient list. To compare amounts of added sugars, check the "Sugars" portion of the Nutrition Facts panel. Keep in mind that the natural sugar in milk (lactose) and fruit (fructose) are also listed. These sugars are not much of a concern.

How Much Sugar Should I Eat?

The amount of added sugar listed in the discretionary calorie allowance is a maximum amount of sugar to consume each day. It is your "sugar budget," and you don't want to exceed it. This assumes that your solid fats are kept to the amounts listed in the fat section and you don't drink any alcohol that day. If you do, then you'll need to reduce your intake of added sugars and/or solid fats to keep your calorie scale in balance.

Below is a table that will help you estimate the amount of sugar you should eat each day, according to your calorie intake.

Daily Calorie Level
1,600
1,800
2,000
2,200
Added Sugars, Example
12 grams (3 tsp)
20 grams (5 tsp)
32 grams (8 tsp)
36 grams (9 tsp)


At first glance you may think you have nothing to worry about. Perhaps you don't add a lot of sugar at the table. Unfortunately, many processed foods have sugar added to them. Consider that a single 12-ounce can of soda has about 10 teaspoons of added sugar. An 8-ounce container of fruit-flavored yogurt typically has 7 teaspoons of added sugar, and a tablespoon of ketchup has 1 teaspoon of added sugar in every tablespoon. You can see that it's easy to exceed your sugar allowance unless you're very vigilant.

Benefits of Sugar

Not much for you in sugar -- they don't call it "empty calories" for nothing! Honey has a small amount of nutrients but is still a concentrated sweet. Molasses has a few minerals, but again, it's mostly concentrated sweetness. You'll do better getting your nutrients elsewhere in lower-calorie foods.

Hidden Sugars
What's in your pantry? You may not realize it, but these items are full of added sugar: fruit canned in heavy syrup, boxed or bottled juices that don't say 100 percent fruit juice on the label, and fruit snacks such as roll-ups or leathers that are not 100 percent fruit. Give them all away to someone who is not watching their weight, and be a label looker next time you shop. Get only fruit canned in its own juice or in light syrup, and juices and fruit snacks that are 100 percent fruit. The USDA Dietary Guidelines also recommend avoiding unpasteurized juice to prevent food-borne illness.
Best Bites for Weight Loss

Read the Nutrition Facts panel of foods to select those with the least amount of sugar and calories. Choose unsweetened foods as much as possible, such as unsweetened applesauce. Sugar-free foods, those sweetened with artificial sweeteners, are another choice. Some people prefer to avoid artificial sweeteners, in which case eat smaller amounts of the regular version of the food. Use fruit to sweeten foods so that you'll at least get some fiber, water, and nutrients along with sweetness. For instance, add fruit to cereal or yogurt. Use fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth -- it's much lower in calories than sugar-laden foods. Substituting fruit for candy bars -- even just some of the time -- will save you an enormous number of calories.

Sugar Consumption Tips

Assess Your Sugar
Don't throw out all the sweets in the cupboard at one time! You might have a mutiny on your hands if there are others in your household. Do check the foods you have on hand to assess which items are high in sugar. Dispose of a few first, and replace them with similar, lower-calorie choices. For instance, you might toss chocolate fudge cookies and replace them with fig bars -- so at least some of the sugar you're getting is from fruit.

Keep low-sugar snacks handy. The more healthy alternatives you have ready, the less likely you are to grab sweets on the run. Keep the cupboard and refrigerator stocked with low-sugar choices you've searched out at the supermarket. For instance, graham crackers and unfrosted animal crackers can satisfy a cookie craving with less sugar (and fat, too) than most cookies. Dried fruit can stand in for candy. Unsweetened iced tea can substitute for soda pop.

Keep high-sugar foods out of sight and hard to get to. Store sweets in the back of the cupboard so you can't see them: Out of sight, out of mind! Put sweets in the freezer, making them unavailable for a quick munch.

Keep low-sugar snacks available in the car. Try a mix like this that keeps well in a resealable plastic baggie:

Low-Sugar Cereal Mix

Toss together:
  • 1 cup each of several low-sugar, whole-grain cereals (e.g. Cheerios, Total, Grape-Nuts)

  • Raisins to taste

  • Handful of nuts or sunflower seeds
Other sugar tips to consider:
  • Use sugar from the sugar bowl sparingly. Sometimes adding a very small amount of sugar might make a healthy food palatable so that you'll eat it. For instance, most people don't care for unsweetened oatmeal, which is a great whole-grain food. But if a spoonful of maple syrup or brown sugar makes it acceptable to you, go ahead and use a little. This would be a wise way to use discretionary calories.

  • Eat only half your usual amount of high-sugar foods. Share dessert, put half away, or have a smaller portion to begin with.

  • Drink less sugar-laden pop and other sweetened beverages. Be sure to be a label looker when it comes to the beverage aisle. Many clear beverages with fruit pictured on their labels actually contain as much or more sugar than soda pop. Even "lightly sweetened" teas rival soft drinks in sugar content.

  • Choose unsweetened beverages when you can, or check the "Sugars" portion of the label. Drinks like Gatorade and Powerade have only 14 grams of sugar per cup (compared to soda pop's typical 27 grams per cup), and the "light" versions of Gatorade and Powerade have only half that much -- 7 grams of sugar. Sparkling waters with natural flavorings often have no calories.

Setting Sugar Goals

As you set your goal for eating fewer sweets, start gradually or you'll feel deprived. Never forbid yourself a certain food. Eliminating a food from your diet only causes you to want the food more and eventually binge on it. Perhaps begin with goals such as:

  • Starting today, I will drink only one can of soda pop per day rather than my regular two, for five days of the week. (Make sure you have low-calorie alternatives that you like on hand.)

  • This week I will eat dessert after dinner only on Saturday.

As you can see, proper nutrition is a key element to healthy weight loss. Controlling your weight is not a simple matter of starving yourself. For lasting weight loss you need to feel full and energized. If you follow the USDA recommendations for each food group, you'll be well on your way to a healthier you.

©Publications International, Ltd.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

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