Almost everyone agrees that too much added sugar is not good for our health or our waistlines. Almost everyone also agrees that a little bit of occasional sugar is fairly harmless.
Most people would consider those two points common sense. Yet for years, there’s been no consensus about what is a little sugar and what is excessive sugar. How much sugar is too much is still controversial today, but thanks to a decade of renewed research interest combined with sources like the American Heart Association and the Dietary Guidelines For Americans, we do have evidence-based recommendations to go by, not to mention common sense.
If you don’t have time to read this entire blog post right now, here’s the short and sweet answer to the question, how much sugar is too much:
Most authoritative and scientific sources set added sugar limits between 5% and 25% of your calories. That’s a big range, but the majority recommend 10% or less. A couple sources suggest only 5%. There are individuals who claim added sugars are “toxic” and need to be zero, even though no health organization or scientific study suggests that sugar must be cut out completely. Sugar is something we should definitely minimize, but sugar is not poison. The biggest health problems seem to occur when large amounts of added sugar are consumed with excessive calories, which are causing or sustaining overweight or obesity, which in turn may lead to type 2 diabetes and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. If someone is lean or losing weight (in a calorie deficit), is physically active and stays within recommended sugar limits, the health impact of sugar is minimal and mostly related to a lower nutrient density in the diet (sugar is empty calories).
How harmful is sugar and how much is too much has been a never-ending subject of debate among scientists. It’s also a perpetual topic in the media. Consumers are worried because diet books and news outlets have been talking about the “evils” of sugar for years. In 1972, John Yudkin wrote a book called “Pure, White And Deadly” which put sugar in the cross hairs as the book claimed sugar, not fat, was responsible for rising heart disease and diabetes.
Starting in the early to mid 2000s, and right through the 2010s, the warnings about sugar picked up speed once again…
The New York Times published an article called, “Is Sugar Toxic?” A Globe And Mail article was titled, “Sugar Is The New Smoking.” A You Tube video by Dr Robert Lustig called, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” went viral, gaining millions of views. Ketogenic low carb diets surged in popularity, which added even more fuel to the anti-sugar movement.
Even specific types of sugar were being called out. In 2010, an obesity researcher penned an article called, “Fructose: pure, white, and deadly.” More research followed and for years fructose was the bad guy. Sadly, it reached the point that people were afraid of innocent fruit, which contains naturally-occurring (not added) fructose.
The public has not only become concerned, they have also become confused by conflicting messages. Part of this stems from sugar-industry funded studies, some of which notoriously did not disclose affiliations. A big problem continuing today is that even among nutrition professionals and medical doctors who don’t have a sugar industry bias, there are not only differences in opinion, but polarization into extremes and emotionally charged arguments.
On one side is the opinion that sugar is just a carbohydrate and isn’t harmful in any reasonable quantity (not hyper-caloric), especially for an active person with low body fat. People on this side might acknowledge that excessive sugar can be unhealthy, but mainly because it leads to a calorie surplus, which drives obesity, and that in turn leads to health problems.
On the other side is the opinion that refined sugar is inherently unhealthy, and should be avoided in any amount. From this side, it’s not uncommon to hear, “Sugar is poison” or “Sugar is toxic.”
The truth most likely lies in the middle.
There’s no biological rationale for calling sugar a poison or toxin. This is little more than alarmism, attention-mongering, ideology or simply misinformation. It’s the dose that makes a poison. Many substances are harmless in small doses, yet are deadly when the dose is high enough. That includes things like caffeine, salt, oxygen, vitamins, even water.
Before we look at what is a safe or risky dose of added sugar, let’s first look at how inherently unhealthy sugar is (or isn’t).
What are the detrimental health effects of excessive sugar?
Sugar has been associated with heart disease, though the types of studies that found this don’t prove cause and effect. In a 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that over 15 years, people who ate 17% to 21% of their calories from added sugar were 38% more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than people who ate only 8% of their calories from added sugar.
Insulin resistance is a concern because this is one of the problems (along with obesity) that starts people on the path to type 2 diabetes. It’s still unclear whether sugar intake contributes to insulin resistance independent of calorie excess or weight gain or whether insulin resistance follows obesity. Most evidence shows that it takes very high sugar intakes leading to an excess of calories before there are negative effects.
One study (Macdonald) suggested fructose would have to reach 15% to 23% of total energy intake or around 100 grams. Another science review (Tappy) added that while there could be adverse effects of high fructose intakes, especially in caloric excess, there doesn’t appear to be a significant detriment on a diet where weight is being maintained (or lost).
The main reason fructose was singled out so much is that metabolizing large amounts of fructose can promote fatty acid synthesis in the liver. That concerned people because they thought this would lead to fatty liver and insulin resistance. The problem is many of these early fructose studies were on animals and don’t apply to humans. In some human studies, huge amounts of high-fructose corn syrup were the sugar source. The only way you’d get that much fructose in the real world would be through large amounts of sugar sweetened beverages.
Fructose is mostly delivered in real world diets through soft drinks, and liquid calories don’t activate satiety mechanisms like whole foods do. In addition, fructose doesn’t require the action of insulin and high fructose intakes have been found to lower levels of the hormone leptin. The combination of these factors produced another worry: that sugar sweetened beverages are far more likely to lead to caloric excess, not only drinking more of the beverages themselves, but promoting increased food intake overall because appetite is not properly regulated.
In the most recent research review on fructose vs other sugars (Zafar 2021), the data shows that fructose is neither more beneficial nor more harmful than equal doses of sucrose or glucose for glycemic or other metabolic outcomes. High intakes of fructose are linked with increased liver and muscle fat, but a similar effect is seen with glucose. That means the negative effects seen with fructose may be linked to overconsumption of carbohydrates in general or simply overconsumption of calories. Excess calories from any form of added sugar can be harmful, especially for people with multiple risk factors.
For people who are already insulin resistant, or pre-diabetic, a high sugar intake is more likely to have a more negative impact especially if they are obese, sedentary or both. Continuing to consume a lot of sugar may continue the progression into full-blown type 2 diabetes. Ultimately, type 2 diabetes can have serious consequences. It can lead to blindness, kidney damage, neuropathy, peripheral artery disease, even amputations.
While it’s not accurate to say sugar consumption causes type 2 diabetes, sugar can play one part in this multifactorial disease. Obesity, insulin resistance, inactivity, and excess calorie intake are all factors connected to diabetes risk, and sugar may be a major source of excess calories driving obesity.
A 2013 study from Stanford that was published in PLOS1 analyzed people in more than 175 countries and found that more sugar availability in the food supply led to higher diabetes rates. For every 150 calorie increase in sugar per day (about one can of soda), diabetes prevalence increased by 1.1%. Like the heart disease connection, this only showed an association, but they did try to control for confounding variables such as other types of whole foods (and fiber) in the diet, total calories, age and overweight or obesity, exercise and alcohol use.
The authors, which included Dr. Robert Lustig (the outspoken anti-sugar advocate), said their hypothesis was that excessive sugar intake may be a driver of rising diabetes rates and that added sugars can not only contribute to obesity, but also appear to have properties that increase diabetes risk independently from obesity. However, the results of this study and the overall body of research doesn’t confirm that hypothesis. This study suggested that sugar does affect diabetes risk on the population level, but it showed correlation only, it didn’t show that sugar causes diabetes.
A 2012 study based out of the Nordic countries (Sweden Norway, Finland and Iceland), where sugar consumption has been relatively high found that sugar sweetened beverages probably increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. For other metabolic and cardiovascular outcomes, or other sources of sugars, there was too little data to draw conclusions. The authors said that specific recommendations regarding sugar-sweetened beverage intake in particular are warranted.
It has also been established that high sugar diets (over 20% of energy) can increase triglycerides and lower levels of HDL cholesterol. In addition, evidence points at sugar increasing inflammation, oxidative stress and risk of fatty liver disease.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), it’s uncertain whether a high sugar intake could increase blood pressure, but they point out that the Framingham study did find a correlation between more than one soft drink per day and hypertension.
Also, a well-designed 2016 study (a randomized, controlled, blinded crossover trial by Kirwan), found that replacing sugar with whole grains reduced blood pressure and risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
In this study, overweight men and women over age 50 were split into two groups and both were fed the same amount of calories, but one group was given whole grains and the other had those calories replaced with sugar and refined grains. (50 g/1000 kcal in each diet). The diets were perfectly matched for macronutrients (same percentage of carbohydrates as well as proteins and fats).
A similar amount of weight was lost in each group, supporting the fact that a calorie is a calorie when it comes strictly to weight loss. Substantial drops in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol were also seen in both groups, supporting the well-known fact that losing weight helps reduce blood cholesterol. The interesting thing was blood pressure.
The improvement in diastolic blood pressure was 3 times greater in overweight and obese adults when they consumed a whole-grain compared with a refined-grain diet. It could not be attributed to the weight loss alone. The researchers concluded that because diastolic blood pressure predicts mortality in adults over 50, increased whole-grain intake may provide a functional way to control hypertension. They added that this translates to a 40% lower risk of dying from stroke and a 30% lower risk of dying from ischemic heart disease or other vascular causes.
Controlling calories to avoid fat gain is important, but the type of carbohydrate is also important to avoid health problems. Achieving better health is never simply a matter of having a calorie deficit and hitting certain macros. Food quality matters. That ties into another potential (and less controversial) health problem from a high sugar intake – a low nutrient intake due to displacement.
When you’re eating sugar, you’re taking in calories that don’t have any nutritional value. You can avoid weight gain simply by staying within your calorie limits. But if you include an allotment for sugar in a limited amount of daily calories, that means the more sugar you allow in, the less room you have for healthier, nutrient-dense sources of carbs.
There isn’t anything inherently harmful to your health about sugar within reasonable limits. Added sugars are carbs. When you eat sugar, it’s broken down into glucose just like other forms of carbs. The problem is, eating a carb source that delivers calories but no nutritional value is not helping to optimize your health. Carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits and vegetables don’t just contain caloric energy, they contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and many phytonutrients that are extremely health-promoting.
If you only indulge in sugar occasionally and the rest of your diet comes from unprocessed whole foods, a sub-optimal nutrient intake is not a concern. But if you give yourself a sizable allowance for sugar, especially if it’s a daily allowance, the displacement of valuable nutrients might be enough to negatively affect your health over the long run.
Sugar and fat gain
Evidence suggests that weight gain from excess sugar may be the biggest cause for downline health concerns. A interesting question to ask is if you’re eating some sugar but losing weight, will it still have negative effects on health?
In conversations about type 2 diabetes, added sugar is often named as enemy number one. However, the research suggests that type 2 diabetes stems from obesity. If someone eats sugar, but avoids caloric surplus and avoids gaining weight, that does provide some protection against diabetes. And losing weight, regardless of diet composition, results in health improvements.
One study (Surwit) illustrated this rather dramatically. Two groups were placed on low energy (1100 calories) diets, with one group getting 43% of the calories from sugar and the other only 4% from sugar. Both groups showed similar weight loss and improvements in blood lipids. The authors concluded that even a very high sugar (sucrose) intake did not hold back weight loss as long as there is a caloric deficit. The surprising part to many was that in this study, the higher sugar intake also did not cause any health detriments, at least not for the duration of this short term study.
In another scientific review (Khan and Sievenpiper 2019), the authors assessed all the evidence on sugars containing fructose. Added fructose, particularly high fructose corn syrup is a form of sugar that has been vilified because some authorities proposed that it was more fattening and unhealthy than regular table sugar. (In reality, current evidence suggests the effects are very similar to sucrose).
The summary of their research paper said that fructose only causes fat gain if it provides the excess calories. When calories are matched, fructose-containing sugars don’t cause any more weight gain than any other macronutrient. Fructose can be unhealthy in excess, but there’s nothing unique about the sugar fructose. It’s the excess energy from fructose that causes harm and not some unique metabolic effect.
Is this saying that as long as you don’t eat a lot of sugar in a calorie surplus and you don’t gain weight, there’s nothing unhealthy about sugar or high fructose corn syrup? No, it’s not. Sugar may still be independently linked to certain health problems and they may take time to manifest. But studies show that negative health effects are more likely when a high sugar intake leads to an excessive calorie intake.
Guidelines for sugar limits: What is a safe sugar intake?
This brings us to the big question of how many calories from sugar is too much? How do we quantify this or set specific practical guidelines?
There have been many studies which aimed to answer the how much sugar question, some which I’ve mentioned above. A large number of health organizations have also published statements or position papers on sugar intake (which are based on these studies).
In every case, the recommendations are referring to added sugars, not total sugars. Added sugars aren’t found in foods naturally. As the name implies – they are added. For example, we’re not talking about minimizing fruit because it has naturally-occurring fructose. Increasing fruit intake actually correlates with better weight loss and better health. (Fruit does not have to be limited except to fit it into your usual carbohydrate intake for the day).
They include sugars and syrups that food manufacturers add to products like sodas, candies, cereals and cookies. This also includes sugar you add yourself, like a teaspoon you might put in your coffee or sprinkle on cereal. Added sugars also hide in small amounts in foods that you might not expect because they’re not “sweets.” Added sugars are common in foods like pasta sauces, ketchup, crackers, yogurt, bread, pizzas, and more.
Added sugars are always named on ingredients lists, with the grams listed on the nutrition facts panel. Added sugars go by a lot of different names including: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, trehalose, turbinado sugar, cane sugar, white sugar, table sugar, and honey. While sugars like honey or molasses often fly under the radar with a health halo, they are added sugars and are included in the sugar limit guidelines.
Sometimes the sugar guideline is expressed in grams or teaspoons. Usually the number is a percentage of total daily calories. The guidelines vary, ranging from 5% to 25% of total daily energy intake, with 10% or less being the most common.
The current dietary guidelines for Americans (DGA) suggests limiting added sugars to 10% of total calories per day. So for a 2,000 calorie per day diet, that’s 200 calories from any added sugar. That would be 50 grams of sugar as carbohydrate, or 12 teaspoons of sugar. By comparison, the average American gets 355 calories (22.2 teaspoons) from added sugars every day.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting the amount of added sugars to no more than half of your daily discretionary calories allowance. For most American women, that’s no more than 100 calories per day, or about 6 teaspoons of sugar. For men, it’s 150 calories per day, or about 9 teaspoons. The AHA recommendations focus on all added sugars, without singling out any particular types such as high-fructose corn syrup.
Discretionary calories are not specified in the current DGA but in previous years, 10% to 15% was suggested. Discretionary calories is still a popular paradigm which often goes by other names such as “flexible dieting,” “free calories,” “treat meals” and so on. “Cheat meals” used to be more popular but is used less today due to some negative connotations that come with the idea of “cheating.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) also has a sugar intake guideline. They recommend added sugars be limited to 10% of total calories and preferably 5%.
In the UK, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) used clinical trial data to show that high sugar intake was associated with high energy intake, so both need to be reduced. They recommended 5% or less of calories from added sugars.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada recommend that less than 10% of calories come from added sugars citing evidence that excess sugar consumption is associated with heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer.
The Canadian Dietetic Association also suggests less than 10% of calories come from added sugars.
The Nordic Nutrition recommendations call for less than 10% sugar as well.
The Institute of Medicine is an outlier, with the most generous daily sugar limit recommendation of all at 25% of total calories.
It’s also worth mentioning that in a study by Tauseef Khan for the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, cardiovascular disease risk was analyzed with various levels of sugar intake. Thresholds for harm were found at the following levels:
Total sugars: 133g / 26% of total calories
Fructose: 58g / 11% of total calories
Added sugars: 65g / 13% of total calories
All of these figures were based on the general population. It’s likely that athletes could consume higher amounts of sugars without crossing any thresholds for potential harm. A lean endurance athlete might even add a sugar-containing sports drink to his diet and actually improve his performance while seeing no health detriment whatsoever.
Any time you talk about sugar, it’s important to talk about both dose and context. In the opposite context of a sedentary obese 55-year old with metabolic syndrome, the lowest end of the sugar recommendations or the minimal intake realistically possible is probably the best suggestion.
Why not try to cut sugar to zero?
Part of the debate still going on over sugar is that there are individuals, including diet book authors and even medical doctors, who suggest cutting out added sugar completely. They take a hard line approach, still insisting that sugar is “deadly,” “evil” or “toxic” and should not be eaten at all.
But you’ll notice that none of these health organizations recommend cutting added sugar grams to zero. Even the strictest guideline of 5% (WHO and SACN), which have actually been criticized in scientific journals as unrealistic, still have an allowance for sugar. Not a single reputable scientific source recommends that everyone should cut sugar to zero.
You could make an informed decision to cut sugar out completely if that’s what you wanted to do and it were feasible for you. It’s your diet and your choice. Some people claim that sugar is addictive and that is the primary reason they try to avoid it completely – if they have a little, they fear they’ll end up binging and having a lot. “Sugar addiction” is a completely separate debate, but whether sugar is literally addictive or not, this is what some people say they experience and why they made their choice for sugar abstinence.
But zero sugar is not a realistic goal for most people. It locks you out of enjoying sweet food for celebrations and social occasions, and it’s simply not necessary for good health. The scientific evidence tells us small amounts of refined added sugar are not harmful. Sugar is empty carbohydrate calories, but it’s not poison.
On the other hand, when we look at public health guidelines for sugar, we should emphasize that whether you adopt a 100, 150 or 200 calorie sugar limit, remember the word used is limit. That does not mean a recommended daily intake. It doesn’t mean if you have a 50 gram limit that you should go out of your way to get 50 grams of your carbs from sugar every day. The guidelines are suggesting you try to stay under that number.
A good way to phrase it would be to “minimize” added sugar intake as much as you realistically can while still being happy with your diet and being able to stick to it. Rather than aim to ban sugar completely, most people will want to give themselves an allowance for occasional sugar intake. However, if you want to optimize your health to the maximum degree, generally speaking, the lower the sugar the better, even if that’s with the sole intention of getting the maximum nutritional value out of every calorie you eat.
It seems from the research we’ve reviewed, that if you’re in a calorie deficit and losing weight, that you can have moderate amounts of sugar while creating no health problems (and if calories stay controlled, without slowing down fat loss either). But on the other hand, if you’re on a restricted number of calories it makes a lot of sense to make them the highest quality possible, otherwise you are even more likely end up deficient in one or more nutrients.
Flexible dieting and avoiding excessive restriction vs avoiding excess sugar
No one is saying eat as much sugar as you want as long as it fits your macros. For optimal health and weight control, sugar should be minimized. But it’s also important not to overstate the potential health risks to the point where you restrict your diet to an unnecessary extreme, like where you can’t even enjoy sweet food at a birthday, holiday or other celebration. A piece of cake is just a piece of cake, and it’s not only possible, it’s sensible to enjoy foods like these in moderation on appropriate occasions.
What if you’re one of those people who wants to build in a little bit of sugary food every day because you believe that this type of flexible dieting is the most sustainable, psychologically healthy and maintainable approach? If your weight is stable or dropping, and you have no health problems currently, should you be worried about possible long-term effects? Or could you even be more flexible and increase your sugar intake to the high end of the recommended limit?
This is not easy to answer because it all depends on the context. What is the rest of your lifestyle like? And what stage of the health and fitness journey are you at?
Suppose someone is over 40, new to exercise, just starting to improve their nutrition, and not always consistent with controlling their calories and weight. In that scenario, trying to get away with daily sugar consumption may be detrimental. If someone is trying to manage their weight unsuccessfully and is actually gaining weight and still trying to build a daily sugar allotment into their diet, there’s a risk of health issues such as insulin resistance or blood sugar dysregulation which are precursors to diabetes.
Now suppose someone is 25 years old, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, has good body composition, has an overall healthy diet, and is consistently exercising for an hour every day. Building a small portion of sugar into that diet every day is probably not going to cause any harm. Blood sugar regulation won’t be an issue because the carbs will be used to fuel and replenish the muscles being used so heavily every day.
Adopting a flexible dieting mentality has become mainstream in recent years as the research on the subject has become more well-known. Studies have found that the opposite mentality, restrictive dieting, correlates with binge eating and weight loss failure. People tend to crave more of what they are not allowed to have, so when foods or entire food groups are completely banned, there’s often an ironic rebound effect that triggers binging.
This is especially true when restrictive attitudes are combined with dichotomous thinking. This a type of black or white mindset where someone looks at food as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, forbidden or allowed, wholesome or toxic, rather than adopting the idea that the dose makes a poison and including any food in moderation is fine.
This has lead many people to embrace the flexible mindset and in some cases, that has included the strategy of allowing one sugary treat every day. As we’ve seen, some people, especially those who are lean, active, and presently healthy, appear to not only get away with that in the short term with no physical health detriment, but they also get a psychological health benefit. Many find that this type of flexibility increases their compliance as well.
A potential downside is that if a young, lean, active person builds a big chocolate bar into their diet every single day, that can become a habit. Decades later, that person may have lost some ability to exercise as much or as intensely, and perhaps they are busy so they’re now eating some fast food meals, their metabolism is slower, and maybe they have gained a little weight. Their situation has changed, but they still have some deep rooted eating habits, including the sugar intake. What was once harmless, may have crossed the threshold of harm.
That’s why it’s important to weigh the potential mental health, dietary adherence and enjoyment benefits of a daily sugary treat against the potential physical health detriment that might occur in some cases, and also to think long-term and think about habits.
One way to approach that is to keep the flexible dieting mentality by having an allowance for sugar and not considering it forbidden, but reducing not only the quantity, but also the frequency of intake. That might mean allowing a sugary treat once or twice a week, or maybe even less often, saving sugary treats for holidays, celebrations and special occasions.
If someone is eating sugar every day, and has cut down from a very high intake and is keeping it below the suggested limits, that’s a great start, especially if that flexibility keeps them happy and helps them stick to their diet better. If someone cut down from 3 sodas a day to 1, that is awesome. But it would be optimal to minimize sugar intake even more and gradually do even better by replacing some of that sugar with fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Could you reduce from a treat every day to every other day? And then down to once a week? Or even only once or twice a month? This kind of additional reduction may be too restrictive for some, but for those who make it a goal, it can be a gradual process and the ultimate goal does not have to be zero sugar.
Attributing a sugar ban to positive results
A message we hear often is that someone quit sugar and then went on to successfully lose weight and transform their health. They then pin their success completely on the removal of sugar and simultaneously, point the finger at sugar as the sole cause of their prior problems, often while attaching those words, poison, toxic or deadly.
Looking at the bigger picture we usually see that it was not the restriction of a single food (sugar) that produced their weight loss, it was a combination of factors. Simply by starting a diet, overall food quality may have gone up. It may not simply be what was removed but what was added (more vegetables and fruits and fiber). They also may have started an exercise program at the same time. Put together, this produced a calorie deficit, which results in weight loss.
The tendency for people put the blame on one thing or credit the success to one thing is very much a part of human nature. But the truth is, there are always multiple factors that bring on problems like excess body fat, and multiple factors that solve them. It’s important to know what’s really moving the needle.
Minimizing sugar can be one of those strategies that can really make a difference to health and body composition, especially cutting a soft drink habit. But sugar does not automatically turn into fat if there’s a calorie deficit. Excess calories turn into fat, and those calories can also come from high fat foods. In fact, foods that are high in both fat and sugar are among the biggest culprits, not just pure sugar. And don’t forget, you can gain fat even from healthy foods. Too much of any food turns to fat.
Refined sugar is associated with obesity because it’s so easy to overeat into excess (a calorie surplus). Making it worse, refined sugars taste good, and are hyper-palatable. But there is nothing more inherently fattening about sugar than other types of calories, metabolically speaking.
Closing thoughts and suggestions
While sugar is nothing but empty calories with no nutritional value to speak of, and the nutrient density of your diet will affect your health, sugar’s status as a health-destroying dietary devil is often exaggerated. We could make a good argument that the biggest concern with added sugar is its tendency to be so easily over-eaten and contribute to weight gain. With weight gain comes all kinds of health problems.
Soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages are a unique case and a legitimate cause for concern because such a large dose of added sugar can be consumed so quickly and easily. With supersized bottles, you could go over a healthy daily limit with a “single serving.” No one would be making a bad decision by avoiding sugar-sweetened drinks completely, except for the rarest indulgences.
Each person needs to realistically ask themselves how much they want to reduce sugar intake and how frequently to consume it based on their unique situation, physically and psychologically. Current weight and health status are factors.
The ideas of flexible dieting and discretionary calories are also useful when deciding how much or how little sugar you allow yourself. Part of being a flexible dieter means setting a rule for yourself about how much processed or refined food you will allow yourself to eat.
In the Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle program, we have long suggested the 90-10 rule: Eat 90% of your calories from unrefined, unprocessed foods, including whole grains, fruits and vegetables. For the remaining 10%, anything goes.
If you wanted that 10% (your discretionary calories) to be all sugar, that may still seem high to some people, but scientific evidence suggests it’s perfectly acceptable to do. It also falls right in line with the sugar recommendations of several authoritative sources. If you wanted the 10% to be a mix of sugar, fat, and even some occasional alcohol, that would still be acceptable – that’s what discretionary calories are for – to enjoy what you want, but inside a pre-defined limit.
Some people may choose to be “stricter” and set a 95-5 rule. 5% is unquestionably a low sugar intake, well below the potentially harmful range. Occasionally someone might choose total abstinence and that is also an option, but it’s not mandatory and it’s not realistic for most people.
Others may want to be more relaxed and set their numbers closer to 80-20. If you wanted the flexibility to eat 20% of your calories from junky treats, including sugar, you could do that and if you were certain to stay in a calorie deficit, you would still lose weight.
If all 20% of those discretionary calories were added sugars, it would be on the high side (fitting in only with the IOM limit), but you could probably get away with that too while staying healthy as long as the other 80% of your calories were nutrient-dense, high-fiber, unprocessed foods, you were maintaining a good body composition, and exercising regularly.
Certain individuals may want a daily sweet treat and based on the evidence, if it’s within the discretionary calorie limit, it shouldn’t pose any health risk for most people. On the other hand, we can make a good argument not to create a daily sugar habit and instead learn to save those sweet treats and enjoy them on special occasions.
The bottom line? Minimize added sugar as much as you comfortably can. But it’s not necessary to ban it completely either for health or weight loss reasons. Almost all the researchers in the field agree. Thinking that all sugar must be banned to be healthy is a mistaken belief and can even be psychologically and socially detrimental.
Author of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle – The Bible Of Fat Loss
Founder, Burn the Fat Inner Circle
Not an Inner Circle member yet? Join us! CLICK HERE
About Tom Venuto, The No-BS Fat Loss Coach
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss expert. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and today works as a full-time fitness coach, writer, blogger, and author. In his spare time, he is an avid outdoor enthusiast and backpacker. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 55,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here to learn more about Burn the fat Inner Circle
Basu, S et al, The Relationship of Sugar to Population-Level Diabetes Prevalence: An Econometric Analysis of Repeated Cross- Sectional Data, PLOS 1, 8:2 e57873, 2013.
Breda J, The Importance of the World Health Organization Sugar Guidelines for Dental Health and Obesity Prevention. Caries Res. 53(2):149-152, 2019.
Erickson J,et al, The Scientific Basis of Guideline Recommendations on Sugar Intake: A Systematic Review. Ann Intern Med. 166(4):257- 267, 2017.
Faruque S, et al. The Dose Makes the Poison: Sugar and Obesity in the United States – a Review. Pol J Food Nutr Sci. 69(3):219-233, 2019
Johnson R et al, Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association, Circulation, ; 120:1011-1020, 2009.
Kearns CE, et al, Sugar industry and coronary heart disease research: a historical analysis of internal industry documents. JAMA Intern Med 176(11):1680–1685.2016
Khan TA, Sievenpiper JL. et al, Relation of Total Sugars, Sucrose, Fructose, and Added Sugars With the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. Mayo Clinic Proc. 94(12):2399-2414, 2019.
Khan TA, Controversies about sugars: results from systematic reviews and meta-analyses on obesity, cardiometabolic disease and diabetes. Eur J Nutr. ;55(Suppl 2):25-43, 2016.
Kirwan J et al, A Whole-Grain Diet Reduces Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Overweight and Obese Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial, Journal of Nutrition, 146(11):2244-2251, 2016).
Macdonald, IA, A review of recent evidence relating to sugars, insulin resistance and diabetes, Nutr.55(Suppl 2): 17–23, 2016.
Rippe J et al, What is the appropriate upper limit for added sugars consumption? 75(1): 18–36, 2017.
Sievenpiper, JL Low-carbohydrate diets and cardiometabolic health: the importance of carbohydrate quality over quantity, Nutr Rev, 1;78(Suppl 1):69-77. 2020.
Sonestedt E et al, Does high sugar consumption exacerbate cardiometabolic risk factors and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease? Food Nutr Res, 56, 2012.
Stanhope KL. Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversy. Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci. 53(1):52-67, 2016
Surwit RS, et al. Metabolic and behavioral effects of a high-sucrose diet during weight loss. Am J Clin Nutr. 65(4):908-15, 1997.
Tappy L, Mittendorfer B. Fructose toxicity: is the science ready for public health actions? Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 15:357–361, 2012
Teff K et al, Endocrine and Metabolic Effects of Consuming Fructose- and Glucose-Sweetened Beverages with Meals in Obese Men and Women: Influence of Insulin Resistance on Plasma Triglyceride Responses, 94(5): 1562–1569, 2009.
Yang Q et al, Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults, JAMA internal Medicine, 174(4):516-524, 2014.
Zafar, M et al, chronic fructose substitution for glucose or sucrose in food or beverages and Metabolic outcomes: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis, Frontiers in Nutrition, 8:1-14, 2021.
Dietary guidelines for Americans, eighth edition, https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-10/DGA_Cut-Down-On-Added-Sugars.pdf, 2015-2020.