If the sound of the S-word makes your mouth water and images of ice cream and chocolate cake dance in your head, we get it. Sugar is the one ingredient we can't get enough of, even though we know we should cut back (it's like a bad boyfriend). The average American eats close to 100 grams of sugar in any given day, but according to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, no more than 10 percent of calories (about 50 grams) should come from added sugar. And the American Heart Association's added sugar recommendations are even lower, with men at 37.5 grams and women at 25 grams.
So what does that mean exactly? It’s confusing AF. That’s why we’ve put together two realistic meal plans to show you exactly what eating 50 grams and 25 grams of added sugar per day actually looks like.
Note: Unless the brand is noted, these numbers are estimates from the USDA nutrient database. We're referring only to added sugar here, so not natural sugars (e.g., those found in a sweet potato). Ketchup may have slightly less added sugar than noted (due to the natural sugar in tomatoes).
25 Grams of Added Sugar
50 Grams of Added Sugar
If you think it looks doable, we agree, but take a look at the items with the most added sugar. You’ll notice the added sugar is highest in the perceived “healthy” items, such as whole-grain cereal, the stir-fry, spinach salad with Craisins, and popcorn.
“Many foods contain added sugars, some of which may be surprising,” says Chicago-based dietitian and chef Sara Haas, R.D.N., L.D.N. Added sugar lurks in processed cereals, snacks, dried fruit, and sauces. “That means you have to learn to be a better label reader and know the various forms of sugar so that you can identify them,” Haas adds.
Sugar has many aliases, such as corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, molasses, malt syrup, sucrose, raw sugar, confectioners sugar, anhydrous dextrose, agave, maple syrup... the list goes on.
Although this may look like a hearty meal plan with plenty to eat throughout the day, what about beverages? If you sip on a lemonade with your lunch or rely on an afternoon caramel macchiato for a boost of energy or down a couple margaritas after work, then you're likely going well over the recommended sugar intake. Many drinks have upward of 20 grams of the added white stuff. Cross-sectional survey of the amount of free sugars and calories in carbonated sugar-sweetened beverages on sale in the UK. Hashem KM, He FJ, Jenner KH. BMJ open, 2016, Nov.;6(11):2044-6055. And we didn’t even bother to mention the blueberry muffin or chocolate chip scone you grab on your way to work—or the afternoon brownie that gets you through the 4 p.m. hour.
With all these limitations, are these added sugar plans realistic? “I do think the recommendations are realistic, but they require the consumer to be smarter about the foods they purchase,” says Haas. “Too much added sugar means too many non-nutritive calories, which can contribute to weight gain.” But there’s no need to deprive yourself of the foods you love. “Enjoy a bite or a mini-size version of your favorite treat but make that small amount enough, because it probably is.”