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Let's Settle This: How Much Sugar Is ACTUALLY OK To Eat Daily?

September 06, 2017
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Photo by @criene
September 06, 2017

I know, sugar is confusing! And you guys had over 500 questions on the sweet stuff. As a nutritionist and co-founder of Foodtrainers in New York City, I am passionate about decoding sugar myths and helping you feel your best. So what are the answers to your most burning questions? Read on to find out!

Is sugar from fruit OK? I hear one "health expert" say yes and another tell me to stay away. I'm so confused! Now I feel guilty taking a bite of a banana. —Leslie from Dallas, Texas

Hello, banana-phobe:

There’s a place for fruit or fruit sugar (fructose) in a healthy diet, but fruit sugar is still sugar. Excess sugar is stored as fat. My suggestion is 1 cup of fruit per day, max, if weight is an issue. If not, try to limit your fruit intake to 2 cups.

Choose fruits that are low in sugar, high in fiber, or both. The lowest-sugar fruits are strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. In terms of fiber, raspberries top the list along with blackberries and pears. Taking into consideration both sugar and fiber levels, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and apples are the overall fruity winners.

As far as your banana is concerned—it is one of the fruits highest in sugar but does have some fiber to redeem it. So, don’t feel guilty about eating that banana! If you’re in the fruit aisle in the first place, you’re doing pretty well.

Is eating a chocolate bar a day really doing damage to my health? I eat fairly well and skip condiments, so the only unnatural sugar I eat is a chocolate bar a day. Is it really that bad? —Andrea from Melbourne, Australia

Hello, healthy exception:

Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, has some brag-worthy nutrients. Chocolate is a good source of magnesium and iron. Chocolate has been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease, reduce stress1, and improve mood.

So, while I’m pro-chocolate, your mention of "a bar" concerned me. The typical chocolate bar is 3 ounces and exceeds the 20 grams of added sugar one should stick to in a day. Half a bar is more acceptable. My usual recommendation is 1 ounce of high-quality dark chocolate (>70 percent) per day.

And I would suggest you try something we call a Savory Day at Foodtrainers. Go a day without fruit or chocolate or other sweet items and see how you feel. If it’s not difficult, maybe your chocolate habit doesn’t have to be daily.

What are the best natural sugars to eat? —Zara from Frisco, Texas

Hi there, nature lover:

Hooray! We’re in agreement that the little pink, yellow, and blue packets are junk. In fact, a large study (it was observational but big enough that I took note) showed that sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin are associated with higher weight and BMI. They adversely affect both health and weight.

Here are some better choices:

  • Maple syrup: 100 percent maple syrup requires no processing, factories, or other mangling. Plus, it has nutrients, small amounts of minerals, and antioxidants that give it the leg up on white sugar. It also has a lower glycemic index than white sugar (meaning it doesn’t raise your blood sugar as much).
  • Coconut sugar: Like maple syrup, coconut sugar has minerals and antioxidants not found in white sugar. But coconut’s claim to sweetener fame comes from its prebiotic content. Coconut sugar contains inulin. If you’re not familiar with prebiotics, they fuel probiotics (which decrease sweet cravings).
  • Raw honey: This is essentially unprocessed honey. If I’m going to be a honey snob, I’d also suggest organic and local honey (local is especially important for allergy sufferers). Note: Raw honey is not suggested for young children, pregnant women, or vegans.

Here’s a bit more to know about the glycemic index: It measures only one sugar—glucose. However, it is the fructose content of sugars we should really be concerned with (think high-fructose corn syrup). Fructose increases our hunger hormones and is readily stored as fat. Table sugar is 50 percent fructose. Both maple sugar and coconut sugar are very low in fructose. Raw honey has 40 percent.

Two options to try are stevia and monk fruit. Stevia is far sweeter than sugar, so you need very little. Monk fruit happens to have anti-cancer properties as well.

I'm confused about yogurt. Some say regular is better while others suggest nonfat. But they all seem to be high in sugar. Yet people say to eat yogurt because it's healthy. I'll go to the grocery store, spend 30 minutes reading labels, and walk away confused and without any yogurt in my cart. —Susan from Nevada

I’m impressed you’re taking the time to read labels. I prefer low- or full-fat yogurt since more fat generally means less sugar. Fat provides satiety, or staying power. Yogurt is definitely healthy—it’s a good source of protein and probiotics. However, we don’t want probiotics with a boatload of sugar.

Aside from all its other issues, sugar isn’t good for gut bacteria, so it basically cancels out the goodness of those probiotics. siggi’s yogurts are the only flavored yogurts we recommend to clients. When choosing a yogurt, choose low-fat or full-fat varieties in a plain flavor. If you’d like a little extra sweetness, use cinnamon and stevia or a small amount of a natural sweetener. Finally, make sure the yogurt is from grass-fed cows.

How do you know if you have a healthy relationship with sugar? We hear so much about how too much fruit is bad, how sugar alternatives are bad—at what point can one stop fretting about their intake? —Haseena from Sioux City, Iowa

We can have knowledge and even eat a fabulous diet, but if we’re feeling anxiety, guilt, or just spend our whole lives preoccupied with the nutrients in our food, then there’s important work to do. Food stress is still stress, and it isn’t good for your health or your weight.

Try keeping a food log. Our Foodtrainers’ journal lets you see your whole week at once, which I think is helpful. Let’s not focus on one day or one meal. How was your eating overall?

Once you’re tracking, here are some parameters to apply:

  • Fruit: Aim for one to two servings of fruit per day (see my answer above for fruit specifics).
  • Sweeteners: Skip sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin, and opt for stevia or monk fruit sweetener instead. Another option is to use maple syrup, coconut sugar, or raw honey—sparingly.
  • Sweetness: Review your food log. If you go from sweet coffee to a sweet yogurt and have sweet salad dressing at lunch, try to scale back to one to two sweet items, other than fruit, per day.
  • Treats: I’m a firm believer that it’s an important healthy eating skill to be able to indulge and then get back on track. Once a week, pick a sweet (or savory) treat, plan when you’ll eat it, have a reasonable portion (outside of your house if possible), and then get back to your healthy habits.

It may sound silly, but keep a victory list. Each day, find one to two wellness behaviors you feel good about. This could be hydrating adequately, cooking a meal from scratch, choosing better sweeteners, or having a guilt- or fret-free treat.

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