Updated: Sep 2
How Much Sugar is Too Much?
The term “sugar” is complicated. It includes glucose, what our cells run off of for energy. But it also includes sucrose, the processed white table sugar that has been linked to many detrimental symptoms and disease progression.
So how can you find a balance that provides your body with the essential sugar molecules your cells require and limiting the sugar we don’t need?
On average an adult in the United States eats about 57 pounds of added sugar per person per year! On a daily basis that is 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day (3).
The toughest part about sugar is that it leaves us wanting more.
Have you ever had a bite of chocolate or one sip of soda and not want another?
Of course the cravings for sugar run deeper than that and it is not easy to just up and walk away from sugar. In this article we will discuss the differences between sugars and how you can enjoy a healthy, low-sugar diet for life.
Are Natural Sugars Okay to Eat?
One question I get asked a lot is, "do bananas have too much sugar?"
Let’s start with the good, so you feel comfortable with the foods a “low-sugar” lifestyle can still include. Naturally occurring sugars are found in milk in the form of lactose, and fruit in the form of fructose.
Any product that contains milk (such as yogurt, milk or cream) or contains fruit will have natural sugar.
Lactose - milk and dairy products
Fructose - whole fruits and honey
I bet you are thinking, well I have been told that sugar is sugar. That is technically true. All sugars and starches break down in the body during digestion and become glucose, the sugar molecule preferred by the body for energy.
It is also important to point out here that glucose is needed for brain function and the brain uses 20% of our body's energy! (4) This is why for people going on a very low carbohydrate diet like keto can develop "brain fog" and they feel their memory and though process is slowed.
How Harmful is Sugar?
High sugar consumption over an extended period of time can disrupt your hormone balance. Hormones are chemical messengers involved in every function of your body, especially metabolism and weight gain. When you eat sugar it increases your blood glucose (sugar) level.
When your blood sugar level increases it signals the pancreas to release the hormone insulin. Insulin is a key to the cells. It opens the cell’s door so that glucose can go in and be used for energy.
Sugar and Weight Gain
When you eat a larger than normal amount of sugar, your blood sugar levels spike and lead to a higher level of insulin. High insulin levels signal the body to store energy as fat, leading to weight gain especially around the midsection (3).
Insulin also affects a hormone called leptin, which is our natural appetite suppressant telling our brain we are full and should stop eating. Imbalanced insulin levels, along with high consumption of added sugars can lead to leptin resistance.
Leptin resistance is when our brain no longer hears the “full/satiety” cues and we start eating larger quantities.
What Foods Should I Avoid When Eating a Low-Sugar Diet?
Added sugars include any sugars or caloric sweeteners that are added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation (such as putting sugar in your coffee or adding sugar to your cereal).
Added sugars (or added sweeteners) can include natural sugars such as white sugar, brown sugar and honey as well as other caloric sweeteners that are chemically manufactured (such as high fructose corn syrup).
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends limiting added sugars to 5% of your daily calorie intake. This is about 6 tsp. per day for women and 9 tsp. per day for men (1).
One teaspoon of sugar is equal to 4 grams, so that would be 24 grams of added sugar per day for women and 36 grams of added sugar per day for men.
This doesn’t sound too bad until you start adding up the little places sugar is hidden. For example, you can find 2 grams of sugar in a slice of organic wheat bread and you can find 4 grams of sugar in a one tablespoon of ketchup. Can you see how grams of sugar can add up even when you avoid eating obvious sweets and treats?
What Are The Names For Sugar?
Read the ingredient list for any of these hidden sugars.
Anything ending in “-ose” like dextrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, sucrose
Brown rice syrup
Malt syrup or sugar
Fruit juice concentrates
High-fructose corn syrup
Agave syrup or juice
Luckily the government is changing regulations on the nutrition facts label so that manufacturers will need to identify the amount of added sugars in a serving (2). Take a look at the next food nutrition label and look for "added sugars" in bold.
Nutrition Tip: Use a free diary tracker like My Fitness Pal to see how much sugar you are eating in a day.
Now we know what to avoid and limit in our diet, but what is left to eat?
Low Sugar Diet Recommendations
A healthy, low-sugar diet that can be maintained for life focuses around whole foods. To help curb cravings make sure you are eating plenty of protein, healthy fats, and fiber. Healthy fats will help slow down the release of glucose into the bloodstream leaving you full longer and with fewer cravings.
Natural Sugars that are okay in moderation.
Keep natural sugars including whole fruit and unsweetened dairy (if tolerated) as part of your diet.
The lower sugar fruit options include raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, lemons, limes, grapefruit, oranges, and apples. Aim for 1-2 servings of fruit per day. A serving is 1 cup sliced/diced or 1 small piece of fruit.
Choose dairy products that are unsweetened and avoid fat-free options. Organic milk, cream, plain yogurt, and cheeses can be part of a healthy diet and help satisfy cravings.
Download this healthy low-sugar food list for your next shopping trip! Clean Food List >>
Are natural, zero-calorie sweeteners healthy?
Finally an option that is not too good to be true! Both stevia and monk fruit are popular plants that have been dried and ground to be used as a sweetener with no calories. You can find stevia and monk fruit in powdered or liquid forms. For stevia make sure to purchase raw, organic green leaf stevia to avoid conventional brands that chemically process and bleach their products.
Tips for Beating Sugar Cravings
If you are not feeling satisfied after a meal try switching up textures, colors, and flavors. For example, when packing a lunch for the day try to get something cold, crunchy, salty, sweet, savory, warm, and soft all into one meal!
Whole Food, Satisfying Meal
Creamy Chicken Veggie Soup - warm, savory, soft
Rice Crackers + Cheddar Cheese - crunchy, salty
Apple - cold, crunchy, sweet
Square of 85% dark chocolate - sweet, bitter, smooth
If you have a strong sweet craving post-meal it is likely a habit that has been created. Habits are tough to break, but you can ease into it by swapping in a new habit.
Save a special beverage for after lunch or dinner. This can be a coffee (black or with unsweetened cream), herbal tea, or seltzer water.
It can take a while to break a habit, so be patient and kind to yourself. You can do this!
Interested in taking next steps to balancing hormones and healing your gut? Check out my Hormone Hub group program!
Liz Riesen, Registered Dietitian
specializes in digestive and hormone imbalances. Often these conditions coexist and share common disruptive symptoms including mood changes, bloating, pain, irregular cycles, inflammation, and more. Liz is trained in identifying and healing food sensitivities, as well as balancing hormones naturally through nutrition and lifestyle.
Join me in the Hormone Hub and learn all about digestion & hormones.