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Reduce sugar intake with easy, practical steps

Image of one cup of high-sugar cereal with sugar cubes resting on top. One cup of high-sugar cereal equals about four teaspoons of added sugar in a person's diet. (Photo by Cody Duty and Jonathan Lopez/UTHealth)
One cup of a high-sugar cereal equals about four teaspoons of added sugar in a person's diet. (Photo by Cody Duty and Jonathan Lopez/UTHealth)
Image of a sports drink with a sugar cube being dropped into it. A 20 ounce sports drink contains about seven teaspoons of added sugar. (Photo by Cody Duty and Jonathan Lopez/UTHealth)
A 20 ounce sports drink contains about seven teaspoons of added sugar. (Photo by Cody Duty and Jonathan Lopez/UTHealth)
Image of a cup of flavored yogurt with sugar cubes resting on top. Six ounces of flavored yogurt equals about four teaspoons of added sugar. (Photo by Cody Duty and Jonathan Lopez/UTHealth)
Six ounces of flavored yogurt equals about four teaspoons of added sugar. (Photo by Cody Duty and Jonathan Lopez/UTHealth)

Eating large amounts of sugar over a long period of time can cause major health complications, including the risk of developing chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

American adults consume an average of 77 grams – about 18 teaspoons – of sugar per day, which is 103% more than the recommended amount of 38 grams, or 9 teaspoons, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). That adds up to a whopping 60 pounds of added sugar per year.

“Excess sugar in the diet gets added to the body’s caloric intake, but doesn’t provide any essential nutrients. Foods that do this can be referred to as ‘empty calories.’ Regularly eating large quantities of empty calories prevents us from filling up on whole foods that fuel the body, and may increase the risk of developing chronic disease,” said Monique Dorsey, a registered dietitian with UT Physicians, the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). “Examples of whole foods include leafy greens, whole grains, and foods high in protein such as chicken or fish.”

For children, the gap between recommended and actual daily sugar consumption is even greater than for adults. American children consume on average 81 grams of sugar per day, or about 19 teaspoons, 224% more than the recommended 25 grams, or about 6 teaspoons, that should be in their daily diets. That adds up to 65 pounds of added sugar in a single year.

One of the problems with avoiding added sugar is that it is commonly added to packaged foods. But it might be surprising to learn just how much sugar is hiding in some common items. While sugar does occur naturally in foods, a lot of the sugar that is consumed in the U.S. on a daily basis comes from added sugar – or sugars that are not naturally found in foods. These can range from sugars and syrups that manufacturers add to processed food to the teaspoon of sugar added to that daily cup of coffee.

A cup of sugared cereal and a cup of flavored yogurt both include 18 grams, or about 4 teaspoons, of added sugar. One of the biggest contributors to added sugar consumption are sports drinks, which have about 31 grams, or almost 7.5 teaspoons, of added sugar. According to the AHA, children consume over 30 gallons of added sugar every year from beverages alone, enough added sugar to fill a bathtub.

National Sugar Awareness Week aims to bring attention to the amount of sugar consumed on a daily basis, especially from unexpected sources, and to encourage people to look for healthier alternatives when snacking or meal planning.

Dorsey said there are simple ways to cut down on daily sugar intake.

“You can cut back on added sugar by prioritizing food selections that will get you closest to meeting your daily nutrient recommendations. This may look like having a fruit or fruit-based dessert, as opposed to a candy bar, to satisfy a sweet tooth, or replacing a sweetened beverage with water,” she said.

Sugar is not always easily found on the nutrition label. Added sugars can go by many different names, including fructose, glucose, corn syrup, and more. The closer to the beginning one of these is listed as an ingredient on a nutrition label of a product, the more added sugar that product has, according to the National Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Dorsey said it is important to be mindful of the unexpectedly high added-sugar content in foods like certain yogurts, granola bars, and ketchup.

What about sugar substitutes like monk fruit or stevia? Dorsey said that while different sweeteners might be useful options for individuals who have diabetes or are managing their weight, the “best” type of sugar will vary from person to person depending on their preference and health goal.

But there is no need to run to the pantry and throw away every snack item. “There is nothing wrong with consuming regular sugar while practicing moderation,” Dorsey said.

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