Experts Resoundingly Say a No-Sugar Diet Is No Good

Sugar can be a leading cause of inflammation and risk for chronic disease affecting systems throughout our bodies, Carpenter says, noting mounting evidence that “excessive intake of simple sugars may be related to an increased risk for developing certain types of cancer.”

How much added sugar is too much?

Added sugar, as the name implies, refers to sugar that is introduced to food during cooking, baking, or processing: that could be the brown sugar in a cookie, the high fructose corn syrup in a bottle of orange juice, or the tablespoons of white cane sugar added to a coffee before drinking it. Men should consume no more than nine daily teaspoons of added sugar, while women should have just six teaspoons per day, Derocha says, citing the American Heart Association’s recommendations.

Meanwhile, the U.S. dietary guidelines recommend limiting added sugar consumption to less than 10% of their daily calorie intake. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that would be a target of less than 12.5 teaspoons of sugar, according to Derocha.

The BMJ umbrella review goes even further, recommending an upper limit of six teaspoons per day (25 grams) and only one serving of sugar-sweetened beverages weekly.

Where is all the added sugar coming from?

The lead drivers of excess sugar consumption are, according to Derocha, “sugary drinks from soda to sugary coffee drinks and everything in between—candy, desserts, baked goods, ice cream, sugary cereals,” as well as the hidden sugars in pre-made smoothies, fruit juices, yogurt, ketchup, BBQ sauce, salad dressings, bread, and other pantry staples.

“Sweetening agents are commonly added to thousands of processed products across our food system—even those that we don’t traditionally categorize as ‘sweet,’” says Heather Hodson, RDN, CDN, CDCES, a clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone’s Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease.

In a world where convenience is key, Hodson explains it can be easy to unknowingly reach for products containing these hidden sugar forms. “To make it even more confusing,” she says, “these sweetening agents are listed on the ingredients list as products that we might not automatically associate with being “sugar:” corn syrup, barley malt, dextrose, crystalline fructose, brown rice syrup, and evaporated cane juice are just a few examples.”

Don’t try to avoid all sugar

Just because you’ve read about all the dangers of added sugar doesn’t mean you should throw everything with a sugar molecule out of the window. You won’t have much luck. “Honestly, it is virtually impossible, very impractical, and potentially risky to exclude ‘sugars’ from one’s diet entirely,” says Dr. Carpenter. However, he does recommend significant limitations on the amount of simple carbs for most people, “especially those with chronic inflammatory conditions and metabolic diseases like diabetes.”

Trying to cut out sugar entirely is impractical because it exists in many foods that are good for us. Eating whole foods with naturally occurring sugar, such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy, “is an important component of a balanced and nutritious diet and can actually assist in reducing the risk of chronic disease,” says Hodson.

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