Skip to main content

Reduce added sugar to improve your diet and overall health


Would you eat 10 teaspoons of sugar at once? If you drink a can of regular pop, that’s what you’re doing. Whole grains and sugar are both carbohydrates, but eating more whole grains and less added sugar will improve your diet and is good for overall health. Whole grains are the complex carbohydrates that contain fiber and other nutrients. Whole grain foods take longer to break down into glucose, giving you energy, and the fiber helps you to feel fuller for a longer period of time, compared to processed carbs with added sugar.

Simple carbs are foods that have naturally occurring sugar, including very nutritious foods: fruits, vegetables (which are high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber) and milk products, (with calcium, vitamin D and protein). Simple carbs also include highly processed foods with added sugar or sweeteners, with little or no nutritive value, the so-called “bad carbs.”

Added sugars should be limited to less than 10 percent of daily calories. If you eat 2000 calories a day, that’s 200 calories from sugar, or about 12 teaspoons. One teaspoon can hold 4 grams of sugar, with 16 calories. The average American eats 30 teaspoons (120 calories) of added sugars and sweeteners per day.

  • For example, having cereal with 16 grams of sugar per serving is like adding four teaspoons of sugar to your bowl.
  • A typical 12 ounce can of regular cola has 38 or 39 grams of sugar, about 10 teaspoons of sugar.

A diet that includes a lot of processed foods with added sugar can be harmful for several reasons:

  • These foods tend to be high-calorie and can be easy to overeat. They spike blood sugar and then it falls suddenly, without satisfying hunger for long. Frequent overeating will lead to an increase in calorie intake and eventually unhealthy weight gain and obesity, which cause other health problems.
  • Added sugar and starches (found in pasta, potatoes, dry beans, peas and corn) can lead to cavities in teeth, especially for children or anyone who does not practice proper dental hygiene by brushing and flossing frequently and visiting dentists at least annually.
  • According to Fitness Magazine’s May 2009 issue, eating too much added sugar can trigger chronic, low-level inflammation throughout your body, which increases the aging process, by attacking collagen, a protein that protects skin’s complexion. The inflammation also creates free radicals, which can deplete another skin protein, elastin. Taken together, this could lead to wrinkles.
  • The more processed sugary foods you eat, the more you crave, because these products can be addictive. Sugar releases the brain’s “feel good” chemicals, including dopamine. Without controlling cravings, overeating can lead to obesity and the other problems noted above. Natural sugars are much less addictive than added sugars.

Sugar additives are in many processed foods and can be found on the ingredient list of foods and beverages. The closer to the beginning of the list, the more of that sugar or sweetener is in that food or beverage. Added sugars include:

  • Corn sweetener or corn syrup
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose or lactose
  • Honey or molasses
  • Syrup or malt syrup
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar or invert sugar

To limit your intake of added sugar and its effects, here are a few suggestions.

  • Choose water instead of sugar-sweetened beverages. Add slices of lemon, lime, orange or other fruit to water to add flavor or drink sparkling (carbonated) water with natural flavors, or add a splash of 100% juice to plain sparkling water.
  • Reduce servings of fruit juice to a half-cup of 100% fruit juice, rather than a fruit cocktail with added sweeteners.
  • Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables to benefit from the abundance of vitamins, fiber and antioxidants they contain to boost your immune system and prevent low-grade inflammation.
    • Eat fruit when you’re craving something sweet, instead of processed foods with added sugar, such as cakes, pies, cookies and ice cream.
  • Eat whole grain breakfast cereals with little or no added sugar per serving, such as less than 8 grams of sugar.

Visit to create a meal plan with calorie needs specific to your age, weight, height and activity level.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), May 2009 Fitness Magazine