Daily Sugar Intake: How Much is Too Much?
Added sugar is this decade’s fat. I won’t get into the alarming/alarmist arguments against added sugar, but it’s safe to say a lot of us who want to eat healthy are probably trying to cut back on sugar intake. American Heart Association recommends 36 grams of sugar a day for men, 25 grams for women, which is about the same as the WHO’s recommendation. Yet, an average American consumes 82 grams of added sugar every day. Clearly, many of us need to rein in our sugar intake to live a long, healthy and tasty life.
Since I started following the DASH diet framework in early 2017, I’ve been trying hard (really hard!) to stay within its sugar intake limit. DASH diet’s sugar guideline is even stricter than AHA’s. Since I absolutely love flaky pastries, creamy cakes and other sweets, it’s been a challenge, to say the least. But first, I had to figure out what my daily sugar intake limit was in this framework, and get comfortable calculating and guesstimating the amount of added sugar in different foods. Below is a handy guide that’ll help you figure out your sugar limit, guesstimate servings and decide which strategy work best for you. (I also have tips for reducing sugar in your diet!)
DASH Diet Guidelines for Daily Sugar Intake
In the DASH diet framework, the guideline for daily sugar intake (i.e., the number of sugar servings per day) varies depending on how many calories you need in a day. For a typical 2,000 calories/day scheme, the recommendation is to limit the sugar to 5 servings per week. It goes down to 3 servings per week when your daily caloric needs are below 1,600. We are following the 2,000 calorie scheme, so we get 5 servings of sugar per week to play with.
But what does 5 servings of sugar look like? I found it somewhat confusing when I was figuring out the DASH diet framework, as one serving of sugar can mean a different amount depending on what source you look at. In DASH diet, this is what NIH lists as one serving of sugar/sweets:
- 1 tablespoon sugar (12.5 grams)
- 1 tablespoon jelly or jam
- 1/2 cup sorbet
Translating Weekly Sugar Intake Limit to Daily Sugar Intake Limit
Note that the list above is one serving, so if you are averaging out the weekly limit of 5 servings of sugar/sweets over 7 days, you don’t get a full amount listed here each day. Your daily sugar intake limit would be around 0.7 serving, so, it’d look like this:
- a tad less than ¾ tablespoon of sugar
- a bit less than 3/4 tablespoon of jam
- a little less than ½ cup of sorbet
This really isn’t a lot. You can SO easily reach this limit. I know I can. 🙁 This is why I try to be really strategic about when I eat sugar and from what source. Figuring out the realistic but healthy daily sugar intake for us was a big part of the effort when I set up my own DASH diet plan!
Figuring Out DASH Diet Serving Sizes for Foods Not Listed
When it comes to sweet things, the DASH diet table has a glaring hole. I mean, where are the cookies and cakes? Chocolate? Ice cream? They are a part of a healthy diet, right? Right?
Joking aside, if you are like me, you’ll probably want to incorporate some baked goods and desserts into your DASH diet framework. The good people at NIH probably excluded them from the table in order to discourage us from eating (too much) baked goods and desserts, but I’m of the opinion that they’re fine to eat for (more or less) healthy people, as long as we don’t exceed the daily sugar intake limit (or the weekly one) of DASH diet.
…which means that I have to figure out how to count the sugar servings of various baked goods and desserts. This is relatively easy for packaged goods that come with “nutrition facts” labels.
(Tangent alert!) This will be even easier once all the food manufacturers comply with the new nutrition label requirements. The new format of the label separates out the added sugar from the naturally occurring ones. Unfortunately, the deadline for compliance was pushed back to 2020 and later. I’ve noticed, though, that some smaller manufacturers like this one have already started using the new format. Kudos to them!
How to Calculate Sugar Servings in Baked Goods & Desserts
For example, if I’m eating 5 vanilla wafer cookies with this nutrition facts label, I can guesstimate the sugar content this way:
5 (wafers) x 11g (sugars per manufacturer’s serving) / 20 (wafers per manufacturer’s serving) = 2.75g
Now, there are 12.5 grams of sugar in 1 tablespoon of sugar. So, 2.75 grams of sugar in 5 cookies is:
2.75g / 12.50g (sugar per 1 tablespoon) = 0.22 tablespoons (DASH diet servings)
Since 1 DASH diet serving of sugar is 1 tablespoon, 5 vanilla wafer cookies is about ¼ serving of sugar. Since I have ¾ serving of sugar/sweets per day according to the DASH diet framework, 5 vanilla wafer cookies seems like a sensible amount to snack on.
Bakery Items and Others without Nutrition Facts Labels
Things get far more difficult when I have a cake or muffin that don’t come with nutrition facts, like those from a bakery. For those, I just have to make an educated guess based on nutritional information available online for similar things. “Similar” is the operative term here–those of us who’ve baked even a few things know that recipes vary wildly for items with the same name, and when recipes vary, so do the sugar content. I can’t know for sure, but I can estimate.
For example, if I have a 3 oz slice of a cheesecake, Google says it contains 17 grams of sugar. Other sites show higher or lower amounts. Using the Google amount, I can do the same calculation:
17g (per 3 oz of cheesecake) / 12.5g (sugar per 1 tablespoon) = 1.35 tablespoon (servings)
This calculation shows that the 3-oz slice of a cheesecake is close to 1.4 servings of sugar, about 2 days worth of sugar in the DASH diet framework. Am I allowed to eat the cheesecake? Of course I can, as long as I avoid other sugars for those 2 days to keep my average daily sugar intake more or less under the DASH diet guidelines! This flexibility is a part of why I think DASH diet is one of the best ways to eat healthy.
Following the DASH Diet Guideline for Daily Sugar Intake
I just use this kind of calculations as a rule of thumb rather than try to be super-precise about my daily sugar intake. I have to strike a sustainable balance between being precise and not driving myself crazy.
One question I’ve been trying to figure out for myself is this: Do I “save” the daily sugar intake “budget” over multiple days and have a nice slice of cake one day? Or do I enjoy a much smaller amount of sweets every day instead? This might be a personal preference thing, but so far I’ve been going the second route with varying degrees of success.
As imperfect as the “small bit of sweets most days” model is, I suspect the “feast and famine” model might not work for me. I’m not sure if I can completely abstain from sugar and stay happy for one thing. For another, I have a sneaking suspicion that if I went the feast and famine route, I might end up having more feasts than famines. Knowing myself is the key here. 😛
One evidence supporting my decision to go the “small bit of pleasure most days” route is a book by Sonja Lyubomirsky, which I found via a personal finance blog post a few years ago. She found that small and frequent pleasures generated more happiness overall than big, infrequent pleasures. Think multiple weekend trips versus one big international trip each year–multiple weekend trips tend to keep people happier even though they are shorter and not as epic as a big international trip. I feel the same way about sugar. (I know, I know, it sounds stupid, but I do.) So, for now, I’m having a small dessert most days rather than save them up for a big weekly splurge.
How about you?
How do you follow the DASH diet’s daily sugar intake guidelines?