It’s not exactly clear how many grams of sugar a person living with diabetes should have in a day since each person is different. Some general guidelines about sugar consumption can give you a sense of how much is too much for anyone. But having diabetes means you’ll likely need to consume even less than that.
Only your healthcare provider can give you the ideal maximum number of grams of sugar you should consume in a day.
This article explains how sugar impacts glucose (blood sugar) levels. Read on to learn tips to identify sources of sugar, how much sugar a diabetic might consume, and how to work with your healthcare provider to stick to a diabetes-friendly diet.
How Much Sugar a Day Is Safe?
A national survey published in 2016 showed that American adults averaged at least 77 grams of added sugar per day. Children were found to eat a startling 82 grams.1 To put things in context, 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon.
These numbers are way above the daily limits recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA):2
- Men: 36 grams (9 teaspoons or 150 calories)
- Women: 25 grams (6 teaspoons or 100 calories)
- Children ages 2 to 18: less than 24 grams (6 teaspoons or 100 calories)3
- Children under age 2: No added sugars recommended.
If you have diabetes, your healthcare provider will probably advise that you eat even less sugar than this because sugar is dangerous for people with diabetes.
In diabetes, your body doesn’t properly use insulin, the hormone that helps you absorb blood sugar so it can be turned into energy or be stored for later. Unable to process the sugar, you develop high blood glucose (sugar) levels, which causes inflammation throughout the body.
When a person with diabetes consumes too much sugar, many body parts, including the cells that produce insulin, are affected. Regularly having too much sugar will, over time, cause these cells to wear out, so your body won’t be able to make insulin at all.4 This leads to more inflammation. Eventually, this inflammation can damage the heart, blood vessels, nerves, eyes, and kidneys.
The exact amount of sugar that is safe to consume varies based on your specific situation. However, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) advises that people with diabetes avoid added sugars in beverages and limit foods made with added sugars, replacing them with healthier choices.5
Identifying Hidden Sugar
It’s often hard to realize how much sugar is hidden in packaged foods and drinks. Even if you’re disciplined about reading food labels, you may not be aware that sugar can go by another name.
Names to watch for on food labels include:
- Agave nectar
- High fructose corn syrup
- Rice syrup
Different types of sugar can have greater or lesser impacts on your blood sugar. The idea that “natural sugars” are better for you isn’t necessarily true either, as you can still overdo it on foods containing them. Both natural and processed sugars are broken down into glucose and fructose.
- Glucose is the type of sugar used for energy by every cell of the body.
- Fructose can only be metabolized by the liver, which turns it into a type of fat (triglycerides) that can increase insulin resistance and stimulate more insulin production. In the long term, this effect can cause fatty liver and other complications.
Common Sources of Added Sugars
There’s lots of added sugar in cookies, sodas, jams, and sweetened breakfast cereals. Yet plenty of “healthy” foods have sugar, too. They may even contain more sugar.
Here are a few examples:
- Flavored yogurt: 26 grams per 6 ounces
- Granola bars: 7 to 12 grams per 70-gram bar
- Jarred spaghetti sauce: 11 grams per half-cup
- Peanut butter: 5 grams per tablespoon
- Protein bars: 23 to 30 grams per 80-gram bar
- Russian salad dressing: 3 grams per tablespoon
- Sweetened apple juice: 39 grams per 12 ounces
- Vanilla almond milk: 14 grams per cup
Luckily, many of these foods have sugar-free versions so you can enjoy them without worry. But don’t confuse the terms “low fat” with “low sugar” or “no sugar added.” Low-fat foods and natural ingredients can still have added sugars.
Choosing Better Carbohydrates
You consume sugars via carbohydrates. The two main forms of carbohydrates are:
- Simple carbohydrates, or simple sugars, which include fructose, glucose, and lactose
- Complex carbohydrates, known as starches, have three or more sugars linked together and are found in starchy vegetables, rice, bread, cereals, and whole grain
Thankfully, there are several ways to work sugar into your diet without going overboard.
First, track your daily carb intake. Choose foods lower on the glycemic (GI) index. The GI index measures the impact that different foods have on your blood sugar.
The ADA recommends that people with diabetes eat low or medium GI carbohydrates, like fresh vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Fresh fruits, such as bananas, can also be part of a diabetes-friendly diet, but they should be limited because they are high in natural sugars.
Even if you drink unsweetened juice, the amount of sugar in the juice or smoothie can have the same glycemic impact as a can of soda.
Calculating Your Daily Allowance
If you have diabetes, it’s important to work with your healthcare provider to determine what your daily sugar intake should be.
For a person who doesn’t have diabetes, 50 grams of sugar daily within a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet may be acceptable. Although, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends half of that.6
If you’re managing diabetes, a lower percentage of your total dailYThe exact percentage depends on several factors. For instance, your healthcare provider will help you to make adjustments if you are obese and need to cut calories or if you are underweight and need to increase calories.
Having diabetes doesn’t mean that you can never eat sugar again. However, it does mean that you must be aware of hidden sugars and what percentage of your daily calories should come from sugar. This will involve reading food labels, choosing high-fiber, low-sugar carbs, and making deliberate food choices to manage your blood sugar levels.