How Much Sugar Can Be Part of a Healthy Diet?

Currently, there is not a specific limit set on how much sugar one should eat, and you will find different guidelines depending on where you look.  The Dietary Reference Intake Reports of the National Academy of Sciences Food and Nutrition boards suggest that you limit sugars to a maximum of 25% of your total calories.  This would allow for about 500 calories from sugar (125 gm) on a 2,000 calorie diet.I personally feel that this is too much sugar.  Sugar is very calorie dense, meaning it has a lot of calories in a very small amount of volume (1 cup = 750 calories), and it is not very filling.  So, it can be hard to feel satisfied at the appropriate calorie level when you’re eating a lot of high sugar foods.  Sugar also has no nutritional value so it is often referred to as “empty calories”.  If one quarter of your calories lack any vitamins or minerals, it can be very difficult to meet your nutrient needs.

A more balanced approach could be to follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans or the Food Guide Pyramid, both of which set limits for discretionary calories.  Discretionary calories are basically “free calories” that you can use to eat anything you want.  These discretionary calories are the ones that can be used for added sugars (or for fats, alcohol, etc). 

The amount of discretionary calories allotted depends on your overall calorie needs and your nutrient needs.  These guidelines recommend eating enough servings from the basic food groups to meet nutrient needs, and then once these needs are met the remaining calories are discretionary calories.  This is usually about 13-17% of calories for the average adult.  For young, active individuals this could go up to 20% of calories. 

The following chart provides some examples for how many discretionary calories are allotted at various calorie levels and how many grams/ teaspoons of sugars this would allow for: 

Discretionary calories that remain at each calorie level
Food Guide Calorie Level 1,200-1,400 1,800 2,000 2,600
Discretionary calories 171 195 267 410
Example of added sugars 16 gm (4 tsp) 20 gm (5 tsp) 32 gm (8 tsp) 56 gm (14 tsp)

The above chart was adapted from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans‘ website.

These guidelines are only for added sugars, not ones that occur naturally in foods like fruit, 100% fruit juices or dairy products.  To identify added sugars, look for the following words on nutrition labels:

  • Sugar or Brown Sugar
  • Corn sweetener, corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Glucose
  • Syrup, Malt syrup, Rice syrup
  • Honey
  • Maltose
  • Molasses

The following chart gives some examples of how many grams of sugar and calories are in some common sweet treats:

Type of Food Grams of Sugar Calories
12 oz Soda 40 gm 145 calories
Snickers Bar 30 gm 280 calories
½ Cup Breyers Vanilla Ice Cream 14 gm 130 calories
1 Pop Tart 18 gm 200 calories
1 small brownie 16 gm 170 calories

So, for those with a sweet tooth, these guidelines can provide a guilt-free way fit a sweet treat into a healthy diet because you know your meeting your nutrient needs and staying within the appropriate calorie levels.