How Much Sugar is too Much?

Many of you did the sugar free challenge with me last month. We know that  refined sugar can be addicting, could cause depression, and certainly isn’t good for our blood sugar. I recommend using unrefined, traditional sweeteners when you do have a dessert, or, better yet, enjoying fresh fruit. The question I have had recently is how much sugar (even unrefined) is too much? When do sweeteners start effecting us adversely? A teaspoon of sugar? A half of a cup of sugar? Where is the threshold?

Because of this lingering question in my mind, the following paragraph caught my eye in the last Weston A Price Journal, in a great article entitled Zapping the Sugar Cravings (go read it when you have the chance!).

” Becoming sugar-celibate isn’t necessary or appealing to most. We are designed to enjoy sweet foods and, well, they taste good! Nancy Appleton’s extensive research on sugar led her to uncover the fact that, for healthy individuals, the threshold of added sugar is two teaspoons at one time, no more than two to three times a day, totaling two tablespoons altogether. This means any sugar—white table sugar, dehydrated cane sugar juice, maple syrup, honey, dextrose, brown rice syrup, maple sugar or coconut sugar. For unhealthy individuals, no amount of sugar is recommended.”

A few thoughts. First, if you want to follow this advice, then processed foods are out. Even “organic” brands are often high in sugars. I looked up how many grams are in a teaspoon. One teaspoon of white sugar is about 4.2 grams of sugar, so you could have up to 8.4 grams of sugar. The author gave some helpful examples of what this would look like in a real food diet.

• Two teaspoons raw honey in a serving of full-fat, homemade yogurt with berries, ground nuts, and a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg
• Two teaspoons maple syrup blended in a fruit sauce to top soaked wholegrain pancakes or waffles
• One tablespoon honey-sweetened preserves on an almond butter sandwich
• A spoonful of ketchup sweetened with evaporated cane juice on your pastured raised, bison burger
• One tablespoon date syrup or paste in an avocado pudding
• A small pour of brown rice syrup in a smoothie with egg yolks, berries and coconut oil
• A muffin recipe made with 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) coconut sugar per dozen (equals 2 teaspoons per muffin)

I actually found it encouraging that if you are healthy that you could have some sweeteners without it throwing your body out of balance! But this amount of sweetener is definitely lower than most of us are used too. I am going to experiment a little with desserts and see what this would look like translated into regular cooking. I am interested in reading more research on this topic to answer further questions (such as whether fruit sugar is included in those sugar grams).

What do you think? Does this sound encouraging or discouraging to you? Do you feel that you could get your sweetener consumption down to lower levels like this, or are you already there?

KimiHarris

I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

Comments

  1. Elizabeth says

    I guess it’s encouraging and discouraging because I’m not sure how to interpret it — I guess I have the same quesiton as you as to whether it includes the natural sugar found in fruit (such as eating a whole date, for example) or even something like coconut water? I have been making the transition to cutting out all processed sugars and *most* sweeteners but I still have a box of coconut water. It says 15g of sugar is included in an 11 oz serving.

    If this includes the amount of fruit you can eat in a day, it would seem to require cutting out most fruits.

    • says

      Well, it says “added sugar,” so I’d imagine that fruit (as in, whole fruit) is acceptable. Given that their examples of added sugar are “white table sugar, dehydrated cane sugar juice, maple syrup, honey, dextrose, brown rice syrup, maple sugar or coconut sugar,” fruit should be fine.

      I don’t know much about coconut water, but again, I’d assume that if it’s a natural byproduct of the coconut, it would be fine (and if the coconut water is sweetened in efforts to make it taste “better,” it most likely would count toward the 8.4 grams).

      • says

        My guess would be to say it doesn’t include fruit, as you say, but I would go easy on the coconut water. Because part of the reason fruit is okay is because of the fiber and other goodies in the actual flesh of the fruit that help your body process the sugar. I would group coconut water with fruit juice in a kind of “better than most, but not to be eaten with abandon” kind of group.

  2. Megan says

    If true, I find it encouraging, because I often wonder if even the small amount of sweeteners that my family consumes is over the top compared to the amount that people ate traditionally. Interesting article, thanks Kimi!

  3. says

    I guess I’d have to say it’s discouraging! I’m always cutting back on sugar, whether it’s processed or natural but it’s so hard to imagine only 2 T per day. I’m going to work towards it, though it’s going to be years in the works! I really wish I had started sooner, before my children were born, so that they wouldn’t ever have had much access to sugar. But at least we are working on it! Thanks for the post Kimi!

  4. Lori A says

    Interesting article. My family has cut way back on sugar and when reading labels, try to keep it under 4-5gms of sugar per serving, so I think we’re doing pretty good. I “supplement” sweetness with stevia. Thoughts on that? It’s a natural sweetner with no calories that has been used by some traditional cultures.

    I’ve also switched to using fruit for sweetners, whole dates or bananas thrown into our kefir smoothies or to sweeten our sprouted grain muffins, so I’ve been curious if that is “cheating”. I think how much sweet fruit a traditional culture would have consumed would of course depend upon the climate of the culture.

  5. Andrea says

    I just LOVE stevita in my yogurt and tea (especially the flavored ones)and I half it with honey in a lot of recipes. It has helped me cut my sugar waaaay down and I don’t know why more people don’t use it. The taste is hardly noticeable in that brand. My kids and husband never noticed the switch!

  6. Sarah says

    I’ve wondered about all the sugar needed to ferment Kombucha – I never bought white sugar before I started my home “brewery”.

    I buy the organic, low processed types, but I’m still curious. Has anyone seen any research on how much sugar is left in the Kombucha when you drink it and how your body processes it?I know the SCOBY eats it up, but then I think about beer, which is also a fermented product, and even though the sugar in it is eaten, it’s still high “empty” calories.

    Any thoughts?

    • lynnpaulus says

      I’ve wondered too since I have a friend who likes her Kombucha “sweet” while I like mine really tart, most vinegary. When I had her’s for the first time I told her it tasted like pop and it wasn’t done but then she showed me the recipe that came with the scoby and it said to ferment for 10 days to 2 weeks. Mine told me one month. Guess there’s the differance. I didn’t want the sugar and if I could taste it, I just thought it must be to much! Sure makes my Norweign sugar loving husband shiver when he drinks it too! It’s good for a family laugh which is healthy too! ;-D

    • Madeleine says

      I stopped making kombucha because of the sugar. It tastes sweet, so the sugar must still be in there! Also the tea (any tea) gives me arthritis.

  7. Heather says

    Very DIScouraging. Two tablespoons is not much when you think about enjoying even a modest proportion of a cake (albeit made with great ingredients). I do really love stevia, but we could break the bank buying it constantly. My husband has really been a champ switching to no-eating-out, raw, organic, fermented, soakeded, sprouted, grass-fed, etc., BUT he wants his desserts (my homemade ones) DAILY. That does not translate into fruit for him, but cakes, ice creams, dainties. By the way, our ALL TIME FAVORITE IN THE WHOLE WORLD dessert is your decadent chocolate tarte– that IS reserved for special occasions!

    • Karen B says

      I use stevia in ice cream (recently since the challenge) and it’s really good, or at least Ithink it is. Give it a try for you husband.

  8. says

    We’re working on this too, although most of the time we don’t add any sugar. And when we do it’s honey. My primary use is for baking (a small amount) or when making homemade rehydration drinks (great for sick people). But I don’t ever add it to smoothies or anything. I do a little bit to ice cream or frozen yogurt for the kids, and will to their milk kefir, along with some berries. But hey…a small amount of honey vs. not drinking the milk kefir or yogurt? I’ll use the honey. :)

  9. says

    I love your article on sugar as I have been getting several questions about it all from friends. I am of the opinion this “ideal” is in reference to added sweetness. Having said that, don’t go crazy on replacing your decreased sugar intake with loads of sweet fruit cause that can cause unwanted weight gain and health problems as well. I believe moderation is key to anything and it applies to healthy food too.

  10. Jackie says

    I think it’s both discouraging and encouraging as well. It’s good that once your healthy you can have 2 tablespoons of sugar/sweetener a day. It would get frustrating when you want a treat that usually has more then that. On the other hand once you became accustomed to less sugar then it would seem just right. I’m working on cutting the sugar back for me and my family. It’s a slow process.

  11. says

    That is very interesting. Next time I make a dessert I’ll calculate it out and see how much per serving we actually use. I already use much much less than the recipe calls for but I only know how much per batch, not per cookie or muffin (and the number of cookies or muffins a recipe makes varies each time I make it depending on what size cookie I feel like making that day… and how much cookie dough I snack on).

  12. KellyBelly says

    I don’t like that the natural sugars like honey & maple syrup are in the same catagory as regular white sugar. I would have hoped that with natural sweetners we’d get a little more of them to eat.

  13. says

    I just found your great blog yesterday after doing a web search on kicking the sugar habit. It’s the only unhealthy thing in my diet, and unfortunately, I eat way too much of it. I’ll definitely check out your previous posts on the subject as well as read the article you mention. Thank you for this info!

  14. Lynda says

    Being hypoglycemic, I have gradually decreased my sugar intake over the years simply because I feel awful otherwise. The older I get, the more I choose feeling good over the immediate gratification of a sugar feeding. I’m doing what this article says (usually) and am a little surprised to realize it. :) It was such a gradual process it was never painful. So I say, if it takes you a while, just know you’ll get there. (this comes from a girl who kicked a 2-Whatchamacallit-a-day habit)

  15. Ginger says

    Everything in moderation!
    I’m encouraged by this post because I tend to beat myself up for eating any amount of sweetener but that’s not any healthier!
    Also, I’ve found that the less added sweetener I use regularly, the less I need for things to taste sweet. And I’ve heard (and experienced) that your body processes all added sweeteners the same as far as the immediate metabolization so the effects of honey and maple syrup are the same as white sugar in the short run (although not the long run) so the findings are not suprising to me.

  16. Moneca says

    I’ll have to find the original article in WAP Foundation and see what this author considers “research”. I’m honestly amazed that WAPF would advocate this much of high glycemic sweeteners in a day. All the information I’ve seen on primitives who were “immune” to degenerative diseases and tooth decay showed that they only ate fruit seasonally and few had regular access to raw honey or maple sap. It’s truly hard to believe that they group white sugar and dextrose in with unrefined sweeteners.
    Thanks for posting part of this article.

  17. says

    Oh my heck! That is sooo liberating! Granted, I eat much more than that; however, knowing that throwing a couple of teaspoons in my breakfast is not a problem. I do eat at least twice that, though, and I will try to whittle it down. But knowing that I don’t have to be a “sugar celibate” makes me feel better. Thanks for printing it!

  18. Juli says

    I am still sugar free since the challenge. It is mainly about recognizing my addiction and the fact that even a little sends me into a tailspin again. I am getting all my sweetness from whole fruit. I am feeling much more in control and the cravings are gone. To me it is encouraging that once I go through more healing, I can have a small amount and lead a more “normal” life. I can have some without being thrown off balance. Yay!

  19. says

    This is very heartening news. Thanks for the tip! Nobody feels very motivated if they think they have to completely give up something forever and always! Maybe you have covered this already, but pure maple syrup is a good sweetener because it has hardly any fructose in it, which of all the sugars is the harshest on us.

  20. sillyhippiechick says

    Hi Kimi, I really enjoy your website and I have a quick (but unrelated to this post!) question – I want to try coconut water kefir and I was wondering if you could tell me your favorite online source to buy kefir packets from?

    Thanks!!

  21. says

    Great post Kimi! Very encouraging and a great guide. Keep in mind that no amount of sugar is acceptable when unhealthy and there are lots of us out there who are not as healthy as we could be. Unfortunately, many of these people do not even know that they are unhealthy. As you know whole sugars are always best and as was noted above stevia in yogurt is awesome as well as in tea and coffee. I find it’s best to always go with the liquid stevia as the powdered ones have a strange after taste and do not dissolve as well. Thanks for the great work that you do!

  22. DianneValdez says

    I want to say that I really appreciate this site and the conversations. I have learned a lot. I am thinking, and I could be wrong, that in the WAP they are talking about the current society and knowing that there are sweeteners and sugars we use. Also, raw honey or maple sap are not the only sweeteners God gave us. I know as a gardener and learning about plants from around the world that there are plants in almost every area/region that are sweet. In the WAP, my understanding is that the primitives ate what was in their particular area, grown there, ate there, including plants that provided “sweetness” to their lives. I have been going back to my own roots by growing and eating as I did as a child when as a baby I sat in my grandmothers garden and ate right off the plant and that includes the plants that provide “sweetness” to my life.

  23. Jessie says

    I thought the article was a really good one, but did feel challenged in terms of the occasional dessert. I think fruit based desserts would probably be best. My blueberry pie recipe calls for 1/2 cup sugar for the pie. It’s a little tart, but good. But this still might be more than 2 tsp at a time. A definite challenge.

    I am thinking at this point that the occasional dessert might be OK and do as low sugar as you can. It can get stressful to try to follow the letter of the law & implement super-strictly. It’s definitely a journey & a process.

    I’m interested to see what recipes you may come up with as a result of this article.

  24. says

    This is interesting. I’ve always wondered this as well. I tend to cross the sugar threshold sooner than the rest of my family, so I have to use even less. But good to know over all.

    I am interested to see what you find in the ‘real life’ scenario.

  25. Jun says

    KellyBelly – just wanted to say that raw honey and pure maple syrup are NOT the same as white sugar. Your body process’ them differently. Maple syrup does not spike your insulin, white sugar does. Simple sugar and complex sugar are totally different. With that being said I agree with every one else that believes that all things must be done in moderation. Dessert is still dessert, but can be consumed if done with moderation, other wise you can’t eat the whole pie. It’s just common sense eating. If you binge you will pay for it usually with your health. I believe in good eating habits and exercise, and I do what I can do, but I’m not a radical. If we did every thing that every one told us we must do we would be afraid to stick our heads out of our houses. All we can do is the best that we can, it’s a learning process. Kim you are doing a great job, thank you so much for all of your time, effort, research and great articles that you post.

    • Erin says

      I’d like to second what this person said. I just did a bunch of research (medical journal articles, not random websites) about sugar metabolism, and more natural sugars like honey, maple syrup, molasses, and even brown sugar affect your insulin response much less than white sugar does. Honey and molasses in particular have antioxidants, antibacterials, and microbes that positively affect the way you metabolize the food. There’s also evidence that you metabolize it better when you ingest protein and fat along with the sweetener. This is by no means an argument for an all-honey diet; sweet things should still be considered treats, but all sweet stuff is NOT created equal :)

  26. Muriel Truax says

    This is a thought provoking article. I didn’t join the sugar free challenge since I already don’t eat white refined sugar and believe natural sugars are good in moderation. However, I did follow it, and I’ve been experimenting with how much natural sugar I can “do without”. I was pleased to discover that many of the things I normally add honey to, for example eggnog, fruit smoothies, rice pudding, and salad dressing, actually don’t need honey but taste fine on their own (with a little getting used to that is). I was so happy to find that I was able to adopt to and enjoy food that aren’t so sweet.

  27. Alicia says

    My family and I LOVE sweets! However, we have given up processed sugar *almost* completely in our household and use natural sugars (date syrup, fruit, occasional honey, fruit only jams, etc.) in a decent abundance. We don’t moderate the amount as much as making sure all the sweets we do eat have some nutritional value in them. We find this works great for our family! My children, 3 & 5 have never been to the doctor for sickness (and we thank the Lord for this) (although they have of course had runny noses from time to time), and my husband and I are neither overweight and feel healthy. There are SO many great recipes out there made with natural sugars! I recommend http://www.OrganicsAreForEveryone.com. They sell date syrup which is what started our big kick-off into baking only with fruit!

    Thanks for the article!

  28. Madeleine says

    I like having the information – knowing what the limit is for most of us. I personally think dates could be used regularly as flavoring in, say, a fruit salad. But if you’re baking and using dates as your sweetener, I think it could throw the body off, even though it’s a whole food. Same with a cobbler that’s all apples and raisins; I think a serving would have to be very small.
    I agree with the posts about stevia. In a lot of foods, half the sweetening can be provided by liquid or powdered stevia without a change in flavor. If you’ve got a good brand of stevia.

  29. says

    Thank you for your commitment to bringing this subject up again and again. I did the “Sugar Free” week with you last year and have made some permanent adjustments as a result. Currently I’ve been battleing fatigue, much more than the usual. I decided to impliment a no sugar week again just on my own.

    I have a question similar to another commenters. Do dates count? Do you know if your body reacts the same to muffins made with dates instead of sugar? I’ve been subsituting 1 for 1 in recipes and it works really well and honestly, my kids can’t tell the difference in taste or texture. I’d be interested in any research you may have come across regarding that issue.

  30. says

    As with all things, I am pretty sure there is no ‘measured rule’. I for one do not support sugar, even in small doses. My husband has no problem with it.
    As a rule of thumb, I would stay away from processed foods… because of the sugar and many other ingredients! Eat it with homemade dessert, make sugar a treat!

  31. says

    I think it’s encouraging, because I just made some super not-healthy chocolate wafer cookies. They turn out really conservatively sized, though, and based on the number of cookies in the batch and the amount of sugar I put in them it’s not unreasonable to eat one or two of them a day. That’s assuming you don’t eat ANY other sugar…

    We’re cutting back slowly as well. I only bake something like that every other week or so to sate everyone’s sweet tooth- mostly the kids and my hubby. I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth- I only crave sweets when I let myself get too hungry before eating (and when I’m pregnant…). The problems for me are bread (not really a problem in my brain- I love my homemade 100% whole wheat far more than any unhealthy white bread), cheese (mmmmmmmm…..), and salty junk food. But for my kids’ sake I keep the sweets to a minimum because I don’t want them to grow up with that addiction. I think my husband is a lost cause:) But in all fairness, he doesn’t expect me to supply him with sweets daily, and he doesn’t drink soda- in fact, in our house drinking soda is considered on a parallel with smoking. And lately he’s been fighting flagging energy in the afternoon by taking two or three oranges with him to work. So maybe he’s not totally lost:)

  32. Ariella says

    Just a quick note about calculations–1 tablespoon=3 teaspoons, and there are 4 tablespoons in a 1/4 cup. Therefore a batch of 12 muffins made with 1/4 cup of sugar (12 teaspoons) would only have 1 teaspoon per muffin. 1/2 cup per batch would actually = 2 teaspoons per muffin.

  33. says

    Considering true unadulterated stevia extract can be used so sparingly I wouldn’t think it that hard. One of my son’s and I can’t eat any form of cane sugar so using natural sweeteners is a normal thing for our family. With the stevia extract you can use a mere 1/4-1/2 t plus 2 T honey or maple syrup and sweeten an entire cake. I think you’d be okay!

  34. Rose guay says

    Loved my soda but gave it up to much sugar, then tried a great tasting, all natural, zero calorie soda called ZEVIA!! Sweetened with stevia! Lots of great tasting flavors. My son loves the grape. Got my teenage daughter off of moutain dew and dr. Pepper now drinking dr. Zevia and mountain zevia , husband loves the cola and i treat myself to a cream soda everyday. Saw Oprah endorsed it thought to give it a try and have been hooked ever since. They just came out with news flavors. Called their home office many more stores will be carrying all the flavors soon! Cant wait! Mostly at whole foods and other health food stores.

  35. says

    I found your web site by accident. I have been working very hard to lose weight. I have lost 30 pounds since May 23rd. Last week I only lost one pound and have been devastated. I have been using myfitnesspal.com to learn and educate myself on how much food/calories/protein/fibers/carbs I need in a day. It wasn’t until this afternoon I realized I was not watching my sugar intake. My assumption was since I have cut out about 95% of processed foods, that I didn’t have to worry about sugar. Oh my, was I wrong! I changed my settings to show my sugar intake and I have been over every single day! My sugars have a tendancy to drop. I grab a piece of fruit to eat instead of a bag of chips. I have been trying to find a list, one that is easy to understand and NOT confusing, and have not found one yet. I’m just wondering in simple english terms what would help my sugars to not drop. Thanks!

  36. Jason says

    For a sedentary individual, trying to maintain his/her weight, this is probably ideal.

    But for me, as an athlete, I consume upwards of 350 grams of simple sugars (I cant stomach many complex carbs), 80+ grams of fat, 200+ grams of protein, 50 grams of complex carbs a day, and that doesn’t include fruits & vegies. If I’m trying to gain weight, I have to throw another 1,000 kcal on top of that.

    So long as I’m doing an hour of weight training every other day, and 2 hours of cardio 3 days a week (at bpm of 140 – 180 for me), and consuming 4,000 kcal a day, I feel fine & my weight stays the same, all while improving strength, speed, & cardiovascular health.

    When I cut (reduce bodyfat from 12% to 6%), I ramp up my protein consumption to 300 grams a day, and cut out 100-250 grams of simple sugars, thus maintaining most of my muscle gains while reducing the fat :)

  37. BZZZZ says

    I normally never eat sugar. When I moved into my new apartment a couple months ago I didn’t buy any sugar in any form – the closest I came to buying sugar was purchasing milk, which has lactose (technically a sugar). I never eat dessert and I don’t like sugary drinks like soda, juice, or alcohol. I always just drink water.

    I love my low-sugar diet even though everyone else I know thinks I’m crazy. I’m thin, I’m healthy, I’m happy, and I feel like I actually enjoy my food more (ironically). But if you decide to go all Spartan like me about sugar, let me give you a hint. If you eat a candy bar, a piece of gum, or just about anything other than like a banana or a peach, you’re going to get a sweet tooth and it’s all going to come back in voracious fury. Your body just can’t seem to handle sugar in moderate amounts. It has two modes of operation: addicted or starved.

    Case in point: I ate a cookie last week someone brought into work, and it’s now snowballed into an all out cookie and ice cream craze for the past two nights. I feel like an addict, I’m depressed, I feel sick, and I cringe to know what I did to my body tonight. And my teeth! I just threw away all the cookies and ice cream I spent so much time preparing without even finishing it. Good riddance.

  38. Jacquie says

    Love this site! I just tripped over it and am thrilled to get all the info and feedback.
    I am a major sweet tooth! I have managed to avoid sugar (adding it,desserts,treats etc.) but I find it is in everything!
    I am eating mainly protein,vegetables, fruits and fibre…then I looked at the sugar content of blueberries,that I thought were healthy,and that I was putting in every mornings smoothie,and have eliminated them.
    How do I make a tasty smoothie without fruit?

    I am healthy,but want to stop the addiction to sugar before it catches up with me.
    Jacquie

  39. saul says

    Actually its been proven that sugar is actually good for you in far larger amounts then most so called experts suggest. The culprit is starch, grains and PUFA (polyunsaturated fats). If you cut out all PUFA’s (any vegetable or seed oil) and use only Butter and coconut oil for all your cooking needs, stop eating grains (no breads, no cereals), potatoes are good as long as you eat them with butter or coconut oil and some salt, sugar will not have a negative impact on you. Google the PUFA’s and insulin sensitivity, etc. It is PUFA’s and starch that cause the problem and not sugar or honey.

    My friend actually brought his sugar levels down from 270 fasting to 120 by eating more sugar and honey for 3 months. He doubled his dosage of sugar and honey, ate more fruits, only used butter and coconut oil, drank more milk, ate a lot of cottage cheese, and within 3 months his HB1ac dropped from 12.7 to 6.5 and fasting blood sugar dropped from 270 to 120; all this was done without taking any drugs but increasing honey and sugar consumption and cutting out all PUFA’s (including omega 3 oils), starches except potatoes and root vegetables, no cereals, and nothing with high corn fructose. High corn fructose is not natural.

    All the information about sugar has been distorted.

  40. donna leding says

    One of my best tips for staying away from sugar: When I am tempted by Milky Ways, donuts etc, I read the labels for calories and sugar grams. Many, many times I have been able to put the item back on the shelf. But I still use too much sugar. My drink of choice is milk which has 11 grams per cup!

    This is the amount of sugar allowed per day (per Google).

    Women: no more than 100 calories per day which equals 6 teaspoons or 24 grams
    Men: no more than 150 calories per day which equals 9 teaspoons or 36 grams

    That is virtually impossible but we must try to cut back. No wonder obesity and diabetes are so high.

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