Amy Reeder is a Certified Diabetes Educator with a master’s degree in nutrition from the University of Utah. She has worked in the diabetes field since 2005 and has been a Certified Diabetes Educator since 2007.

It is a fact that sugar in the diet causes sugar in the bloodstream to surge. As with any other food or nutrient, you do not need to completely eliminate sugar from your diet.

So far in this series, we have covered many of the “taboo” foods such as potatoes, rice, and white flour. But the one mentioned here is king of them all: sugar! In the previous articles, I followed the mantra of “everything in moderation.” There is a place for all foods in the diet of a person with diabetes as long as those foods are managed adequately with medication and exercise. But added sugar is a different story, for many reasons — number one being that it is just not healthy no matter how you fit it in your diet.

On average, Americans eat 77 pounds of sugar per year. That is approximately 22 teaspoons of sugar per day. These amounts are quite a bit higher than what is recommended. The American Heart Association recommends a sugar intake of only six teaspoons a day for women, and nine teaspoons a day for men.

Where do you stand?

Here is an example: one teaspoon of sugar equals four grams, and one 12-oz can of cola-flavored soda has 39 grams of sugar. That’s 9.75 teaspoons of sugar in that one can of soda. By consuming that can of soda (or container of yogurt or single candy bar, etc.), you are at the recommended limit if you are man, but over the limit if you are a woman!

So what happens if you consume more than those six or nine teaspoons of sugar each day? Is there a level of intake that is unsafe? The National Academy of Science states that no more than 25 percent of our daily calories should come from sugar. (The World Health Organization has a much more conservative recommendation that less than 10 percent of calories come from sugar each day.) That 25 percent equals approximately three 12-oz cans of soda considered to be safe. This amount of sugar intake is very common in the American diet.

While we know that the link between sugar and hyperactivity is a myth, it is a fact that sugar in the diet causes sugar in the bloodstream to surge. We also know for a fact that too much sugar intake can displace healthier foods, lead to tooth decay, damage your liver and raise triglycerides (the fats in your blood). In addition, recent animal studies show increased mortality and behavior changes with this “average” sugar intake. It appears our “average” might actually be harmful.

Be smart about sugar intake

As with any other food or nutrient, you do not need to completely eliminate sugar from your diet in order to be healthy. It is difficult to avoid sugar if you eat packaged foods, so consider preparing more of your own meals, snacks and sweets to control the amount in the foods you eat.

Here are some tips:

  1. Eat dark chocolate to fill a craving for something sweet.
  2. Eat whole fruit for the sweetness of natural sugar, plus the benefit of fiber.
  3. Reduce sugar in recipes for cookies, cakes, and other baked goods by 1/4th to 1/3rd.
  4. Use sugar substitutes such as applesauce in baked goods.
  5. Use extracts such as vanilla or lemon, or spices such as nutmeg or allspice to increase flavor.
  6. Be sure to read Nutrition Facts labels on all the foods you eat, not just the sweets. Sugar is found in everything from tartar sauce, to orange chicken, to yogurt.
  7. Consider eating dessert once per week instead of once per day or once per meal.

To read more from our Problem Foods Series:

Problem Foods: Can Diabetics Eat Potatoes?
Problem Foods: Can Diabetics Eat All-purpose Flour?
Problem Foods: Can Diabetics Eat White Rice?