Why the Amount of Added Sugar in Your Diet Matters

    Why the Amount of Added Sugar in Your Diet Matters

    Written by Dr. Nicole Avena 

    Dr. Avena is a professor, research neuroscientist, and author on food & addiction. She has done extensive research on sugar and the effects in can have on health. She is the author of Sugarless: A 7 Step Plan to Uncover Hidden Sugars, Curb Your Cravings and Conquer Your Addiction.


    Sweet Beginnings

    We are born with a natural craving for sweet things, as we evolved to learn that sweet foods in nature are usually safe to eat (think fruits, and even breastmilk!). Today, many foods we eat cause us to consume more and more added sugar and this is taking a toll on our health. But have no fear, there are steps you can take to reduce excess sugar intake and positively impact your health and well-being.

    Added Sugar in Our Diet

    Added sugar can be found in the American diet in obvious ways such as in a can of soda, which can contain 42g of sugar, or in a pack of candies, which can contain 56g sugar per package. When we look past the obvious sugar-filled food sources of soda, candy, cookies, etc., the amount of added sugars lurking in the grocery store may come as a surprise as sugar is almost everywhere. Let’s look at a simple packet of ketchup, for example. It can contain 6g of sugar per 1 small packet. And let’s be honest, most of us don’t stop at just one packet for our fries! 

    According to the American Heart Association, the average American consumes 17 teaspoons of added sugar every day. This is 2-3x the recommended amount for men and women.[1] In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommend reducing the intake of added sugar to less than 10% of calories per day for ages 2 and older.[2] If we are looking at a 1,500-calorie per day diet, this would be a maximum of 150kcal or 37.5g added sugar daily; however, it is best to aim for even less when possible to yield the most health benefits. 


    How Sugar Impacts Your Health

    Let’s take a closer look at how excessive added sugar consumption may be linked to chronic diseases and why cutting back on added sugar is vital for health and longevity.[3] Various epidemiological studies have explored this relationship and found that the overconsumption of added sugar in the diet was associated with multiple health complications—such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer.[3,4] 


    Sugar and Obesity

    Although there are many factors that may play into the development of chronic diseases and obesity, it is important to not overlook the impact of excessive added sugar consumption in the diet. Excess sugar intake promotes calorie intake, which can result in body weight and fat gain—contributing to obesity overtime. Overconsuming sugar can also result in the dysregulation of lipid and carbohydrate metabolism. This means that your body won’t be processing the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates in the correct manner. Obesity is a risk factor for the development of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and other chronic disease states.[5]


    Sugar and Cardiovascular Disease

    Cardiovascular disease is one of the many chronic diseases that may result from excessive intake of added sugar. A research study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014 found that higher intake of added sugar was associated with cardiovascular disease risk factors. The study looked at the trends of added sugar intake with CVD mortality and found that individuals who consumed 17-21% of their calories from added sugar had a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and complications than those who consumed 8% of their calories from added sugar.[6,7] Although the exact relationship between added sugar and cardiovascular disease is unknown, research suspects that the overconsumption of sugar-sweetened foods results in indirect connections. One indirect connection may include the development of fatty liver disease, which can contribute to diabetes and raise one’s risk for heart disease. Additionally, added sugar consumption may raise blood pressure, which is a known risk factor for heart disease and complications.[3,6]


    Sugar and Diabetes

    Type 2 Diabetes is another chronic disease state that may result from excessive added sugar intake in the diet. Added sugar can fuel cravings, which can contribute to excess food intake and ultimately add to the risk for developing obesity and diabetes. Type 2 Diabetes is a chronic disease that results from the improper metabolism of sugar, which leads to elevated blood sugar levels. When this happens and the body becomes insulin resistant, blood sugar levels can no longer be effectively managed by the body’s typical physiological responses. This can result in negative symptoms, such as nerve damage, kidney disease, and loss of vision. 


    Sugar and Cancer

    In the United States, roughly 40% of cancers are associated with obesity. Cancer cells are able to grow and reproduce more quickly than other cells in the human body—and they love to use sugar as fuel. The exact relationship between the impact of added sugar in the diet and cancer needs to be further researched; however, there is a link between obesity and cancer, which is likely where the role of added sugar comes into play with cancer development.[3]


    Sugar and Gut Health

    Another thing to consider when you are ditching sugar is the impact on gut health. Added sugar can be detrimental to your gut health in a few different ways. Sugar serves as a food source for certain types of bacteria in the gut, including harmful bacteria. Also, excessive sugar intake has also been associated with increased inflammation in the body, including in the gastrointestinal tract. High sugar consumption may compromise the integrity of the gut barrier, allowing harmful substances like toxins, pathogens, and undigested food particles to pass through the intestinal lining and enter the bloodstream. Yikes!  


    Added Sugar Health Risks

    Added sugar is a silent killer in that its detrimental effects are not always obvious. When individuals struggle with the chronic consumption of added sugar, it can lead to a decreased life span and result in chronic diseases. Although this article primarily highlighted cancer, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, there have been some research articles that indicate chronic excessive sugar intake may also lead to the increased risk of developing various psychological complications—such as anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Limiting the intake of added sugar in your diet is vital to promote optimal health and longevity and reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases and other health complications.[3]


    Small Changes, Big Impact: How to Reduce Sugar Intake

    Although we don’t have the capacity to alter our genes or biology (which means our innate preference for sweets, too!), we do have the opportunity to make behavioral changes in our diet that can help reduce our sugar intake: 

    — The first step of this process is to identify the sources of added sugar in your diet.
    — Research shows evidence that sugar has addiction-like properties and quitting your consumption of added sugar “cold turkey” can be challenging. It is best to ensure you have an adequate support system and work towards making small, sustainable changes to your diet to decrease your intake of added sugar over time.
    — Look for alternative sweeteners, like allulose or monk fruit, which allow for sweet taste, but without the negative effects of added sugars. 


        Together, these small changes will lead to positive benefits and lasting results. For guidance, it can be helpful to meet with a doctor or registered dietitian. It also can be beneficial to expand your knowledge on the topic through reading books focused on sugar addiction—such as my book Sugarless: A 7-Step Plan to uncover Hidden Sugars, Curbs Your Cravings, and Conquer Your Addiction.[3] 

        Remember, making small changes in our food choices can be the best way to support your long-term health!




        1. American Heart Association. How Much Sugar Is Too Much? Available at https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/how-much-sugar-is-too-much. Accessed May 28, 2024

        2. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Current Dietary Guidelines. Available at https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/resources/2020-2025-dietary-guidelines-online-materials. Accessed May 28, 2024.

        3. Avena, N. Sugarless: A 7-Step Plan to Uncover Hidden Sugars, Curb Your Cravings, and Conquer Addiction. Union Square & Co. 2023. 

        4. Cdc. Get the Facts: Added Sugars. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/php/data-research/added-sugars.html#cdc_data_surveillance_section_5-consumption-in-adults. Accessed May 28, 2024.

        5. Stanhope KL. Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversy. Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci. 2016;53(1):52-67. doi:10.3109/10408363.2015.1084990.

        6. Harvard Health. The sweet danger of sugar. Available at https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-sweet-danger-of-sugar. Accessed Mary 29, 2024.

        7. Yang Q, Zhang Z, Gregg EW, Flanders WD, Merritt R, Hu FB. Added sugar intake and cardiovascular diseases mortality among US adults. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(4):516-524. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13563. 

        8. Magriplis E, Michas G, Petridi E, et al. Dietary Sugar Intake and Its Association with Obesity in Children and Adolescents. Children (Basel). 2021;8(8):676. Published 2021 Aug 3. doi:10.3390/children8080676.