How Much Sugar Can a Person With Diabetes Have?

If you have diabetes, you may have been told to watch your sugar intake or even eliminate sugar altogether. But does that truly mean you can never ever eat any sugar? Or is there a way for you to enjoy a sweet treat every now and then?

Here we look at how sugar impacts your blood sugar. Read on to learn tips to identify hidden sugars, choose better carbs, and work with your healthcare provider to stick to a diabetes-friendly diet.

What's a Safe Level of Sugar?

Unfortunately, Americans eat too much sugar. They don't seem to know where to draw the line, whether or not they have diabetes. 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. 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):

  • Men: 36 grams (9 teaspoons)
  • Women: 24 grams (6 teaspoons)
  • Children ages 2 to 18: less than 24 grams (6 teaspoons)

If you have diabetes, your healthcare provider will probably advise that you eat less sugar than the AHA's recommendations. With a typical diet, you can quickly reach your sugar limit at breakfast. A pastry and a couple of cups of sweetened coffee will likely be above what's safe for you.

Identifying Hidden Sugar

It's often hard to realize how much sugar is hidden in packaged foods and drinks. Even if you religiously read 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
  • Honey
  • Fructose
  • Maltose
  • Molasses
  • Rice syrup
  • Sucrose

Different types of sugar can have more or less of an impact on your blood sugar. Don't get hung up on the idea that "natural sugars" are inherently better for you. You can still overdo it on foods containing natural sugars. 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.
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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.

healthiest carbs for diabetes

Verywell / JR Bee

Choosing Better Carbohydrates

Your blood glucose level is affected both by complex carbohydrates (starches) and simple carbohydrates (sugar). 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 American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes eat carbohydrates with a low or medium GI, like fresh vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Fresh fruits can also be part of a diabetes-friendly diet, but they should be limited because they are high in natural sugars.

You can also look for carb foods that contain less than 10 grams of sugar and more than 3 grams of fiber per serving. Look at the nutritional label to find these numbers. The more fiber in the food you eat, the fewer carbs your body will absorb with each meal or snack.

If you're in the mood for something sweet, you might also try eliminating a carbohydrate from the same meal. For example, if you want to enjoy a small slice of cake after dinner, cut out a portion of starch from your meal beforehand. A starch may be a serving of pasta, rice, or potatoes.

Be careful to keep the carb counts pretty much the same. Swapping a slice of whole-wheat bread for a huge cinnamon roll isn't going to work.

If you have a sweet tooth, fruits such as berries are also a great choice. Just stick with whole fruit rather than drinking a big glass of fruit juice or a fruit-based smoothie. Even if the juice is unsweetened, 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 don't have diabetes, the AHA recommends limiting calories from sugar to 10% of your total calories. One gram of sugar equals 4 calories.

For a 2,000-calorie diet, that means you can have up to 50 grams of sugar from all sources per day. It's worth noting that the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends an even lower percentage: no more than 5% of total calories from sugar.

If you have diabetes, it's important to work with your healthcare provider to figure out what's right for you. Ask what percentage of your total daily calories should come from sugar. This 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.

Summary

Having diabetes doesn't mean that you can never eat sugar again. However, it does mean that you need to 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 best manage your blood sugar levels.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Heart Association. Added sugars. Updated April 17, 2018.

  3. American Diabetes Association, Bantle JP, Wylie-Rosett J, et al. Nutrition recommendations and interventions for diabetes: A position statement of the American Diabetes Association [published correction appears in Diabetes Care. 2010 Aug;33(8):1911]. Diabetes Care. 2008;31 Suppl 1:S61–S78. doi:10.2337/dc08-S061

  4. American Heart Association. Added sugars. Updated April 17, 2018.

  5. World Health Organization. Guidelines: Sugars intake for adults and children.