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 your to enjoy a sweet treat every now and then?

Generally speaking, a safe level of sugar intake can vary significantly from one person to the next, especially if you have diabetes. The larger problem is that, as Americans, we consume far too much sugar as it is and don't seem to know where to draw the line, whether we have diabetes or not.

A national survey released in 2016 showed that American adults consumed no less than 77 grams of added sugar per day, while children consumed a startling 82 grams. That's far in excess of the amounts recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA): 36 grams (9 teaspoons) for men, 24 grams (6 teaspoons) for women, and less than 24 grams (6 teaspoons) for children ages 2 to 18.

Unfortunately, these statistics reflect the habits of the general U.S. population, not people with diabetes. If you have diabetes, your daily intake may need to fall beneath the AHA's recommendations.

Putting this into context, 4 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. Based on your doctor's recommendations, you may quickly reach your maximum intake with just a breakfast pastry and a couple of cups of sweetened coffee.

Identifying Hidden Sugar

As consumers, we don't often realize how much sugar is hidden in packaged foods and drinks. Even if we religiously read food labels, we may not be aware that certain ingredients are, in fact, sugar by another name. These include honey, molasses, fructose, sucrose, maltose, maple syrup, agave nectar, rice syrup, and high-fructose corn syrup.

While different types of sugar can have a lesser or greater impact on your blood sugar, don't get hung up on the idea that "natural sugars" are inherently better for you or that you can consume more food containing natural sugars than you would food containing refined sugar.

Both natural and processed sugars are broken down by the body into glucose and fructose. If you have diabetes and your insulin response is impaired, it doesn't matter where the glucose or fructose came from. It can still lead to high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) and the development of diabetes symptoms.

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Common Hidden Sources of Added Sugars

While we tend to think of hidden sugars in terms of cookies, sodas, jams, and sweetened breakfast cereals, there are other "healthy" foods that have almost as much, if not more, sugar. Examples include:

  • Granola bars (7 to 12 grams per 7-gram bar)
  • Protein bars (23 to 30 grams per 80-gram bar)
  • Sweetened apple juice (39 grams per 12 ounces)
  • Flavored yogurt (26 grams per 6 ounces)
  • Russian salad dressing (3 grams per tablespoon)
  • Jarred spaghetti sauce (11 grams per half-cup)
  • Peanut butter (5 grams per tablespoon)
  • Vanilla almond milk (14 grams per cup)

Fortunately, all of these foods have sugar-free versions that allow you to indulge without worry. But don't confuse "low-fat" with "low-sugar" or "no-sugar-added." Many low-fat foods and natural ingredients are still brimming with sugar.

healthiest carbs for diabetes
Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell

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, and 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 consume carbohydrates derived primarily from fresh vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and low-fat milk. Fresh fruits can also be consumed, but should be limited due to their sugar content.

You can also look for carbs with single-digit sugars and more than 3 grams of fiber per serving (look at the nutritional label to find these numbers). The higher the fiber content of the food you consume, the fewer carbs you will absorb with each meal or snack.

If you're hankering for something sweet, you might also try swapping it with another 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, such as a serving of pasta, rice, or potatoes, from your meal beforehand.

Be careful, though, to keep the carb counts equivalent. Swapping a slice of whole-wheat bread for a huge cinnamon roll isn't going to work. To work out the appropriate equivalency, use the online nutritional calculator offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Fruits such as berries are also an excellent option if you have a sweet tooth. Just be certain to eat the whole fruit rather than drinking a big glass of juice or a smoothie. Even if the juice is unsweetened, the amount of fructose contained in a glass of juice or fruit-based smoothie can have the same glycemic impact as a can of soda.

Calculating Your Daily Allowance

If you don't have diabetes, your daily intake of sugar should represent no more than 10% of your total calories, according to the AHA. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that would translate to 50 grams of total sugar from all sources per day. It's worth noting that the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends an even lower threshold for sugar of no more than 5% of total calories.

If you have diabetes, it's important to work with your doctor to figure out what's right for you. Rather than determining the amount you can eat per day, ask what percentage of your total daily calories sugar should represent. This allows you to adjust your intake if you are obese and need to reduce calories, or are underweight and need to increase calories.

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

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

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