How Much Sugar Can a Person With Diabetes Have?

Sugar on spoons
Ina Peters/Stocksy United

If you have diabetes, you have probably been told to watch your sugar intake or to eliminate sugar altogether. But does that mean you can never eat any sugar ever, or might you still be able to enjoy a sweet every now and then?

Generally speaking, the chances are good that some added sugar will be allowed, although the amount can vary significantly from one person to the next. The larger problem is that, as Americans, we consume far too 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 recommended intake of 50 grams for men, 25 grams for women, and less than 25 grams for children as issued by the American Heart Association (AHA).

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

Putting this into context, 4 grams of sugar equal one tablespoon. Based on your doctor's recommendations you may fast approach 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 than you would a refined sugar.

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

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)
  • Bottled 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." Many low-fat foods are virtually heaping with sugar.

Choosing Better Carbohydrates

Glucose is affected both by complex carbohydrates (starches) and simple carbohydrates (sugar). The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends that people with diabetes consume carbohydrates derived primarily from fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and low-fat milk.

Moreover, your daily carb intake should be routinely tracked and effort should be made to choose foods lower on the glycemic (GI) index. The GI index measures the impact that different foods have on your blood sugar.

To this end, if you're hankering for something sweet at dinner, swap it with another carbohydrate from the same meal. For example, if you want to enjoy a small slice of cake, cut out a portion of starch, such as a serving of pasta, rice, or potatoes.

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 (USDA).

Fruits and 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. Even if the juice is unsweetened, the amount of fructose contained in a glass of juice 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 percent of your total calories. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that would translate to 50 grams of total sugar from all sources per day. For its part, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a threshold of no more than five percent.

If you have diabetes, you need 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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