Put down your soda. Skip sweetened breakfast cereal, and never mind adding sugar to your coffee or tea.
Added sugar intake should be less than 10% of your total calories a day, and consuming less than 5% of total calories from added sugars provides additional health benefits, according to new draft guidelines from the World Health Organization.
Americans currently consume an average of 15% of their daily calories from added sugars — about 300 calories a day. That's based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
The WHO guidelines come on the heels of a recent study that showed consuming too much added sugar increases your risk of death from heart disease. Other research has tied a high intake of added sugars, especially sugar-sweetened beverages, to many poor health conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and risk factors for heart disease and stroke.
For years major health groups and leading consumer advocates in the USA have been encouraging people to cut down on their intake of added sugar for their health's sake.
"The key point is that we are consuming way too much added sugars for good health," says Rachel Johnson, a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association and a nutrition professor at the University of Vermont.
Added sugars include table sugar, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, molasses and other caloric sweeteners in prepared and processed foods and beverages. It does not include sugars that occur naturally in fruits, fruit juice and milk and dairy products.
But can people really consume only 5% of total calories from added sugar? After all, added sugar is everywhere. One can of regular soda contains about 140 calories of added sugar, which would be about 7% of the daily calories of someone eating 2,000 calories a day.
People should aim for 5%, but 10% of calories from sugar may be more realistic, says Francesco Branca, WHO's director for nutrition. The group based its draft guidelines on a review of about 9,000 studies.
Consuming 5% of calories from added sugar is a "realistic" goal for Americans but a challenging one given the amount added sugar in prepared foods, says Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and one of the nation's top experts on beverage consumption. "Our research has shown that added sugar was in 75% of all consumer packaged foods and beverages."
Popkin applauds the WHO's draft guidelines. "After two years of study they have found that even further declines to 5% would reduce the risk to our health. This is an important, even revolutionary, finding that is based on extensive study and review of the literature throughout the globe."
Johnson says the WHO recommendations "align well" with the American Heart Association recommendations, which advise that women consume no more than 100 calories a day from added sugars, or about 6 teaspoons of sugar; and men consume no more than 150 calories a day, or about 9 teaspoons.
Major sources of added sugars in Americans' diets are sugar-sweetened beverages, desserts, fruit drinks, dairy desserts (ice cream) and candy, government data show.
Much of the sugars consumed today are "hidden" in processed foods that are not usually seen as sweets, the WHO says. For example, 1 one tablespoon of ketchup contains around 1 teaspoon of sugar.
So why is added sugar intake linked to so many health issues?
Excessive intake of added sugar appears to negatively affect health in several ways, says Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. It has been linked to the development of high blood pressure, increased triglycerides (blood fats), low HDL (good) cholesterol, fatty liver problems, as well as making insulin less effective in lowering blood sugar.
When WHO revised its sugar guidelines in 2002, it recommended added sugar be less than 10% of daily calories. WHO's new guidelines have been published online and the agency is inviting the public to comment via its website until the end of March.