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AHA Recommends Upper Limit on Sugar Intake

The American Heart Association released today specific recommendations about the amount of sugars that can be consumed as part of a heart-healthy diet. The message? Americans need to cut way back on added sugars.

The statement was published in Circulation, the official journal of the AHA.

For the first time, the AHA established a specific upper limit in the intake of added sugars - those sugars added during processing or at the table. Most American woman should not eat or drink more than 100 calories or 6 teaspoons per day from added sugars. Most American men should not eat or drink more than 150 calories or 9 teaspoons per day from added sugars.

In 2006, the AHA had issued diet and lifestyle recommendations that minimized the intake of beverages and foods with added sugars. Today’s statement represents a finer tuning of their earlier recommendations.

The AHA’s position is based on evidence that deleterious health effects may occur when sugars are consumed in large amounts. Excessive sugar consumption is linked with metabolic abnormalities and adverse health conditions.

As history has shown, Americans’ love affair with sugar is growing. Between 1970 and 2005, sugars and sweeteners increased by an average of 76 calories per day, from 25 teaspoons (400 calories) to 29.8 teaspoons (476 calories), representing a 19 percent increase. In 2001 to 2004, the typical intake of added sugars for Americans was 22.2 teaspoons a day (355 calories).

Soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages are the primary source of added sugars in Americans’ diet. Between 1970 and 2000, per-person daily consumption of caloric soft drinks increased 70 percent, from 7.8 to 13.2 ounces. A 12-ounce can of regular soda contains about 130 calories, which exceeds a woman’s daily discretionary sugar target of 100 calories.

Evidence from observational studies indicates that a higher intake of soft drinks is associated with greater caloric intake, higher body weight, and lower intake of essential nutrients. Part of this is due to “crowding out”; soft drinks are consumed instead of other more nutritious drinks like low-fat milk.

When the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were issued, the concept of discretionary calories was introduced. The concept was developed to help people meet all of their nutritional requirements while avoiding excess total calories. Discretional calories include intake for added sugars, solid fats and alcohol.

National survey data indicate that excessive consumption of added sugars is contributing to overconsumption of discretionary calories.

With the new guidelines issued today, the AHA recommends that half of the discretionary calorie allowance be allocated for added sugars. If more fats or alcohol are consumed, then added sugars should be reduced accordingly.

The Bottom Line

Even if you don’t drink soft drinks or consume sweetened beverages, you might be getting more added sugars than you think. That’s because many packaged and processed foods like salad dressing and sauces contain extra sugars.

A good reference point is a database published by the US Department of Agriculture for the added sugar content of selected foods. While the high added sugar content of some foods is not surprising (e.g., corn bread) for others it is unexpected (e.g., reduced calorie French dressing, granola bars, hoisin sauce, chicken broth, and catsup).

The new guidelines issued by the AHA do not apply to naturally occurring sugars found in fruits and vegetables. By replacing packaged, processed foods with fruits and vegetables and sugary beverages with water, meeting the recommended added sugar target should be relatively easy.

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