Is your sweet tooth raging? It may be time to get it under control, for the sake of your health: Too much sugar a day can weaken your immune system, raise your risk of cancer and wreak havoc with your insulin levels. Doctors warn that too much sugar can drive up blood sugar, leading to insulin resistance, weight gain, and a host of other conditions you want to avoid, especially if you are worried about getting COVID. Research has shown that symptoms of COVID are worse among those with high blood sugar, diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome, all tied to sugar intake.

But the question isn't just how to eat less sugar, but how to choose your sugar wisely since not all sugar reacts the same way in your body. The sugar in a banana (14 grams) is not the same as the sugar in a donut (11 grams) or chocolate chip cookie (9 grams). Knowing how much sugar to eat, and how to choose natural sugar in plant-based foods over added sugar from food processed in a plant, is the secret to a successful healthy, sustainable diet. Getting added sugar out of your diet, and focusing on those carbs that are high in fiber, will help you crush your cravings and satisfy your sweet tooth, without all the unhealthy risk factors that too much sugar can bring.

Is added sugar bad for you?

People lump all sugary foods into the same jar. Yet there’s a difference between natural sugar, found in fruits and vegetables, and added sugar or simple cane sugar. “While all sugar is in essence broken down and utilized in your body the same way, the natural sugar you find in whole foods is packaged with other healthy nutrients while added sugar is not,” says Leigh-Anne Wooten, M.S., R.D.N./L.D.N., a dietitian in Charlotte, N.C., and nutrition advisor with Vitamix.

A diabetes doctor explains that your bloodstream can only hold the equivalent of one teaspoon of sugar at a time, and above that, your body releases insulin to signal to the body to move it into the cells or store it as fat, according to Dr. Mark Cucuzella, a Family Medicine professor at West Virginia University School of Medicine.

The vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants found in whole foods support your body’s ability to function properly and maintain long-term health, Wooten says. Plus, the fiber helps slow the digestion and absorption of sugar, providing a steadier supply of energy to the body and preventing spikes in blood sugar.

Added sugar, however, is added to food to enhance flavor or extend shelf life. It’s usually found in processed foods that have minimal nutritional value and are high in harmful things like saturated fat and salt. If your sweet tooth is pushing you to crave these sugary foods, your health could suffer. “Research continues to show that chronic consumption of these foods can increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers,” Wooten says. A new draft scientific opinion from the European Food Safety Authority links added sugars to obesity, liver disease, type 2 diabetes, high bad cholesterol, and high blood pressure.

Too much sugar can also drive weight issues, says Kim Rose, R.D.N., the dietitian for the weight loss app Lose It! and certified diabetes care and education specialist. One teaspoon of sugar contains 15 calories, which may not sound like much until you consider that soft drinks are the number one source of added sugar in the American diet, and one can of soda can contain 11 teaspoons.

How much sugar a day is too much?

In 2020, new dietary guidelines recommend that Americans keep added sugars to less than 10 percent of total calories (on average, most currently eat more than 13 percent). If you’re eating 2,000 calories a day, that’s 200 calories or 50 grams of sugar a day. The shocker? Americans consume an average of 77 grams of sugar per day, according to the American Heart Association, or about three to four times the recommended amount

The World Health Organization has recommended that daily intake of "free sugars" be less than 10 percent of your total calorie intake, adding: "Further reduction to below 5 percent or roughly 25 grams per day would provide additional health benefits."

“Ideally, less is better,” Wooten says. “Some research even shows a more prudent six percent.” In fact, the American Heart Association recommends that men eat no more than nine teaspoons (36 grams or 150 calories) of added sugar a day, women six teaspoons (25 grams or 100 calories).

And while you might be tempted to turn to artificial sweeteners, avoid making them your go-to. Although the FDA has deemed them safe, their effects on gut health are unclear, Wooten says. Worse? “Some studies show that artificial sweeteners may set you up for a sweet tooth and lead to sweet cravings,” she says. “As part of an occasional treat they’re okay, but when a craving hits, opt instead for naturally sweet plant-based whole foods.”

How to eat less added sugar daily

Fortunately, an occasional plant-based sweet treat every now and then will not cause any lasting health issues. “No food is ‘bad,’ and you can absolutely treat yourself every once in a while without shame and guilt,” Wooten says.

Yet if you’re worried that your sweet tooth is getting out of control, there are a few signs to pay attention to. For starters, putting on extra pounds or having an insatiable craving for sweets could be cause for concern, Rose says. Your sweet tooth might also be problematic if you have lots of cavities, take advantage of free candy whenever and wherever, and have an emotional or mental attachment to food. “Overcoming a sugar obsession isn’t all physiological,” Rose says. “Sometimes, it’s psychological as well.” If that’s the case, you may need the help of a medical professional to address underlying psychological attachments to sugar.

So how can you get sugar cravings under control?

Start by kicking sugar out of your diet with these strategies:

  • Satisfy cravings with fruit: When that sweet tooth starts talking, nosh a piece of fruit. Not only does the fruit have sweetness with its naturally added sugars, but it also contains fiber to help control blood sugar spikes, which could be driving those cravings, Rose says.
  • Track your food: Numerous apps, including Lose It!, tell you how much added sugar is in a particular food. By keeping tabs on this, you can spot pitfalls in your diet – like sugary beverages and foods you never suspected might contain sugar -- and choose healthier foods, Rose says. The bonus? Almost 80 percent of people said that tracking their food encouraged them to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet, according to a Lose It! survey.
  • Know sugar’s other names: Because added sugar has over 60 names for it, you need to familiarize yourself with what they are. Check out this list from Sugar Science, but in general, any word that ends in “ose” or words that use “syrup” or “sugar” should be red flags.
  • Read food labels on processed foods: It’s a no-brainer that cakes, cookies, and ice cream, even if they’re vegan, have sugar. Yet you might be shocked to learn that foods like ketchup, pasta sauce, salad dressing, barbecue sauce, snack foods, cereals, spaghetti sauce, breakfast bars, bread, and plant-based milk contain added sugar. “Many vegan foods, especially the more processed ones, are heavy hitters when it comes to added sugar (along with saturated fat and salt),” Wooten says. Added sugar is now displayed on the nutrition facts panel so make sure you look. Products with less than five percent of the Daily Value (DV) of added sugar are considered low while 20 percent DV or more of added sugar is high.
  • Eat more whole foods: Whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes contain no added sugar, and although they do have naturally occurring sugar, it’s the healthy kind. Make these the star of your diet, and you’ll automatically eat less added sugar.
  • Swap in whole foods for sugar in baking: Although cutting the added sugar in baking can be tricky, you can do it by experimenting with equal amounts of unsweetened applesauce or ripened bananas, Wooten says. Dates, often finely minced or ground into a paste, are also a good replacement. A general rule of thumb: “Add half the weight of dates compared with the amount of sugar listed in the recipe and then adjust,” she says. And know that although they’re often marketed as natural sweeteners, agave nectar, honey, maple syrup, brown sugar, and coconut sugar are considered added sugar.
  • Feed it: This might sound like an odd strategy, but by satisfying that sweet tooth with a little sweetness as well as healthy fats, fiber, and protein, you’ll dull that craving at the same time you fuel your body with healthy nutrients, Wooten says. Here are a few recipe suggestions: Avocado chocolate mousse or a vegan chocolate date shake.

Bottom Line: Your health depends on cutting down on added sugar in your diet.

For ways to satisfy your sweet tooth, choose whole plant-based foods with fiber, to keep blood sugar low and under control. Snack on fruit and use whole foods like maple syrup in baking.

For more great content like this, and ways to incorporate a healthy, plant-based diet into your life, check out The Beet's Health and Nutrition articles.