TIME Diet & Fitness

A Sugar Shock for Your Diet

New guidelines could significantly curb our sugar intake. Are they too harsh?

No need to sugarcoat it: according to new guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO), only 5% of a person’s total daily calories should come from added sugar (about 26 g per day for a 2,000-calorie diet). Their experts made the recommendation after studying the increasing rates of obesity, tooth decay and heart disease, all of which are linked to sugar consumption.

But is it too extreme? In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control estimates that a full 13% of U.S. adults’ total caloric intake came from sugar in 2010. The main culprit isn’t even sweets–it’s processed foods. A tablespoon of ketchup has 4 g of sugar; a frozen pizza may contain as much as 26 g. (See below for more examples.) Expecting people to sacrifice all that “is unrealistic,” says Keri Gans, a registered dietitian and the author of The Small Change Diet. “We should focus on what we should be eating and not what we shouldn’t be.”

To that end, WHO’s original 10% restriction (about 52 g of added sugar per day for a 2,000-calorie diet) may be “more realistic” in the U.S., according to Francesco Branca, WHO’s director for nutrition. That would be slightly more than the amount recommended in the controversial guidelines the American Heart Association released in 2009, which suggested from 30 g to 45 g per day.

In the long run, the onus to reduce sugar consumption may fall on the food industry. In February, for example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it will revamp nutrition labels to highlight added sugars (as opposed to sugar that occurs naturally, as in fruit), making it easier for people to gauge a product’s healthfulness. And following the attempted “soda ban” in New York City–which aimed to outlaw sugary beverages in sizes over 16 oz. (473 ml)–San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., are trying to pass a sugary-beverage tax in an effort to curb the 180,000 deaths worldwide that are linked to sweetened drinks.

It may not be possible to shift our diets right away, says Dr. Donald Hensrud, a preventive medicine and nutrition expert with the Mayo Clinic. But by taking advantage of food-health initiatives–like the new labels–and eating more fresh foods, “we can change our taste preferences” for the better.

This appears in the March 24, 2014 issue of TIME.
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