(CNN)Cakes, cookies, pie.
During a global pandemic or even more moderately stressful life circumstances, we often turn to comforting sugary and carb-rich indulgences that may help to calm us down.
Now for the bad news. New recommendations that will inform soon-to-be-released US dietary guidelines reveal we should further limit the amount of sugar we consume. This guidance will come at a time when many of us may be looking to indulge our sweet tooth more than ever.
No sugarcoating the new recommendations
First, some sugar basics: Not all sugars are created equal and need to be limited to the same degree. Natural sugars are present in nutritious foods like fruit and milk in the form of fructose and lactose. These foods deliver important nutrients — such as fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals — that play a role in a healthy diet.
Added sugars are another story. They are sugars or sweeteners that are added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation. They contribute calories, without any essential nutrients.
The average American gets about 13% of their total calories from added sugars, but new recommendations call for that average to be cut by about half, according to a recently issued report from the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee — a group of experts charged with providing science-based recommendations every five years.
The 2020 committee recommended a limit of no more than 6% of calories coming from added sugars, with ranges from 3% at the lowest calorie levels and up to 8% at the highest calorie levels (which vary based on age, gender, activity level and body weight). The committee also recommended that children younger than age 2 should avoid any foods and beverages with added sugars.
How many treats do you get?
That 6% limit translates to 30 grams of sugar in a 2,000 calorie daily diet — less sugar than what's in a 12-ounce can of soda. It's a limit that more closely reflects the American Heart Association's current recommendation, which was issued in 2009.
The heart association's recommendation translates to a limit of 6 teaspoons of sugar, or about 25 grams each day for women and children over 2 years of age; and about 9 teaspoons, or about 36 grams for men.
There are 6 teaspoons or 25 grams of sugar in two and a half chocolate chip cookies, 16 ounces of fruit punch and about 1½ tablespoons of honey. There are 9 teaspoons, or about 36 grams of sugar in 11 ounces of cola, 2 servings of premium vanilla ice cream and about 2 tablespoons plus one teaspoon of honey.
Why do you need to avoid added sugars? They increase the risk for cardiovascular disease in different ways. For one, excess calorie intake contributes to weight gain, thereby increasing risks for insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
High sugar intake is also associated with increased triglyceride levels that often accompany reduced HDL-cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins, better known as the good cholesterol) levels, thereby contributing to metabolic syndrome, also a risk for developing cardiovascular disease, explained Linda Van Horn, chief of the nutrition division at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine's department of preventive medicine.
And since most adults need fewer calories with increasing age, their limited total calorie intake should come from nutrient-dense foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and fish, appropriate dairy foods, legumes and nuts, Van Horn said.
"To consume all of those recommended foods encompasses the vast majority of their calorie allowance leaving very few 'discretionary' or empty sugary calories without causing weight gain," Van Horn said.
But though limiting added sugars to 6% of calories may be ideal from a nutrient-density perspective, that doesn't mean it will be easy to achieve.
"While it's great if you can get added sugar intake to no more than 6% of calories, depending on your current diet, the (previous) recommendation of no more than 10% of calories may be a more realistic and achievable goal to aim for first," said Denver-based registered dietitian nutritionist Kelli McGrane, who works as a dietitian for Lose It! and TheHealthyToast.com.
Again, here's the math: 6% of added sugars on a 2,000 calorie diet is 30 grams of sugar or 120 sugar calories.
Strategies for cutting back
Five food categories — sweetened beverages, desserts and sweet snacks, coffee and tea (with their additions), candy and sugars, and breakfast cereals and bars — contribute 70% of the added sugars we consume in the United States, according to the dietary guidelines committee. These foods are often energy-dense with low amounts of key dietary nutrients.
Here are some ways to reduce your intake.