Why the WHO Advises You to Reduce Sugar Consumption

by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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Why the WHO Advises You to Reduce Sugar Consumption

Sugar is getting torched this year as both the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and now the World Health Organization (WHO) have urged us to reduce our general consumption. Both these organizations recommend that we get no more than 10% of our total calories from “free sugars.” The new WHO recommendation announced last week states that, if possible, further reduction of free sugars—to less than 5% of total calories—would be even more beneficial for our health.

What’s the Difference Between “Added” and “Free” Sugars?

Added sugars are simply those sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared. According to the WHO, “free” sugars include those added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. While a glass of 100% orange juice is not considered a source of added sugars, it is considered a source of free sugars since the juice (which contains all of the fruit’s sugars) has been extracted.

The WHO guideline does not refer to the sugars in fresh fruits and vegetables, and sugars naturally present in milk, because there is no reported evidence of adverse effects of consuming these sugars.

The Impact of Sugar Consumption

Most of the data around sugar consumption looks at added sugars. Currently, added sugar makes up 16% of total calories in the American diet. In Europe, this figure ranges from 7-8% (in Norway and Hungary); the range is 16-17% in the UK and Spain and up to 25% in Portugal. Decreasing these numbers will be challenging, but vital for international efforts directed at reducing obesity and chronic illness.

WHO makes reducing added sugar to 10% of total calories a “strong” recommendation based on evidence that increased sugar consumption is linked to higher body weight and a greater likelihood of getting cavities. Having a higher body weight increases your chances for developing chronic illnesses like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Cavities are darn uncomfortable to deal with, and, if you think about it, will affect your nutrition because you can’t eat properly without a nice set of chompers!

Reducing Added Sugar: Easier Said Than Done

Those of us working to reduce sugar intake understand the challenge of seeking and eliminating free sugar from the diet. In particular, these sugars make their way into food during the cooking process. Free sugar doesn’t add much but empty calories to our diet so it’s understandable that we should eat as little free sugars as possible. Sadly, free sugar is found in almost everything on supermarket shelves, from ketchup to bread to peanut butter.

Registered Dietitian’s Tip: Foods like whole fruit (not fruit juice) and milk naturally contain sugar and these will show up when you log calories. But fruit sugar and milk sugar should not be counted towards the amount of “free” sugar you’re allotted for the day. Whole fruit and milk are full of vitamins and minerals that are important for your body.

Reducing free sugars to less than 10% of our total calories is great, but what does that look like? You can figure this out by following these steps:

  • Step 1: Take your total calorie goal for the day and multiply by 0.1 (If your goal is less than 5%, then multiply by 0.05); this will give you the maximum calories in your diet that should come from free sugars.
  • Step 2: Take the calories from free sugar and divide by 4 to give you the maximum grams of free sugars you should be eating.
  • Step 3: Take the grams of sugar and divide by 4 for the maximum teaspoons of free sugars you should be eating.

MyFitnessPal sets your maximum total sugar limit (which includes added and naturally occurring sugars in fruits, vegetables and dairy) at 15% of total calories, but you can also manually change your goal if you desire. To further help you learn more about added sugars in your diet and how to keep them in check, read:

So You Want to Stop Eating Added Sugar
10 Foods with Hidden Sweet Spots
44 Nicknames for Added Sugar
15 Simple Hacks for Eating Less Sugar
Recipes with “No Added Sugar”

How do you feel about about the WHO’s new guidelines for added sugar? Share your comments below.


  • Matt

    If I juice fresh fruit instead of buying store bought 100% juice, is that still considered “free sugars”?

    • Adam

      This idea of free and added sugar seems like one big mixed message to me. I’d say keep sugar in general low but don’t bother tracking where that sugar comes from. For example, if your goal is 60g’s sugar a day, get all those 60g’s from fruit juices just as long as you don’t exceed that RDA or your caloric goal.

      • CynicalEng

        if you got them from coca cola would it be the same ?

        • Adam

          It definitely wouldn’t be as beneficial to your body in terms of it being a fast digesting carb compared to fruit sugars etc but there wouldn’t be any adverse effects. Based on my own experience, I found that even though I was eating sweets, drinking sugary drinks and what not, I dropped bf% and haven’t had a cavity or bad dentists check up in over 5 years.

          • D.A.

            Adam, I want to agree with you. But I also want a nutritionist to explain the contradicting info that’s widely circulated. Last week I saw a presentation of J.J. Virgin’s Sugar Impact Diet, which says that all sugar is essentially bad. (It doesn’t matter if the sugar is a candy bar or an apple, it’s bad.) But other sources say that your body processes natural sugars and processed sugars differently. High fructos corn syrup is under scrutiny, and I have many friends who won’t touch food with it. To add to the confusion is the WHO’s report above, which talked about Spain and Portugal but not Thailand or Indonesia where a cup of coffee or tea could easily have 9 tableapoons of sugar and where sugar is added to all meat and fish dishes. It’s confusing.

          • Adam

            I don’t think any nutritionist will ever be able to fully explain it. It’s just like workout routines etc. Just because something works for one person, doesn’t mean it’ll work for someone else. This is exactly the same as a diet, one person can get away with eating junk food all day due to high metabolism and other genetic factors where as another person may gain weight from eating 2000 calories. As my original reply stated, this whole concept is confusing and I believe the whole sugar ‘pandemic’ will soon blow over. The issue is that the most common diet in America and the UK is high sugar high fat diets causing obesity.

          • George

            One way to look at the difference is to consider where are you getting the sugar from. I am not a nutritionist, I have done a lot of research on the subject though. If the sugar is in fruit or vegetables then the sugar is locked inside the plant cells. When you consume the whole item it requires energy to break down the plant cell walls to access the sugar. In soda and fruit juices the sugar is not inside the cells of the plant and is therefore “free”. This sugar is readily available for the body to use and will cause your insulin to spike and all of the fun stuff that comes along with that. With all of that said though, I still wouldn’t place raw homemade fruit juices in the same category as sodas and mass manufactured fruit juices, as these still contain all of the nutrients and soluble fiber. I would still watch the total amount that you consume though.

          • CynicalEng

            Sugar from coca cola appears in the bloodstream faster than sugar from fruit juice ? I doubt it very much.

          • Adam

            it’s how quickly your body processes the sugar to be used for energy. Why do you think that when you drink a can of coke you get a sudden energy rush and spike but when you eat a piece of fruit you feel fine afterwards? Fruit has high amounts of fiber etc as well as sugar meaning that it is more complex of a carb and resulting in it taking longer to break down and be used for energy by your body, that is the difference.

          • CynicalEng

            I don’t drink Coke with sugar in so have no apocryphal experiences to report, but the point of contention was not a piece of fruit just fruit juice – you said “get all those 60g’s from fruit juices” – the sugar from fruit juice would be identical to that from coca cola I believe.

            I also happen to know that the blood sugar rise from eating an apple is the same as from drinking apple juice in the first 60 – 90 minutes, it isn’t “more complex of a carb” (sic) it’s the same simple carbohydrate saccharides and disaccharides. The juice in fruit is quickly liberated by chewing.

            Glucose and fructose from fruit juice or glucose and fructose in coca cola. Your body cannot differentiate.

          • Adam

            The whole fruit juice example was just to make a point. I understand that in the long run, sugar is sugar regardless of source but in the short term, one is more beneficial to you than the other in terms of the way your body processes it and uses it. Added sugar is always pure, fast acting sugars, simple sugars where as other sources provide you with sugar yes, but a different type and one your body uses differently, a complex carb.

          • CynicalEng

            Sugar is always a simply carbohydrate – mono or disaccharide usually – and the stuff “added” is the same stuff as you find in fruits – glucose, fructose, sucrose. Sorry. Starch is a complex carb, not sugar.

    • Leanne

      I read a book that said that juicing whole fruit changes the properties of the fiber chains and therefore won’t slow down the absorption of the sugars as much as when we naturally eat/chew them.

    • MindiMe

      Juiced fruit would be free sugars, because the juice had been separated from other nutrients (like fiber) that make the fruit whole.

    • takeitoutside

      I believe that If you put the whole fruit in a blender designed to handle it (vitamix, etc), that would be different than using a “juicer” that separates the juice and fiber.

    • DetroitSinkhole

      Think of it in terms of eating the number of apples needed to make a glass of apple juice. It would most likely make you sick.

  • sharon bachman

    I agree this article is extremely confusing regarding the definitions of “free” versus “added” sugar. Initially there is a description of how they are different, but later the terms seem to be used interchangeably. Simplify! Avoid processed food…the end.

  • Kevin

    Isn’t the RDA for sugar set for sedentary people? I don’t understand the whole hype about sugar and how it’s toxic…we should be trying to get people to live healthier lives and not just give them another crutch to use in place of exercise. Setting limits on what people can eat only digs their grave deeper as they think that food is only aspect of a “healthy” life. Please write an article on the TRUTH and not just overhyped topic.

    • Tristan

      Both are important. Exercise is crucial to being healthy, but exercise and nutrition need to go hand in hand. Without eating right, being active doesn’t help very much. The food you eat is the fuel for your body, and good fuel means happy body.

    • Joshua

      I understand what you’re saying, but you can do all the exercise in the world – it will do very little if you’re not feeding your body right. There’s a reason you hear of runners dying in their forties. You need proper nutrition.

      • KSjazz

        I know, however, what most people fail to realize is that the foods that everyone seems to be so afraid of aren’t half as bad as their lifestyle. Everyone throws the word “sugar” around as if they actually know what it is! Your body loves sugar. I constantly hear people saying sugar is bad for you, this has too much sugar, or this is sugar free(without noticing the sugar alcohols and how that will affect their bodies). It doesn’t matter what you eat, your body will convert it into SUGAR. My point is we need to stop hammering all these nutrition tactics and start emphasizing exercise more. You have a lot more leeway with nutrition when you add strength training into the equation. And you shouldn’t compare non-competitive and competitive people because competitors will do whatever it takes to win. Even if that means putting their health at risk to win. Especially when there are sponsorships involved; performance enhancing drugs are almost always a part of their lives.

        • Adam

          As much as I believe exercise is the key for most people, sugar addiction is a thing. Yes, your body loves sugar but, is that only because you’re eating sugary foods all day?

          • KSjazz

            Prime example of someone who doesn’t understand the complexity of the sugar molecules. I am finished here. Go do some actual research and stop watching documentaries that do nothing but brain wash you. Reading the research and educating yourself is far more useful than just watching or listening to what others want you to believe.

          • Adam

            And you’re a prime example of an arrogant douche bag. My comment was not from documentary’s, it was from personal experience and many hours of reading. Before judging people, realise that what you think to be fact or fiction might be different for someone else. Sugar is addictive the same as caffeine, nicotine etc. Why do you think so many people struggle to stick to diets and things? Stop running your mouth over something you dint fully understand either.

          • KSjazz

            Can you tell me what sugar is addictive then if you read so much and experienced it yourself? Can you tell me what sugar is? I’m not arrogant, I just don’t want to see people babbling about topics they don’t understand…I just want to see more educational posts as opposed to more scare tactics.

          • Adam

            We’ve come this far but I’d just like to clarify that my first comment was not worded the way I meant in order to cause a flame war or to be a ‘scare tactic’. Added sure is addictive, the pure kind that you put in your coffee and the stuff that big corporations like Kraft put in their chocolate. I’m no nutritionist, I never claimed to be but based on my own personal experience and others I’ve heard, they were hooked on sugar after deciding to start a diet, this leads to binges and cheats without due cause and leads to weight gain etc.

    • serenaapark

      Watch “fed up” the documentary explains it VERY WELL

      • KSjazz

        I’ll watch it later. I’m Kevin by the way

  • Dee

    Dr. Robert Lustig has a You Tube video on sugar and a book called “Fat Chance” that explains about the different types of sugar in their effects.

  • Dee

    I wish my daughter could not drink so much fruit juice (OJ, white grape, and apple), but she is on a very restricted diet due to many medical issues. I even brought up how much she drinks to her pediatrician (she needs at least 50 oz of liquids a day, and while I water down her grape juice, she won’t drink anything if it’s too watery), and the doc said she’s fine with the juice because it can help with her constipation issues. She eats very healthy besides this, gets plenty of exercise, and isn’t overweight, and the only “free” or “added sugar” is mainly from the juice, but I do feel bad she doesn’t like water at all.

    • Terry

      Fill a glass full of ice and water, squeeze half a lemon into ice water. The tartness of the lemon becomes addictive, but it is completely good for you and also helps with digestion.
      Low sugar means Low Carb, carbs are the Trojan Horses that sneak sugars into your body to defeat your health. Dr. Atkins was right all along.

  • kirsty

    If you prepare your own meals and rely as little as possible on processed packaged foods you shouldn’t find cutting out sugar very difficult.

    By allowing big corporation to decide what goes into your food you are not in control of what you are actually eating and then it makes controlling your sugar intake very tricky.
    Our family rule: Anything with a long ingredients list is a no no.

    Free sugars and added sugars? It’s another way to confuse things in my opinion. Don’t add sugar and don’t buy processed food. Simple.
    We have eaten fresh fruit, veg, full fat dairy and meat and cooked our own meals. My family is reaping the benefits!

    • Tracey

      I agree Kirsty. I have dropped eighty pounds by eating mostly one ingredient foods. I only drink water and count every calorie. Shopping is much easier too since all the good stuff in the supermarket is on the outermost perimeter of the store. I rarely go down the aisles.

    • foodie2

      Agree whole heartedly!!!!!

      SHORT INGREDIENT LIST key factor for living well!!!!

      and simple ingredients that can be pronounced.
      Whole – Pure – Organic – Natural

    • DetroitSinkhole

      Yes, yes, yes!!!!!

  • CynicalEng

    “Free sugars” is a WHO invention and I don’t think there’s any strong science around it and any health effects beyond tooth decay. Having said that the population median fruit consumption is less than one piece per day so it wouldn’t make a big difference if they looked at total sugar – which at least has the advantage of being measurable in a lab.

    Sugar is a carbohydrate and the science separating out the effects of 5, 10 or 15% calories from sugar in a background of 45 – 55% carbohydrate doesn’t seem strong. I’m not talking about vague epidemiology, but something concrete with a dietary manipulation.

  • Rachel

    The WHO is just trying to open the eyes of people who generally consume a lot of sweets, unnecessarily added sugars, and/or those who are generally unaware of the products that contain adde sugars. Reducing “plain ole sugar” from the diet will work wonders, reducing calories while reducing the cravings. Fruits and honey are natural, unprocessed sweeteners that the body can digest regularly. It is important that those who are trying to up their vitamin C intake do it in the form of consuming whole fruits. The WHOs point is that mindlessly drinking juice is less beneficial because the lack of natural fiber and more of just sugar.

  • DJoldschool

    I’ve just finished Reading Robert Lustig’s book ‘Fat Chance’ along with dropping my sugar intake from around 100g to 35 per day. Less lethargy, better sleep, 4 pounds in a week lost (I only weigh 11st 5 anyway and exercise daily). I now find sweet things unnaturally sweet and don’t crave sugar like I used to. If you trace the obesity rise from the 70s you can also see the massive rise in sugar production and consumption, the curves rising equally. This coincided with the obsession with ‘low fat diets’ that were we advised to stick to and food manufacturers simply replaced fat wih sugar.

    • Library Lady

      Thanks for the book recommendation. I see it has great reviews on GoodReads. It’s in my library and I will read it. Sounds similar to Michael Moss’ book Sugar, Salt, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. It too was a great read and gives one pause about eating processed food and how it makes you crave more.

  • Cat Ma

    As far as packaging is concerned is there a way to convert this to grams of sugar per 100 grams? I was told by a nutritionist a long time ago that one of the things I should look for is sugar <20g per 100g. This month at work we have a health challenge that includes sugar <10g per 100g. So this is a measurement I can relate to, and it's one printed on all packaging in NZ.

  • Mike

    If there is one thing history has taught us, our narrow view of what is the best for our health is not completely correct. Cholesterol, trans fats, saturated fats, sodium, artificial sweeteners, sugar …. It will all be different 10 years from now, based on unforeseen health impacts of current diet recommendations.

  • JhirschDMDMPH

    All complex carbohydrates consumed are digested in the mouth by salivary amylase. Salivary amylase’s role is to convert complex sugars into simple sugars. Is this semantics? This use of words needs to addressed better with science. If I eat whole wheat bread it’s the same as eating sugar as its turned into sugar in the mouth. Should we really be saying that 10% of our diets should be ALL CARBOHYDRATES? This needs to be discussed

  • Gina

    I’ve never understood why the manufacturers add sugar to peanut butter. And salt. It’s addictive enough without them! (Though I would only buy the natural kind, I just cannot keep it in my house because I eat too much of it!)

  • adpii

    A friend of mine, who is a nurse, insisted the other day that sugar is a necessary nutrient, and she didn’t mean natural sugar in fruit or milk. She meant added sugar in cookies and pastries, etc. I tried to argue with her and just gave up… If sugar is necessary, why does it contribute to diabetes, weight gain, mood swings, etc.? Also, how am I not dead if it’s necessary?! This same friend also tries to tell me that organic bread will not make me sick because “organic is different and healthy” and offers me bread every time I visit despite being 100% aware that I can not digest gluten…

  • Karlo Garcia

    I try not to read to much into it. I still have to live a life while reducing sugar in my diet. Just got to monitor what I eat. It won’t happen overnight!

  • Karlo Garcia

    I still have it live a life while I am reducing!

  • Karlo Garcia

    I look at sugar is in every food

  • Julie

    The problem here is the processed food from a lot of the large manufacturers. We all know to try to limit our intake of chocolate, cookies, cakes etc. It’s when sugar or various Frankenstein forms of it makes it into (savoury) things you would never add sugar to if you were making it at home. As Kirsty says, if you try to make as much of the food yourself as possible it should make a big difference, along with checking the labels carefully.

  • Theresa

    The problem with sugar is that it has been so stomped on that it is nothing like what is natural sugar. The further it gets from nature the sweeter it becomes making us look for a false sweet taste. Chemicals in artificial sugar have been linked to MS and dementia. Lose you addiction to the sweet taste. Id call it sugar but it really is just a taste because natures sugar doesn’t taste like that

  • DetroitSinkhole

    I cut out sugar and most grains a year ago, have lost 40 pounds, and have never felt better!! I do eat a small amount of fruit. After the first 3 weeks or so the cravings subside, especially if you also limit your overall carb intake.
    And beware, there are more than 50 names for sugar that manufacturers use to hide the fact they are adding sugar to EVERYTHING!