Why the WHO Advises You to Reduce Sugar Consumption

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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.

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.


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