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How Many Calories are in Sugar?

Sugar is everywhere, and it's a very popular ingredient in everyday food. Consuming calories in sugar may be something you haven’t thought about much before. When it comes to weight loss, understanding more about foods that contain sugar may help you overcome some of your biggest challenges. Below is a complete guide to how many calories are in sugar and why you should care about how much you ingest.

What is a Calorie?

While the definition of a calorie can be long and detailed, this is what you need to know: a calorie is the amount of heat it takes to increase the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. If you are someone who enjoys chemistry and history, you might be interested to know that one calorie is equivalent to 4.18 joules, which is the most commonly used measurement for the energy in food in other countries.

When you travel outside of the U.S. to countries that use the metric system, you may find that food labels have information in kilojoules or kilocalories (Kcal). In the U.S., food labels use calories to measure the total energy being consumed. Although U.S. food labels tend to use the term calorie, they’re really giving the number of kilocalories, which is the equivalent of 1,000 calories.

Whenever you consume something that has calories, you’re providing your body with “fuel.” Technically, however, the calories you ingest are a result of a chemical reaction in your body. Consuming food (and the calories associated with it) results in a certain amount of heat your body gives off in response to that particular food. Think of it this way: something with 1,000 calories will cause your body to heat up five times more than food that contains 200 calories, and the more calories you consume means you are likely to increase your chances of weight gain. Foods that contain fats, proteins and carbohydrates contain calories because they are the only substances (other than alcohol) that cause chemical reactions in the body as a result of digesting them.

Let’s take a closer look into how sugar intake plays a key role in how many calories you take in.

Why Should You Care About Calories in Sugar?

Calories are one common way to measure your dietary intake, especially if you are on a weight loss program. Much of the standard adult diet is based on your total caloric intake. For example, the U.S. dietary guidelines use your total caloric intake as a way to calculate the total percentage of nutrients required each day. This means that if someone told you to consume no more than 30 percent of your total daily intake from fats, then you should be able to take the calories you eat and calculate how many fat grams to consume each day.

Weight loss and management programs are often widely dependent on daily calories as well. Many weight loss programs suggest that you should aim for a certain amount of calories as a way to reach your goals, and usually this requires a reduced caloric intake. This is very important when you are aiming to lose those extra pounds, but recent research shows that watching your total sugar intake may play a bigger role in weight loss than the diets themselves. Studies have shown that beverages that are loaded with added sugars are associated with increased obesity rates among adults and children. Paying attention to your total caloric intake is crucial, but it seems that watching your total sugar intake (and calories in sugar) is even more important.

Measuring Sugar

Now that you understand what watching your daily sugar intake can do for weight management, consider some of the ways that sugar is measured. Here are some suggestions to guide how much sugar you are consuming as a way to boost your healthy lifestyle.

Read Labels

One of the first and easiest ways to measure sugar is to simply look at food labels. It’s federally mandated that manufacturers need to list how much sugar is in food, so this is the simplest way to determine how much sugar you are consuming.

Get Informed

For foods that don’t have a label, educate yourself on sugar content. This means that if you eat a banana, you should know how much sugar you just consumed (FYI: a banana contains 12 grams of sugar). Educate yourself on other names for sugar to become more familiar with the grams of sugar in various foods.

Added Sugars vs Natural

Let’s say you eat that banana and it has 12 grams of sugar. It’s important to differentiate between sugars that are naturally occurring in food, like in that banana and those that are added to foods. How do you know when it’s been added? Look at the food label. If the label states there is sugar in your food and the ingredient list has no mention of sugar (or one of the dozens of names it may show up as), then the sugar in that food should be naturally occurring. In contrast, if sugar is listed in the ingredients, then this food contains added sugars. For a comparison between these two sources, refer to our complete guide on natural vs added sugar.

How Many Calories does Sugar Have?

Sugar is a nutrient that the body and especially the brain use to provide energy for daily functions. However, the standard adult diet tends to be overloaded with sugar, which can lead to obesity and weight gain. How many calories are in a teaspoon of sugar? You might be surprised. The table below explains the total amount of sugar based on various foods and measurement options.

Source Grams of Sugar Calories from Sugar
1 gram sugar 1 4
1 teaspoon sugar 4 16
1 tablespoon sugar 12 48
1/4 cup sugar 55 220
1 cup blueberries 36 144
12 oz soda 15 60
1 cup milk 13 52

How Much Sugar Should I Consume Each Day?

The World Health Organization and the American Heart Association recommend that women limit sugar intake to 25 grams or less and men limit it to 36 grams or less. If you view the chart above, you can see that it’s easy to surpass this amount with one 12-ounce soda. With this in mind, it is important to stray from all sources of sugars as a way to avoid empty calories each day and to prevent cravings. In addition, sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners may not be good options as a way to cut back the amount of sugar you consume since these products may increase your affinity towards sugar and cause you to overeat.

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