Sugar is not one of the four food groups, although it often appears in each food group. And a lot of the sugar we consume isn’t in foods that we think of as sweets.

Click to view larger image. Infographic appears courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture.

Why Limit Sugar?

Our diets include two types of sugar: naturally occurring sugars and added sugars.

Foods like fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose) include naturally occurring sugars. These sugars are already in food before it is processed or prepared.

Added sugars include any sugars or sweeteners that are added to foods or drinks. For example, sugars may be added to packaged foods during processing. Sugars or other sweeteners you add when you prepare food or drinks, like adding sugar to your tea or coffee, are also added sugars.

Added sugars or sweeteners include natural sugars like white sugar, brown sugar and honey. They also include chemically manufactured sugars like high fructose corn syrup.

Our bodies don’t actually need sweets to work properly, so added sugars provide calories without nutrients.

Any of these empty calories your body doesn’t use will show up on your waistline. And the effects of added sugars on our health stretch beyond obesity.

Consuming too much sugar has been linked to high triglycerides, high blood pressure, fat around your organs and other risk factors for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

How Much Is too Much?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 were recently released with the goal of offering an in-depth look at what we are eating and what we should eat.

Just how much sugar are we eating? The average American adult or child gets about 360 calories from added sugar each day.

For the first time, Americans are being specifically told to limit added sugars. The new dietary guidelines recommend getting less than 10 percent of your calories per day from added sugars.

For a person who eats 2,000 calories a day, that would be no more than 13 teaspoons or 65 grams, which is about 200 calories worth, of sugar a day.

Added sugars are the key words here. Naturally occurring sugars, like those in fruit, are not included in the 10 percent.

Hiding in Plain Sight

For many people, it’s the hidden sugars that are the problem. Where are sugars hidden?

“Hidden” sugars lurk about in many of our most popular foods and beverages. A medium vanilla latte? It has around 35 grams of sugar. A medium soda at a fast food restaurant can set you back around 85 grams of sugar. A medium “sweet tea” can log around 55 grams of sugar.

But there are other hidden sources of sugar that you might not consider, like bread, pasta sauce, gravy, condiments, flavored yogurts and even “healthy” cereals.

There are so many hidden added sugars in our prepared foods that last year the Federal Department of Agriculture (FDA) recommended that nutrition labels on packaged foods cite the amount of added sugars they contain as a percentage of the recommended daily calorie intake.

Why so much sugar? According to registered dietitian Judy Kolish, our American taste buds prefer the taste of sweeter things more than people in many other countries and cultures. Even our baked goods are sweeter.

Retraining Your Sweet Tooth

Once someone develops a preference for a sweeter taste, it’s hard to change. But Kolish says, “You can adjust your palate to accept foods prepared with less sugar and that are in their whole form.”

Kolish says we can become more aware of how much sugar is in our food: “Instead of always choosing sweet foods, choose foods that you enjoy and are well-prepared.”

For example, Kolish suggests trying plain Greek or Icelandic-style yogurt and adding low-fat granola, honey or fruit to taste. You might be surprised at how your tastes can change to accept less sweet foods.

“When you stop to be in the moment and be mindful of what you are eating, you may even find that you dislike foods that are overly sweet,” she says.

Try following these tips to curb your sweet tooth:

  • Read nutrition labels. Check the number of sugar grams. There are four calories in each sugar gram. Compare brands, and avoid those that place honey, corn or maple syrup, or words that end in “-ose” at the top of the ingredient list.
  • Cut the amount of sugar you add to your coffee, cereal or tea in half. When baking, slash sugar by one-third to one-half. You often won’t notice the difference.
  • Buy fresh fruits. Or try fruit canned with water or natural juice instead of syrup.
  • Choose water over sodas and sports drinks. Or find reduced-sugar juices and beverages. Say goodbye to your sweet tea and drink it unsweetened instead.
  • Reach for the spice jar. Ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon — along with extracts like vanilla and almond — provide flavor with less calories.

Need more information on nutrition? Check out the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. The guidelines offer an in-depth look at our eating habits and recommend changes for better health.