Updated 06 March 2015

The WHO blames too much sugar for many lifestyle diseases

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), reducing your daily free sugar intake to less than 10% of your total energy intake will significantly reduce your risk of becoming overweight, obese and developing tooth decay.


Following an extensive literature review on the latest research on sugar intake, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently released new guidelines on sugar intake.

Non-communicable diseases

This is in light of the WHO's ongoing efforts to address the issue of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) as the leading causes of death worldwide, with NCDs accounting for 38 million (68%) of the world’s 56 million deaths in 2012. (NCDs are defined by the WHO as chronic diseases which are not passed from person to person). They are of long duration and generally slow progression.

The 4 main types of non-communicable diseases are cardiovascular diseases (like heart attacks and stroke), cancers, chronic respiratory diseases (such as chronic obstructed pulmonary disease and asthma) and diabetes. Poor diet and physical inactivity are considered the most important modifiable risk factors in preventing NCDs.

According to the latest Guideline on sugar intake for adults and children, reducing daily free sugar intake (sugars added by food manufacturers or sugars that are naturally present) to less than 10% of total energy intake, significantly reduces the risk of becoming overweight, obese and developing tooth decay. Reducing your total sugar intake to below 5% of total energy intake would provide even more health benefits.

Read: Soda + sugar = extra calories

Most people might think that the sugar intake referred to is only the sugar you put in your coffee and the pieces of cake you consume. According to the WHO statement, “Much of the sugars consumed today are 'hidden' in processed foods that are not usually seen as sweets. For example, 1 tablespoon of ketchup contains around 4 grams (around 1 teaspoon) of free sugars. A single can of sugar-sweetened soda contains up to 40 grams (around 10 teaspoons) of free sugars." 

The benefits of reducing your sugar intake will have a significant effect on lifestyle diseases caused by poor lifestyle choices, as in diabetes and obesity related conditions. Reducing your sugar intake will definitely reduce your risk.

Sugar intake in children is a particular problem, with the WHO stating that” free sugar intake is much higher among children, ranging from about 12% in countries like Denmark, Slovenia and Sweden, to nearly 25% in Portugal.” 
What is also interesting is the notable difference in sugar intake between urban and rural areas. “In rural communities in South Africa intake is 7.5%, while in the urban population it is 10.3%,” the WHO report states.

Summary of the WHO report:

1.       Adults who reduce their sugar intake have lower body weight.

2.       An increase in the amount of sugar in any diet is associated with weight gain.

3.       Children with a high intake of sugar-sweetened drinks are more likely to be overweight.

4.       There is a higher incidence of dental caries in people with sugar exceeding 10% of total energy intake.

Read10 foods with hidden sugar

Ecological studies

The WHO based their assumption on reducing your energy intake from sugar to less than 5% on evidence from interesting “natural experiments”. Only three population-wide studies were ever done, comparing a sugar intake of less than 5% with intakes of between 5% and 10% of total energy intake.

Read: Toddler foods loaded with salt and sugar

According to the WHO: “These population-based ecological studies were conducted during a period when sugar availability dropped dramatically from 15kg per person per year before the Second World War to a low of 0.2kg per person per year in 1946.

This 'natural experiment', which demonstrated a reduction in dental caries, provides the basis for the recommendation that reducing the intake of free sugars to below 5% of total energy intake would provide additional health benefits in the form of reduced dental caries.”

Even though dental caries might sound trivial, according to the WHO “problems still persist, causing pain, anxiety, functional limitation (including poor school attendance and performance in children), and social handicap through tooth loss. The treatment of dental diseases is expensive, consuming 5 to 10% of healthcare budgets in industrialised countries, and would exceed the entire financial resources available for the healthcare of children in most lower income countries.”

Read: The fructose controversy

So, how much sugar is ideal?

The average woman should have an average intake of not more than 2 200 calories to maintain her weight. In the average male, it is 2 900 calories. If your sugar intake is to be less than 10% of your daily energy requirement, it works out to about 220 calories for women and 290 for men.

See “Dieting – cut the confusion” for diet recommendations.

By using Health 24’s Calorie Counter you can estimate the total amount of calories from sugar allowed in your diet.

Unfortunately we do not carry around calorie calculators in our bags.  An easy way to determine how much sugar you take in, is to think of the amount of sugar (as depicted on food labels) in easy-to-measure quantities like a teaspoon. One teaspoon holds approximately 4.2g of sugar. This amount of sugar is approximately 16 calories. 

To illustrate:
In a 40g (one cup) serving of All Bran Flakes, there is 4.0g of sugar, or just under 16 calories. Having a serving of All Bran Flakes will be 7% of your total intake.  

A can of non-dietary soft drink holds approximately 35g of sugar (133 calories) which is approximately 60% of your recommended sugar intake.

Read more:

10 foods with hidden sugar

Tumours thrive on sugar

10 interesting sugar facts

Image: Sugar from Shutterstock


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