The American Heart Association recommends that only 5% of our daily calories come from sugar, which amounts to roughly 2 tablespoons for a 2,000-calorie diet, yet Americans are consuming far more than that—almost 130 pounds of added sugars per year.
Experts suggest these 12 tips for reducing the amount of sugar in your diet:
1) Emphasize whole foods. “Fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes should be your focus instead of foods that come in packages,” says Kristin Bourque, RD, who works at Children’s Heart Center in Las Vegas and reports on healthy choices in her blog Swanky Dietitian. “The more we can prepare and cook the foods we eat, the better we know what we’re putting into our bodies.”
2) Don’t rely on clever marketing. “Certain foods that seem to be healthy can often have hidden sugars,” Bourque says, referring to seemingly innocent items such as yogurt labeled “all natural.” “Be sure to read the label” for ingredients that may be other forms of sugar (see No. 5).
3) Don’t fall for sugar free. Is no-sugar-added ice cream always better? Not necessarily, Bourque says, especially if the product contains added fat to avoid changing the flavor or if you’re counting carbs. “If a food is labeled sugar free, it doesn’t necessarily make it a healthy option. Read the label to determine the grams of carbohydrate, especially if you have diabetes.”
4) Fat free is a red flag. “Fat-free foods often have more sugar added to enable a food manufacturer to produce a good-tasting product, so when you see something marked ‘fat free,’ pay particular attention,” Bourque says.
5) Watch out for code words. “In packaged foods with added sugars, you’ll see other names for sugar, such as dextrose, honey, sucrose, fructose, sorbitol, corn syrup, and high-fructose corn syrup,” Bourque says. “Limit yourself to no more than 100 to 150 calories, for women and men, respectively, of added sugars per day.”
6) Consider the context. “If you look on a label and see 16 grams of sugar, that sounds like a lot,” says Ashley Besecker, RD, CD, of Crave Health, a private nutrition practice in Kirkland, Washington. “But reconsider if it’s a product like organic applesauce with nothing added. That changes things. The sugar is coming from a natural form vs. a refined form, and it’s a healthy choice.”
7) Beware when baking. Don’t get carried away by adding natural sugars to recipes, Besecker says. “Eating fresh fruit that contains natural fruit sugar is much different than baking a batch of cookies with maple syrup and molasses. And you can easily overdo the use of ‘organic, natural’ sweeteners when you try to make your baked goods healthier. It’s still added sugar!”
8) Stabilize your blood sugar. One benefit of avoiding sugar is better glucose control. “The biggest problem I see in my practice is unstable blood sugar levels,” Besecker says. “Low blood sugars cause cravings, false hunger cues, nausea, and irritability.” And, she explains, the “poor pancreas and liver work overtime to correct those levels.” Her tip: “Don’t eat carbohydrates by themselves. If you walk out of the door with only an apple for lunch, your blood sugar is going to rise and then quickly fall. Try an apple with string cheese or an apple and a few walnuts instead. The healthy fat or protein will hold the blood sugar, so it comes down nice and slowly vs. crashing.”
9) Break the addiction. “There are loads of refined sugar in items that I call ‘hyperpalatable,’ such as cookies, cakes, and soda,” Besecker says. “These can cause the pleasure center of the brain to light up and create a connection with that food. If you continue to feed that connection, the neurological desire for that food gets stronger and stronger and much harder to break!”
People can move toward change in a relatively pain-free way. “Enjoy a treat and then don’t have another for three days. Make sure that neurological connection breaks and doesn’t get stronger!” Buy sweets in individual servings, not entire boxes, Besecker suggests. “Having healthy foods on hand helps you to wait until next time.”
10) Take care when eating out. “There’s not much added sugar in savory meals, and it’s usually other issues like portion sizes that you’re more concerned about when dining out,” says Lisa Rutledge, RD, who pens the mythbusting blog The Debunking Dietitian. But there are sugar traps. For example, she says, “Many sweet Asian sauces tend be made with a lot of sugar, as are some salad dressings. And if you’re drinking alcoholic beverages—with or without soda—you will consume a lot of sugar.”
11) Beware faux sweeteners. “Eating artificial sweeteners is a personal choice,” Rutledge says. “Many studies have proven the short-term safety of artificial sweeteners in our diets when eaten in moderation. In fact, aspartame is the most studied food additive in the world.”
Rutledge suggests that if you prefer to stay away from artificial sweeteners, it’s OK to consume an added teaspoon or two of sugar at a meal or snack. “Even if you have diabetes, 1 teaspoon of added sugar does not affect blood sugars when taken with a balanced meal,” she says. “The biggest drawback with using any sweeteners—natural or artificial—is that you’re not training your taste buds to enjoy food that is less sweet.”
12) Count carbs. “Sugars are members of the macronutrient group called carbohydrates, which also includes fiber and starch,” Rutledge says. “If you want to see the impact of a food on your blood sugars, look at the total amount of carbs. We need to eat some carbs at each meal, balanced with high-fiber foods—for example, nonstarchy vegetables and whole grains such as brown rice, whole grain bread, and whole grain pasta—and protein, found in meat,
chicken, fish, eggs, peanut butter, nuts, tofu, beans, and cheese.”