If you keep just one New Year’s resolution related to getting healthier, consider being smarter about sugar. Assuming you’re like most Americans, you’re eating — or drinking — 20 teaspoons of sugar a day. That’s more than three times what the American Heart Association (AHA) says is good for you. For an eye-popping visual — and motivation to cut back — try spooning that much sugar into a bowl. Yikes.
How much sugar is OK? The AHA recommends that women limit added sugars to six teaspoons a day, men to no more than nine teaspoons. While that might sound draconian, you’d be surprised by how satisfying many sweet substitutes can be. And don’t worry — we’re not suggesting you avoid doughnuts, cookies and ice cream altogether. In fact, becoming more conscious about your sugar intake will make those splurges all the sweeter.
One big benefit of a low-sugar diet: It will reduce your chances of developing diabetes, a chronic disease linked to the nation’s growing obesity epidemic that now affects over 29 million Americans. More than one in four people over 65 have diabetes. A recent study from the University of California at San Francisco found that for every additional 150 calories of sugar you take in a day, your risk for Type 2 diabetes (the type linked to obesity) rises by 1 percent. That’s the amount of sugar in a can of sweetened soda — which, by the way, contains about eight teaspoons of sugar. Left untreated, diabetes can be dangerous, carrying with it a greater chance of high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, heart disease, fatty liver disease, cancer and dementia, writes renowned sugar expert Dr. Robert Lustig in his book Sugar Has 56 Names. Additional advantages of a lower-sugar diet: You’ll probably find that your jeans fit better, and you won’t experience those sudden roller coaster mood swings.
Richard Drury/Getty Images
Although people sometimes experience cravings and erratic emotions when they first cut back on their sugar intake, within about 10 days most people find that their energy increases, their anxiety goes away, and they feel much happier, says Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, director of the Practitioners Alliance Network and author of From Fatigued to Fantastic! and The Complete Guide to Beating Sugar Addiction. Pleasure is good, Teitelbaum notes, and sweet foods can be extremely pleasurable. The trick lies in finding a balance between enjoying short-term gratification while also improving your odds of long-term longevity. Here are 10 ways to get started.
1. Skip The Spooned Sugar
Any time you have to add sugar to something, such as your coffee or morning cereal, nix it, says dietician Brooke Alpert, author of The Sugar Detox. If you can make this one important change, then you are well on your way to drastically reducing the amount of added sugars in your diet. If hot coffee doesn't work for you unsweetened, try it iced, she suggests; it's more palatable that way. You don’t have to go cold turkey. Try cutting back on the amount of sugar you add by just a little bit every day or so. If you add two teaspoons of sugar to a beverage, cereal or fruit, start by adding one and half for a few days. Then cut it back to one for a few days, then try just one-half teaspoon. Even if you can’t eliminate sugar completely, you’ll probably be able to cut your intake considerably.
2. Flavor Yogurt Yourself
Yogurt can be a health food or a version of a dessert. Start with plain 2 percent or full-fat yogurt. Skip fat-free varieties, because fat slows the absorption of sugar, plus it’s satisfying and helps you feel full, says Alpert. Then add fresh fruits, chia seeds and/or unsweetened coconut flakes. Now you have a delicious high protein, high fiber, low added-sugar breakfast or snack. If you start with flavored yogurts, extra sugar is already added in!
3. Cut Back On Cold Cereal
Many cold cereals contain way too much added sugar, says Alpert. Be sure to read the ingredients, and you'll see that even the healthiest looking cereals have sugar somewhere on the list. If you feel you can’t start your day without cereal, pick one low in sugar (6 grams or less per three-fourths cup cereal) or opt for plain oatmeal and stir in some unsweetened fruit, peanut butter or almond butter for a healthy protein and fat boost.
4. Choose Natural Sugar Over Added
Reading ingredient labels will reveal whether a product contains added sugars versus natural sugars that come from dairy, fruit and some vegetables. If there’s no sugar listed on the label, then any sugar the food contains is likely to be naturally contained in the food itself.
5. Watch Out For Surprisingly Sweet Foods
For example, some packaged foods you’d never think of as “sweet” are loaded with added sugar. Take baked beans. Some varieties contain as many as 16 grams of sugar per serving, which could be listed as brown sugar, dextrose or molasses on the label, writes Lustig. That’s like sprinkling four teaspoons of sugar on a one-half cup of beans — not something you’d likely do, right? Pasta sauces and salad dressings can also be laced with added sugar.
6. Don't Swill Your Sugar
Liquid calories are more fattening than we think. That’s because drinks don’t fill us up, so it’s easy to down sugary beverages throughout the day without realizing the extra calories they add to your daily total. According to nutritionist Elizabeth Somer, whose latest bestseller is Eat Your Way to Sexy, for every 3 ounces of cola (that’s about three gulps) your risk for weight gain increases. So nix sugary sodas for water — switch to the satisfying unsweetened seltzers that now come in so many flavors. And swap out the sugary cocktails for highballs (a shot of a liquor splashed with club soda).
7. Remember That Sugar By Any Other Name Is Still Sugar
According to Lustig, you can find 56 different types of sugar listed as ingredients in packaged foods. There’s sugar itself, of course, and high fructose corn syrup. But you might not recognize that cane juice crystals, barley malt, brown rice syrup or agave are also forms of sugar. What’s more, don’t let healthy sounding ingredients such as honey, organic raw sugar and fruit juice fool you. They also mean that sugar has been added.
8. Eat Real Fruit Instead Of Drinking Fruit Juice
Most fruit juices contain three-fourths of a teaspoon of sugar per ounce, says Alpert. That includes orange juice: A healthy-looking 16-ounce container contains a whopping 12 teaspoons of sugar. So it’s better to eat the orange than drink OJ. An orange has nearly half the sugar and fewer calories, and it provides more of a sense of satiety than drinking juice — plus, the fiber in the orange slows the absorption of its sugar.
9. Try An Herbal Sweetner
Stevia is an excellent sugar substitute, suggests Teitelbaum. Made from leaves of a small perennial shrub, Stevia rebaudiana, it has a traditional history as a sweetener; herbalists sometimes use it to lower blood sugar. It’s 100 to 300 times sweeter than sugar and is calorie-free. Now widely marketed as a sweetener, you can find stevia-sweetened beverages and foods, and even flavored stevia drops that you can add to beverages, says Teitelbaum.
10. For Dessert, Eat Lots Of Berries — And A Little Dark Chocolate
Berries are surprisingly low in sugar compared to other fruits, including apples and bananas, and they pack a lot of sweet satisfaction in every bite (not to mention their many nutritional benefits). A whole cup of strawberries and a cup of raspberries each has less than two teaspoons of sugar. If your sweet tooth wants more, reward yourself occasionally with a few bites of dark chocolate. The darker the chocolate, the lower the sugar: One ounce of dark chocolate (70-85 percent cacao) contains 7 grams of sugar (versus milk chocolate’s 14 grams). Not only is a small piece of dark chocolate immensely satisfying, but, says Teitelbaum, it also contains PEA (phenylethylamine), a mood lifter, plus theobromine, a mild energy booster. Think of it as a sugary friend with benefits!