Right up there with eating more vegetables and staying hydrated, reducing sugar is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your physical and mental health. And while there’s always room to enjoy a sweet treat after dinner or at a special event, eating excessive amounts is another story. Overconsumption of sugar has been linked to health issues like obesity, diabetes, and inflammation. Excessive sugar intake may also lead to increased cravings, and for many, that dependency and blood sugar roller coaster is what makes reducing sugar so difficult, but with this guide, we’ve outlined how to reduce your sugar intake in six simple steps.
If reducing your sugar intake feels intimidating at first, think about this like you would look at cultivating a workout routine or perfecting sleep hygiene — give yourself time, compassion, and gratitude for embarking on an important health goal. Once it’s a part of your every day, you’ll feel refreshed and can see positive impacts on your health, from reduced anxiety and stress to a healthier gut.
Here, we outline everything you need to know about reducing sugar in your diet, from how to decode nutrition labels to the six tips to set you up for sweet success.
What is Sugar?
Sugar is a catch-all, sometimes confusing word that encompasses sweet carbohydrates found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and dairy as well as added sugars like table sugar that are added during prep or processing to preserve, sweeten, or change the texture of ingredients. Sucrose, fructose, glucose, maple syrup, molasses, honey — they’re all forms of sugar.
Despite the huge variety, sugar is a relatively new addition to the human diet. Thousands of years ago, we subsisted on mostly plants and meat, making for a nutrient- and fiber-rich lifestyle. Honey was one of the few outlets to sweet, but that was a rare indulgence.
Your Body on Sugar
Maybe you want to celebrate a work milestone, finally got the kids in bed, or had a really challenging week. Do you consider sweets your reward? Your brain might. Not only is your (and everyone else’s) body hard-wired to crave sugar because it enables us to store fat, but sugar is also deeply connected to your body’s central nervous system. When you consume sweets, the body encourages the release of the happy-inducing neurotransmitter dopamine. And because your body registers dopamine as a reward, it makes you want to repeat the process. Cue the cravings. One study found that foods “high in added sugar, can induce reward and craving that are at least comparable to addictive drugs.”
That doesn’t mean you can’t treat yourself to the occasional candy, baked good, or chocolate cake, but excessive amounts of added sugars can have a major impact on your health. When we eat too much sugar, our reward system kicks into overdrive and it becomes less about getting your necessary calories and more about compulsive overeating, which can lead to a laundry list of health issues.
Unlike natural sugars that can provide energy and are balanced by other nutrients — for example, fruit which also offers fiber — experts say there’s nothing redeeming about refined sugars.
That said, it’s important to note that your body doesn’t have a radar for natural sugars vs. added sugars. Both go through the same process in your body, but the difference is how long that process takes. Since naturally occurring sugars are paired with soluble fiber, it takes longer for your body to break down the elements. On the flip side, your body absorbs added sugars much faster, which sets off a chain reaction. Your blood sugar shoots up, insulin spikes, and you end up feeling hungrier. Translation? A potential to go overboard.
How Much Sugar is Too Much Sugar?
The American Heart Association recommends adult females consume less than 6 teaspoons (about 25 grams) and adult males consume less than 9 teaspoons (about 38 grams) of sugar daily. Those might be the guidelines, but the reality isn’t even close. On average, Americans take in three to six times that amount. A 2017 estimate found that the average American consumes about 66 lbs of added sugar per year (about 82 grams per day). For comparison, in 1790, Americans reportedly consumed only 8 lbs of sugar annually per person.
Foods with Hidden Sugar
A sports drink after a workout, soda on pizza night, sharing an ice cream cone with your child — these are probably what you think of when you hear “sugar,” but sugar creeps up in surprising places, from tortillas to pickles. Researchers at Purdue University rounded up some common kitchen items that are hidden sources of added sugar:
- Cold cuts
What About Artificial Sweeteners?
From diet sodas to “sugar-free” candy, there are a lot of foods and drinks that use artificial or nonnutritive sweeteners that are lower in calories than regular sugar and generally pack a sweeter punch.
But research is mixed. Some reports show that it can result in consuming fewer calories overall, but others believe that artificial sweeteners can increase inflammation and amplify sugar cravings, making you consume more calories and negating any low-calorie benefit.
How to Reduce Your Sugar Intake in 6 Simple Steps
You’ve done the research — now it’s time to put everything you’ve learned into practice. Here are six ways to cut down on sugar while still enjoying some of your favorite foods:
#1 Read Labels
Just like you comparison-shop for prices, the same goes for nutrition. Check labels for grams of sugar on packaged foods. You may be surprised to find the amounts of added sugars can vary widely on everything from iced tea to salad dressing.
#2 Taper the Sugar in Your Morning Coffee
A cup of coffee in the morning is a staple for many of us, but if you’re adding creamer and a spoonful of sugar or using a sweetened creamer in that morning cup, you may be unintentionally adding more sugar than you think. A simple place to start reducing your sugar intake is to slowly cut down on how much sugar you add to your daily cup of coffee. As with most healthy routines, it takes practice, but with time you may actually start to enjoy your coffee more with way less sweetener.
#3 Eat Regularly — and Embrace Fats
Missing meals or going too long without eating may cause blood sugar levels to dip. Load up on healthy, high-fat foods like sliced avocado, nuts and seeds, and nut butters to keep you full.
#4 Swap Soda for Sparkling Water
Crave something bubbly with your meal? Instead of popping open a sugar-laden soda or fruit drink, sub in a sparkling water that can mimic that fizzy feeling. If you’re in need of some sweet, add slices of citrus, strawberries, or other fruit.
#5 Sweeten Foods Yourself
Opt for unsweetened versions of your go-to groceries, like yogurt or iced tea, then mix in just enough honey, sugar, or other sweetener. Keep the same philosophy in mind when cooking at home; you can often reduce the amount of recommended sugar by as much as a half. When you take control, you almost always use less than what would’ve originally been used. Bonus tip: Add inherently sweet spices like cinnamon or cardamom to mimic the mouthfeel.
#6 Get Enough Sleep
Skimping on zzz’s means triggering hunger hormones that might encourage you to reach for that chocolate bar or sugary beverage at 3 p.m. for an energy boost.
Check out our Ultimate Guide to Sleep for tips on how to make bedtime a priority.
Stick With It
One of the best ways to curb your sugar intake is to see it as a health-boosting lifestyle shift rather than deprivation. Some days may be more challenging than others, particularly in the beginning when withdrawal and cravings can feel insurmountable, but making sugar a treat rather than an everyday need can help you achieve your health goals and empower you to be your best self.
Ready to get started and see just how easy and delicious healthy eating can be? Consider joining FitOn PRO for access to personalized meal plans and exclusive recipes to reach your fitness goals faster without counting calories and with foods you’ll love to eat.