From the sweetener you stir into your morning coffee to the after-dinner dessert you can’t resist, the amount of sugar you consume between breakfast and bedtime adds up quickly.
Americans down more than 22 teaspoons a day, according to the USDA, which is more than double what experts recommend. At the same time, research links diets high in added sugar to increased risk for diabetes, heart attack and stroke.
So what’s the best way to slash sugar without sending your relentless sweet tooth into shock?
“Save your sweet budget for things that taste great, like dessert,” suggested Jacob Teitelbaum, a physician and author of “Beat Sugar Addiction Now.”
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Use the following strategies to cut sugar where it won’t be missed and ward off cravings without feeling deprived.
Commit to a sugar quota. The first step to reducing your sugar intake: Figure out exactly how much of the sweet stuff you’re shoveling in. Find the grams of sugar on a nutrition label and divide that number by four. That’s how many teaspoons of sugar a food or drink contains. The American Heart Association recommends that women limit themselves to no more than six teaspoons or 24 grams of sugar per day and men no more than nine teaspoons or 36 grams. The good news: How you spend those spoonfuls is entirely up to you, said Teitelbaum.
Know what counts as sugar. Natural sweeteners like evaporated cane juice, agave nectar, honey and fruit juice concentrates might have healthy advantages over refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup, but that doesn’t mean they should be excluded from your sugar budget. Also, don’t be fooled by words like “organic” or “raw” in front of a sweetener’s name – it’s still sugar.
Don’t fear all artificial sweeteners. Sugar substitutes shouldn’t be feared, but some are healthier than others, said Teitelbaum. He recommends naturally derived, filtered zero-calorie sweeteners such as stevia and erythritol. “Keep in mind that brand matters in terms of taste,” he said. Unless stevia is properly filtered, it can leave a bitter, licorice-like aftertaste. Sweet Leaf is a good option, as are Truvia and PureVia, which are blends of stevia and erythritol. If there’s no stevia in sight and all you have to choose from are the traditional pink (saccharin), yellow (sucralose) and blue (aspertame) packets of chemical-based sweeteners, pick pink. “There’s a very long safety record with Sweet’n Low,” said Teitelbaum.
Don’t drink your fruit. Sweetened fruit juices are one of the biggest sources of added sugar in our diets. Some varieties contain more than a teaspoon of sugar per ounce along with little real fruit. For example, a 15.2-ounce bottle of Tropicana grape juice drink packs 72 grams – 18 teaspoons’ worth – of sugar and contains only 30 percent juice.
Find good-tasting soda alternatives. Like fruit juice, soft drinks do serious damage in the sugar department. A 20-ounce bottle of Cherry Coca-Cola is loaded with 70 grams of sugar, for example. Teitelbaum suggests switching to coconut water, which contains a fraction of the sweet stuff (a 14-ounce bottle of Zico Natural has 60 calories and 12 grams of sugar) plus at least 500 mg of potassium per serving. Or look for beverages sweetened with stevia or erythritol, like SoBe Lifewater, Vitamin Water Zero or Zevia zero-calorie soda.
Rethink dessert. Just because you’re keeping tabs on sugar doesn’t mean you have to cut dessert out of your diet completely. Just learn to satisfy your sweet tooth with healthier, lower-sugar alternatives to cookies, ice cream and cake, said Ginn. She suggests an ounce of dark chocolate, or warm fruit, like a baked apple, poached pear or roasted figs.
Savor every bite of chocolate. When candy cravings crop up, think quality over quantity. “You don’t have to give up pleasure; pleasure is healthy,” said Teitelbaum. “But instead of eating a pound of M&Ms, get the best-tasting chocolate you can find and let it melt in your mouth.”
Swap sugar for spices. When a recipe calls for a huge heaping of sugar, scale back and substitute it with fuller-flavor ingredients. “Beet, sweet potato or parsnip puree can add sweetness and moisture to baked goods while lowering sugar content,” said Ginn. “Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice can also make a recipe sweeter.” The bonus: Researchers at the University of Georgia found that eating a teaspoon or two of cinnamon each day helps lower blood sugar levels.
Eat a high-protein breakfast. We expect kids’ cereal, like Lucky Charms, Trix, and Froot Loops, to be super sweet, but boxed breakfasts geared toward adults can be just as bad – or worse. One cup of Raisin Bran contains 18 grams of sugar and a serving of Kellogg’s Smart Start Strong Heart Toasted Oat cereal provides 17 g. The problem: Starting your day with a bowl of refined carbs and added sugar will send your blood sugar soaring, said Teitelbaum, who recommends staring the day with blood sugar-stabilizing protein instead. “Have eggs for breakfast and you’re less likely to have an energy crash an hour later,” he said.
Give savory foods a second look. You’d never douse a salad, plate of pasta or a side of fries with a couple spoonfuls of sugar, but there’s plenty of the sweet stuff hiding in the savory-tasting condiments you use to top these foods. Two tablespoons of Ken’s Fat-Free Sun-Dried Tomato Vinaigrette packs 12 grams of sugar. A half-cup of Prego Fresh Mushroom spaghetti sauce contains 10 grams of sugar. And for every tablespoon of ketchup you squeeze out you’ll add 4 grams (or 1 teaspoon) of sugar to your food.
Don’t get trapped by ‘low fat.’ When you take out fat, you take out flavor. And when it comes to diet food, flavor is often replaced with added sugar. A good example: A Weight Watchers Smart Ones Cranberry Turkey Medallions microwaveable meal has only 250 calories and 2 grams of fat but delivers 19 grams of sugar. Or consider Skinny Cow Strawberry Cheesecake Ice Cream. You’ll get to indulge in an entire mini container for only 150 calories and 1 grams of fat, but you’ll also scoop up 22 grams of sugar.
Resist a fast-food fix. Avoid the drive thru and you’ll steer clear of some of the biggest sugar bombs around. Burger King’s Chicken, Apple and Cranberry Salad contains 37 grams of sugar, while three pancakes and syrup pile on 36 g. At McDonald’s, a Fruit and Maple Oatmeal packs 32 grams of sugar, a small wild berry smoothie delivers 55 grams, and an M&M’s McFlurry has 128 g.