Americans down more than 22 teaspoons of sugar 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 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, suggests Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, author of Beat Sugar Addiction Now! Use the following strategies to cut sugar where it wont 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 youre shoveling in. Find the grams of sugar on a nutrition label and divide that number by four. Thats 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, says Teitelbaum.
KNOW WHAT COUNTS AS SUGAR
Natural sweeteners, such as evaporated cane juice, agave nectar, honey and fruit juice concentrates, might have healthy advantages over refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup, but that doesnt mean they should be left out of your sugar budget. Also, dont be fooled by organic or raw in front of a sweeteners name its still sugar. Instead of getting distracted by food label lingo, zero in on the sugar grams listed in the nutrition facts panel thats what matters, explains Teitelbaum.
DONT FEAR ALL ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS
Sugar substitutes shouldnt be feared, but some are healthier than others, says 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 says. 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 theres no stevia in sight and all you have to choose from are the traditional pink(saccharin), yellow (sucralose) and blue packets (aspertame) of chemical-based sweeteners, pick pink. Theres a very long safety record with Sweet n Low, says Teitelbaum.
DONT 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. Eat the fruit instead of drinking juice, advises Teitelbaum. Youd have to eat four oranges, which contain approximately 12 grams of sugar apiece, to take in the amount of sugar thats in a 16-ounce bottle of orange juice, he explains.
OR EAT IT DRIED OR CANNED
Always choose whole fruit instead of canned fruit or sweetened dried fruit, advises dietician Angela Ginn, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Just a third-cup of dried pineapple packs 30 grams of sugar more than seven spoonfuls but an entire cup of raw pineapple chunks delivers only 82 calories and 16 grams sugar. Similarly, a half-cup of Del Monte peach halves contains 23 grams of sugar and 100 calories, while a large whole peach has only 15 grams of sugar and 68 calories.
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. But dont simply substitute your favorite soft drinks for their diet counterparts. People who consume just three diet sodas per week are 40 percent more likely to be obese, according to a University of Texas study.
Just because youre keeping tabs on sugar doesnt 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, says Ginn. She suggests an ounce of dark chocolate, or warm fruit, such as a baked apple, poached pear or roasted fig.
SAVOR EVERY BITE OF CHOCOLATE
When candy cravings crop up, think quality over quantity. You dont have to give up pleasure pleasure is healthy, says 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. He suggests picking dark chocolate over milk chocolate, or opting for a sugar-free (Abdallah chocolates).
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, says 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 Kelloggs Smart Start Strong Heart Toasted Oat cereal provides 17 grams. The problem: Starting your day with a bowl of refined carbs and added sugar will send your blood sugar soaring, says Teitelbaum, who recommends staring the day with blood sugar-stabilizing protein instead. Have eggs for breakfast and youre less likely to have an energy crash an hour later, he says.
GIVE SAVORY FOODS A SECOND LOOK
Youd never douse a salad, plate of pasta, or a side of French fries with a couple spoonfuls of sugar, but theres plenty of the sweet stuff hiding in the savory-tasting condiments you use to top these foods. Two tablespoons of Kens 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 youll add 4 grams (or 1 teaspoon) of sugar to your food.
DONT 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. Youll get to indulge in an entire mini container for only 150 calories and 1 grams of fat, but youll also scoop up 22 grams of sugar.
EXERCISE FOR ENERGY
Instead of reaching for a sugary snack when an afternoon slump hits, add a short burst of physical activity. When participants in a University of Exeter study took a brisk 15-minute walk, they consumed half as much chocolate as desk dwellers who didnt take an exercise break. Whats more, regular walks make your cells more receptive to insulin, which leads to better blood sugar control, according to research from the CDC.
DRINK MORE WATER
Gulping water throughout the day can help ward off sugar cravings by keeping your stomach full and helping your body separate feelings of hunger and thirst. Since H20 helps rid the body of toxins, proper hydration can be a key player in helping you kick your sugar habit, says Teitelbaum.
Ever notice that when youre feeling frazzled, you never reach for a healthy snack? You can blame biology for that. Stress increases levels of a chemical called corticotrophin-releasing factor in the brain, which exaggerates cravings for food rewards, especially sugar, according to a study published in BMC Biology.
CUT BACK ON CAFFEINE
Bad news for coffee lovers: caffeine can aggravate sugar addiction. When it wears off, you feel tired, and that makes you want to energize with sugar, explains Teitelbaum. He suggests sticking to one cup of regular coffee a day.
AND DRINK CAFFEINE-FREE TEA INSTEAD
Sipping naturally sweet licorice root tea, like caffeine-free Yogi Egyptian Licorice, helps stabilize your bodys stress handlers, or adrenal glands, says Teitelbaum. The adrenal glands help maintain stable energy and blood sugar levels during day-to-day activities, but when youre chronically stressed, they pump out appetite-revving cortisol, he explains.