Go to your kitchen, find a teaspoon, and picture yourself swallowing 30 spoonfuls of sugar every day. Sounds insane, right? The sad part is, for the majority of Americans, that's exactly how much sugar we're consuming on a regular basis. News flash: That’s A LOT. And it ain't good for us. Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversy. Stanhope KL. Critical reviews in clinical laboratory sciences, 2015, Sep.;53(1):1549-781X.
Consuming added sugar messes with pretty much everything in your body: from skin issues and headaches to insulin levels and metabolism to a greater risk for obesity and other diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Oh, and let's not forget about its potential to raise blood pressure, increase cholesterol, impair cognitive function, and wreck teeth. Dietary sugars and cardiometabolic risk: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials of the effects on blood pressure and lipids. Te Morenga LA, Howatson AJ, Jones RM. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2014, May.;100(1):1938-3207. Caloric sweetener consumption and dyslipidemia among US adults. Welsh JA, Sharma A, Abramson JL. JAMA, 2010, Apr.;303(15):1538-3598. A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning. Molteni R, Barnard RJ, Ying Z. Neuroscience, 2002, Sep.;112(4):0306-4522. You get the point. We know we need to cut back on the stuff, but knowing doesn't mean doing. Getting sugar consumption under control can feel overwhelming, and half the time we don't even realize we're eating it.
So how much should we be eating? The American Heart Association recommends women take in less than 6 teaspoons of sugar per day (about 25 grams) and men stick to less than 9 teaspoons (about 36 grams). Want to know what it looks like to eat 25 grams versus 50 grams in one day? Check out these charts; it may surprise you. The sweet stuff is everywhere, and it's hard to give up. Findings suggest it can even be more addictive than cocaine (say whaaaa?!). So how the heck do you get from point A (sugar fiend) to point B (less of a sugar fiend)?
Let's break it down so you can do just that.
Step 1: Find out W(here)TF sugar is lurking.
You know you’re getting the sweet stuff from cookies and ice cream and the packets of sugar you add to your morning coffee and the spoonful of brown sugar on your daily oatmeal. But added sugar (the sugar that’s added to packaged foods versus the kind that occurs naturally in fruit, some vegetables, or unsweetened dairy products) lurks pretty much everywhere—breads, cereals, jarred tomato sauces, salsas, bottled salad dressings, nut butters, etc. But once you become aware of where the added sweetness is coming from, you can start strategizing.
How to do it: While we're not fans of calorie counting, crunching the sugar numbers for one week to see which foods deliver the most sugar can be helpful (and eye-opening), suggests Largeman-Roth. Read nutrition labels to find out how many grams are in the packaged foods you're eating. Don't forget to tally up the extra sugar you add to food and drinks. Then track all of it in a journal or food-tracking app like Lose It. And don’t forget to include the little stuff, like that mini chocolate you grab from your coworker’s candy dish every time you walk by.
Tracking sugar for a full week might seem like a lot of work (and not a way to live), but it’s worth it if it’ll give you an honest sense of how much sugar you’re really eating, Largeman-Roth says. Plus, it’ll help you uncover patterns about the way you eat. Do you really need the second packet of sugar in your coffee? We didn't think so. It might be easier than you thought to #cutthesugar after all.
Step 2: Find balance (it's a real thing).
Once you get past the shock factor that your daily slice of bread has over 6 grams of sugar, start looking for lower-sugar options. You'll soon find that lower-sugar bread, like the Powerseed from Dave's Killer Bread, actually tastes pretty damn good.
While we think it's smart to choose low-sugar varieties if it's something you eat every day, we won't be the ones to tell you your favorite sugary foods are permanently off limits. Go ahead and add the 12-grams-of-sugar-per-serving barbecue sauce to your mom's chicken recipe but try to balance out the rest of your choices for the day, Largeman-Roth says. Think about it this way: Enjoy your sugary treat, but then go for a sweet potato instead of a brioche roll with your lunch or skip your usual after-dinner chocolate and replace it with some hot herbal tea. That doesn't sound too bad, right?
Step 3: Make nature's candy your friend.
Remember: Natural sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, or coconut syrup may contain slightly higher levels of nutrients than table sugar since they are natural sources, but the amounts are trivial—and your body sees all these sweeteners as sugar, says Largeman-Roth. Instead of swapping out white sugar for these less-refined options, set a goal to start resetting your palate to crave less sweetness overall.
Start by selecting whole foods with naturally sweet flavors: Instead of brown sugar, stir warm fruit into your oatmeal or yogurt, and add sweet vegetables—caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, or sun-dried tomatoes—to salads and sandwiches that typically get a cup of ketchup. Pro tip: Eat a date (or two) instead of a standard dessert (The Date Lady sells delicious organic dates, pure date syrup, and date sugar). Guys, if you've never had a little almond or coconut butter on a date, you're SO missing out. It tastes like a super-healthy cupcake (slight exaggeration). Unlike added sweeteners, these foods deliver naturally occurring sugars along with fiber and other nutrients, Largeman-Roth says.
Another option? Turn to ingredients such as ground cinnamon, ground ginger, or pure vanilla extract. Since these ingredients are used in sweet foods (apple pie or cookies, anyone?), the flavors will remind you of sweet foods, even though they don’t actually contain any sugar.
Step 4: Start off slow if cold turkey isn't for you.
The idea of going cold turkey might sound great, especially if you’re feeling really gung ho about your new healthy habit. But cutting back gradually may be more effective in the long run, Largeman-Roth says. You might find that being cognizant about cutting back little by little each day helps you crave sugar less.
Give your brain and taste buds time to adjust by trimming your sugar intake a little bit each week until you reach your new goal, whatever that might be. For instance, add one part of unsweetened yogurt or iced tea to three parts of the sweetened stuff, then go down to half and half, and so on, Largeman-Roth suggests. If you normally dump three packets of sugar into your coffee, cut back to two, then one, and then we promise—you won't miss it, and you'll realize you love the taste of coffee when it's not hiding behind sweeteners. Or you might hate it and, in that case, switch to matcha.
The goal doesn't have to be getting down to zero added sugar. It's OK to add a teaspoon of honey to your oatmeal, as long as it fits into the context of your overall daily needs, says Largeman-Roth.
Step 5: Crush the cravings.
Afternoon cookie habits or Netflix-and-ice cream sessions can be tough to beat, but having a plan in place to help keep sugary cravings at bay (or reign them in when they do strike) can help.
Eat meals and snacks with protein, fiber, and healthy fats. These nutrients are digested more slowly than sugar or refined carbs, so your blood sugar rises and falls at a slower, steadier rate, explains Largeman-Roth. That’s important, since a sudden drop in blood sugar can leave you hungry AF and in need of a quick energy hit in the form of candy and chocolate and more candy (because you know you can't stop at just two mini Snickers).
Look for the why (the reason you're dyyying for something sweet); boredom or stress can be to blame. Keep naturally sweet snacks—fresh fruit, fruit and nut mixes, or air-popped popcorn dusted with cinnamon—on hand so you have a healthy option to turn to. And don’t be afraid to harness the power of distraction. Even something as simple as playing a game on your phone or sniffing a nonfood aroma can redirect your brain’s attention to something other than sugar, studies show.
Step 6: Be real with yourself.
If the thought of cutting out every last morsel of sugar sounds worse than (spoiler alert!) the dragon turning into a White Walker on Game of Thrones, let's reset goals. By committing to a few small ones instead of the unrealistic I-will-never-ever-ever-eat-sugar again mission, you might be more likely to celebrate small wins, which will then give you motivation to take it to the next level.
Here are a few small-scale goals with big impacts:
- Use cinnamon instead of sugar in your coffee; it's seriously so good.
- Make one-ingredient banana ice cream (yes, only one ingredient) instead of going for the B&J's pint in the freezer.
- Craving a cupcake? Eat a date (or two) with a tablespoon of almond butter or coconut butter instead of chocolate after dinner. The combo is OOTW.
- When the 3 p.m. frappe craving hits, eat an apple. You'll be OK (at least until dinner time, and then it's too late, and then you'll just want to eat your meal, and then you'll forget all about the frappe).
- Start your day with a no-added-sugar breakfast, because starting your day right sets the tone for the remaining meals (or it saves room for the brownie you're dying to eat later).
- Once you have breakfast down, take your #cutthesugar habits to the next level by making these these no-sugar dinners.
- Grabbing drinks after said dinner? Instead of tonic water, get the club soda and vodka (duhhhh), and then take note of these 60 tips for healthier boozing.
- Cookie craving when you get home from said drinks? These no-bake chocolate chip cookies do have sugar in them but from maple syrup and dates. Like we said, it's about small changes.
- Check your labels and look for these favorite foods that contain more sugar than you think (oh hay, granola, we see you).
- Squeeze one less squirt of ketchup or barbecue sauce on your burger because that sh*t sneaks in a lot of sugar.
Step 7: Don’t sweat the sugar slipups.
You're human. You don't need to be perfect. Even those close-to-perfect people on Instagram who generally keep their sugar intake in check polish off a second piece of cake occasionally (at least, we hope they do). And when it happens, it’s not the end of the world. Cut yourself some slack. It can take weeks—or even months—to form a new habit. “So you had too much today. Just start again tomorrow,” Largeman-Roth says. “Every day is a new chance to start fresh with whatever changes you’re trying to make.”