Sugar comes in numerous forms, and it’s almost impossible to avoid if you eat any type of processed or already-prepared foods. So what’s one to do? Are some sugars worse than others? And how do you avoid it?
Why You Should Avoid Sugar
There are many reasons why you should avoid the sweet stuff:
- It provides fuel for cancer cells
- It impairs the function of white blood cells
- It promotes weight gain
- It makes the body produce less leptin (needed for appetite regulation)
- It disrupts how amino acids transfer to muscles
- It spurs insulin resistance, which can lead to Type II diabetes
- It induces oxidative stress
Not all sugar is terrible for you. Natural sources like that from fruit, honey, and maple syrup aren’t as bad as from processed sugars and HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) but it’s still possible to overdo it. There’s no reason to cut all fruit out of your diet in an attempt to remove all sugar; you’d be giving up all those antioxidants, phytochemicals, fiber, minerals, and vitamins at the same time.
So now you know WHY you should avoid sugar and which types are worse; how about some tips on how to do it?
Think Protein and Fat
Unhealthy carbs loaded with sugar can cause blood sugar to rise rapidly (and dive just as quickly, leaving you hungry again). To minimize this rapid rise and fall, pair protein, healthy fats, and fiber with your meal, all of which can slow down the release of blood sugar in your body and keep you full for longer. At breakfast, that means adding almonds to your usual oatmeal or pairing eggs with your morning toast, and for your midday snack, a slice of turkey breast or cheese along with your apple. Fats are a key player because they help keep you fuller for longer, therefore helping to decrease your desire for sugar. Focus on fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, and heart-healthy oils like olive oil, walnut oil, and coconut oil.
Avoiding soda is a good idea, but that’s not the only sugar-packed drink out there. Even drinks that are considered healthy can contain more of the sweet stuff than you’re supposed to have in an entire day. Case in point: “enhanced” waters (eight teaspoons per bottle), bottled iced teas (more than nine teaspoons per bottle), energy drinks (almost seven teaspoons per can), bottled coffee drinks (eight teaspoons per bottle), and store-bought smoothies (more than a dozen teaspoons—for a small).
Cut The Sweetness
You may not be eating Oreo’s by the roll or guzzling cans of Coke, but that doesn’t mean sugar’s absent from your diet. You’re likely eating sugar throughout the day without even realizing it. Sugar is added to foods that don’t even taste all that sweet, like breads, condiments, and sauces. And it adds up: although the American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day (or about 100 calories), most of us take in double that. (One note: we’re talking about added sugar, not the naturally occurring sugars found in dairy and fruit.) A high-sugar diet boosts your odds of tooth decay, heart disease, and diabetes, not to mention weight gain.
Read Food Labels
You’ll quickly realize just how often sugar is added to foods when you look for it on ingredients lists. Even things that you don’t think are sweet, like tomato sauce, crackers, condiments, and salad dressings can be packed with sugar. Ingredients are listed in order of how much exists in the product, so if sugar’s near the top, that’s a red flag.
Once you know where sugar hides, you can start making changes. One strategy: buy foods labeled “no added sugar” or “unsweetened.” You’ll find unsweetened versions of these common foods in most grocery stories: non-dairy milk like almond and soy, nut butters (look for those made with only nuts and salt), applesauce, oatmeal, and canned fruit (they should be packed in juice—not syrup).
Don’t Go Cold Turkey
Going cold turkey on sugar isn’t realistic for most people. Instead slowly reduce your sugar intake. If you normally put two packets of sugar in your coffee, for instance, try one for a week, then half, and finally add only a splash of milk. For your yogurt, mix half a serving of sweetened yogurt with half a serving of plain, and eventually move on to adding natural sweetness with fresh fruit.
Personally I love using vanilla bean and vanilla extract, spices, and citrus zests to add sweetness to foods without having to use sugar—and for zero calories. Order an unsweetened latte and add flavor with cocoa or vanilla powder. Skip the flavored oatmeal and add a sweet kick with cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. One bonus for sprinkling on the cinnamon: according to a meta-analysis in the Journal of Medicinal Food, the spice has been shown to naturally regulate blood sugar, which helps control your appetite.
You can still indulge in an occasional sweet treat after you resolve to slash sugar. The idea is to avoid wasting your daily sugar quota on non-dessert foods like cereals, ketchup, and bread. To avoid overdoing it, set specific rules about when you may enjoy dessert: only after dinner on the weekends or at restaurants as a special treat.
Stick With It
At first, cutting down on sugar can feel like an impossible task. Eventually, though, your taste buds will adjust. Super-sweet foods like ice cream and candy will start to taste too sweet. When you could have a whole slice of cake before, now a couple bites will be enough. You’ll notice the natural sweetness in fruits and vegetables—and yep, they’ll taste better, too.
Avoid Mixed Alcohol Drinks
Do you know how much sugar is in a rye and coke? A cosmo? A gin and tonic? A lot! If you must drink, choose wine, straight spirits, or mix with soda water.