Sugar is my number one food struggle – no doubt. I regularly eat a variety of foods, eat mostly plant-based and consume an reasonable amount of fat. However, when it comes to sugar and sweet foods it’s constantly an issue for me. I love it and I am not satisfied by just one cookie. But sweets are not the only concern. Sugar is hiding in all kinds of foods. Over the years I have used various strategies to retrain my tastebuds and reduce the amount of sugar I consume. Today I am sharing the tips and strategies I have used at some point or another to kick (or at least reduce) my sugar habit.
Studies going all the way back to the 1950’s show a correlation between high consumption of sugar and coronary heart disease. A few years back, the news reported a story about how the sugar industry manipulated data from these studies to make fat and cholesterol the enemy instead.
After this manipulation, the food industry jumped on the bandwagon and began producing tons of low-fat and fat-free products which we Americans all began consuming. But yet, as a nation, we just kept gaining weight despite eating all these products that were supposed to be better for us. Why? Because the trick food manufacturers increase sugar to improve the flavor of lower fat foods. As a result, our taste buds now require more sugar than ever before. But in my opinion, this attraction or “addiction” to sugar can be reversed by making a few adjustments in the way we eat. After time, your tastebuds kind of reset and get used to eating foods flavored with a bit less sweetness.
Added vs natural sugar
So, when I talk about limiting sugar, I am really referring to the added sugar in foods, not natural sugar such as the fructose in fruit or the lactose in milk. These foods need to be a part of a healthy diet because they provide us with other nutrients which we need to consume.
Added sugar contributes nothing of any healthy value. All it adds is a bit of sweetness along with calories. You can identify added sugars on the nutrition labels of processed foods.
In the Nutrition Facts pictured on the left, the red arrow tells you the total sugar in one serving. The blue arrow tells you how much is added sugar is in one serving. The total sugars include both natural sugars and the added sugars are used to flavor the product.
The percentage circled in purple is how much of your percent Daily Value of added sugar you are getting in that one product.
♦One teaspoon of sugar has 16 calories and the average 12 oz soda contains 9.3 teaspoons of sugar. Sugar makes up all the calories in that ca of soda. That is amazing to me.
♦The American Heart Association recommends that women consume only 25 grams of added sugars a day (the number is slightly higher for men) which equals 100 calories or six teaspoons of sugar. That’s not all that much added sugar.
Alternative sweeteners – are they healthy?
There are lots of substitute sweeteners that can be used in place of sugar some are manufactured and others are more natural and less processed.
One category of substitutes, manufactured sugar alcohols, include sucralose, aspartame, saccharin, and tagatose. These all work as reduced calorie sweeteners, and are replacements for sugar especially when for folks watching their weight or looking for ways to cut calories.
Stevia, another possible sugar replacement, is made from a bush in South America. But it is also highly processed. And even though it is often referred to as natural that is not correct because it has actually undergone serious manufacturing.
However, as someone who is genuinely concerned about processed foods and believes we should try to limit their consumption as well, I highly caution heavy usage of these sweeteners. In my opinion, like sugar, these manufactured sweeteners need to be used in limited amounts.
Let’s talk about other sweeteners such as maple syrup, honey, molasses, agave syrup, but it is important to remember these products still contribute a similar calorie impact as sugar. So you should try to limit the use of these as well when possible.
Here are my strategies to reduce or limit sugar
⇒Checking nutrition labels is a good place to start when reducing sugar in your diet. This strategy helps you develop awareness of the amount of sugar you are consuming. Remember that the biggest concern here is reducing the added sugars you consume.
⇒Keep a sugar journal to track the sugar in your diet. This strategy is also about awareness. Use an app like My Fitness Pal or keep a written record of the sugars you are eating. My Fitness Pal is a food tracking app where you enter what you eat throughout the day and then you can look at the nutrients you have consumed. Sugar is one of the categories that you can see even with the free version.
But if you prefer a more old-school method, simply write down how much sugar you add to your food throughout the day. You will also need to read nutrition labels and record the added sugar in the products you eat.
Either method is great, but I feel like the app is much easier to use. You don’t need to do this every day in order to see where you stand. I’d recommend tracking your intake for 3 days or so to see. You may want to include a mix of weekdays and weekend days since we tend to eat differently at different times depending on what is going on.
⇒Look for foods that you can eliminate to begin reducing the amount of sugar you consume. I suggest starting with sweets such as cookies, pastries and cakes and soda or other sweetened drinks. In my opinion, the greatest amount of added sugar we consume come from these types of foods or beverages.
Unfortunately, for the sweets there really aren’t a lot of tricks around it except to just try to reduce the amount of them you consume. I don’t believe you need to eliminate them completely, but if you are eating them every day and at multiple times during the day, there is definitely room there for you to make some adjustments and cut back.
⇒It’s possible to retrain your taste buds and reduce your cravings. This is strictly my opinion and I am only speaking from personal experience. But since I’ve made changes in the way I eat daily, I notice that I am way more sensitive to sugar than before.
Also, from my own sugar “detox” last year, I did find that when I stayed away from sugar, I began to crave it much less. It wasn’t immediate but rather something that happened over time.
⇒Watch out for fat free products. Fat free and reduced calorie products all generally use additional sugar to replace the elimination of fats. I see this most often, in salad dressings. Check out the labels closely, when buying these products.
⇒Practice using other ingredients to boost the flavor in your food. Experiment with using spices to enhance the natural sweetness in foods such as allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and citrus juices. I use ginger, cinnamon and citrus juices a lot as flavoring when reducing sugar. Fruit works as nice replacement in recipes or in creating purees to use as toppings.
Here are just some quick suggestions:
- Top oatmeal with a sprinkle of cinnamon and fresh fruit or dried fruit in place of sugar
- Cut sugar in coffee and add a dash of cinnamon
- Use bananas in smoothies in place of any added sugar
- Use fresh fruits in salads and citrus in salad dressings in place of sugar in the dressing
- Top pancakes or waffles with fresh fruits or fruit puree
- Replace some or all sugar in baked goods using fruits such as bananas, dates and figs. However, I will say that baking is tricky and sugar does more than just add flavor. It also contributes texture and affects the appearance of your baked goods. So while this tip is doable, it may require a bit more experimentation.
⇒Start slowly. Look some areas where you can make some little changes. First, figure out a place to start. You don’t have to give up sugar all together or completely. But start small and allow yourself to adjust. Then once you’ve tackled one area, move on to another. Over time, you will make a great deal of progress at limiting the added sugar you consume.
The most important thing to remember is it’s not how quickly you reach your goal, but rather that you do it in a way that creates an overall behavior change.
Here are some changes I’ve made over time that are pretty easy to implement.
- Make the switch from sugar sweetened yogurt to using plain yogurt and adding your own fruit. Start slow if you need to by mixing a plain yogurt into a sugar sweetened yogurt and then slowly increase the amount of plain yogurt you use. Make your own condiments and dressings. Of course, this takes a bit of time and planning and you likely can’t make them all. But figure out what you use most frequently and see if you can commit to making those particular items from scratch. If you have a blender, you can actually make a salad dressing from scratch pretty quickly.
- Rely on less processed foods. Implementing this change requires time as well, but in my opinion, processed foods contribute most of our added sugars so making this switch is important.
- Cut sugar in recipes in half
- Your morning coffee. Ask at Starbucks for one less pump of sugared syrup in your drink. A tall coffee drink generally gets three pumps of syrup, a grande, four and a venti gets five pumps!! Or if you make coffee at home, reduce the number of teaspoons you add gradually. Remember to add a dash of cinnamon so you don’t miss that sugar.
- If you are eating several sweets throughout the day, start cutting back on the number. Replace one of your sweet treats a day with a piece of fruit. But really focus and enjoy the one you do eat.
Cutting sugar is one healthy habit that takes some practice and getting used to but it is possible. My best advice is that when you do allow yourself to enjoy something really decadent, do so with full enthusiasm and pleasure. That way the experience may last much longer. It really is more about what we do each and every day rather than those “treats” that we sometimes allow ourselves.
Please leave me your comments or other sugar reducing practices in the comments below or send me a message using the contact me page. I will definitely respond to your message.
Book: American Dietetic Association, Complete Food & Nutrition Guide, 2012.