To reduce sugar in your diet, an obvious place to start is by limiting your consumption of regular soda, as well as the addition of the spoonful of sugar into your morning cereal. But what if you're already making strides in reducing the obvious high-sugar items? Chances are you're still consuming more added sugar than you realize from some everyday foods.
1. Cut back on sugary drinks
Most added sugars in the American diet come from sugary drinks — sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened teas, and others. Additionally, drinks that many people perceive as healthy, such as smoothies and fruit juices, can still contain astounding amounts of added sugar.
For example, 1 cup (271 grams) of cranberry juice cocktail contains more than 7 teaspoons of sugar (31 grams). Additionally, your body doesn’t recognize calories from drinks in the same way as those from food. Calories from drinks are absorbed quickly, resulting in a rapid increase in your blood sugar level.
Drinks also don’t make you feel as full as solid food, so people who consume lots of calories from drinks don’t eat less to compensate. Reducing your intake of sugary drinks can help with weight loss and improve overall health.
2. Avoid sugary desserts
Most desserts don’t provide much in the way of nutritional value. They’re loaded with sugar, which causes blood sugar spikes that can leave you feeling tired and hungry and make you crave more sugar.
Grain- and dairy-based desserts, such as cakes, pies, doughnuts, and ice cream, account for more than 18% of the intake of added sugar in the American diet.
3. Avoid sauces with added sugar
Sauces like ketchup, barbecue sauce, spaghetti sauce, and sweet chili sauce are commonplace in most kitchens. However, most people aren’t aware of their sugar content. A 1-tablespoon (17-gram) serving of ketchup contains about 1 teaspoon (5 grams) of sugar. That means ketchup is a whopping 29% sugar — more sugary than ice cream.
Look for condiments and sauces labeled “no added sugar” to cut back on the hidden sugars in these products. Other options for seasoning your food that are naturally low in added sugars include herbs and spices, chili, mustard, vinegar, pesto, mayonnaise, and lemon or lime juice.
4. Eat full-fat foods
Low fat varieties of your favorite foods — like peanut butter, yogurt, and salad dressing — are everywhere. If you’ve been told that fat is bad, it may feel natural to reach for these alternatives rather than the full-fat versions — especially when you’re trying to lose weight. However, the unsettling truth is that they usually contain more sugar and sometimes more calories than their full-fat counterparts. For example, a 6-ounce (170-gram) serving of low fat vanilla yogurt contains 24 grams of sugar and 144 calories.
The same amount of full-fat plain yogurt contains just 8 grams of naturally occurring milk sugar and only 104 calories. High sugar intake has also been shown to cause weight gain, which negates the reason you might have chosen a low fat food in the first place. When you’re trying to cut your sugar intake, it’s often better to choose full-fat foods instead. But make sure to read the list of ingredients so you can make the better choice.
5. Eat whole foods
Whole foods haven’t been processed or refined. They are also free of additives and other artificial substances. These foods include whole fruits, legumes, whole grains, vegetables, and meat on the bone. At the other end of the spectrum are ultra-processed foods. These are prepared foods that contain salt, sugar, fat, and additives in combinations that are engineered to taste amazing — which makes it hard to moderate your intake of these foods.
Examples of ultra-processed foods are soft drinks, sugary cereals, chips, and fast food. Almost 90% of the added sugars in the average American’s diet come from ultra-processed foods, whereas only 8.7% come from foods prepared from scratch at home using whole foods. Try to cook from scratch when possible, so you can avoid added sugars. You don’t have to cook elaborate meals. Simple preparations like marinated meats and roasted vegetables will give you delicious results.
6. Check for sugar in canned foods
Canned foods can be a useful and inexpensive addition to your diet, but they can also contain a lot of added sugar. Fruits and vegetables contain naturally occurring sugars. However, these aren’t usually an issue since they don’t affect your blood sugar the same way added sugar does.
Avoid canned foods that are packed in syrup or have sugar on the ingredient list. Fruit is sweet enough, so go for versions labeled “packed in water” or “no added sugar.” If you buy canned fruits or vegetables that do have added sugar, you can remove some of it by rinsing them in water before you eat them.
7. Be careful with “healthy” processed snack foods
Some processed snack foods have a “health halo.” They seem healthy at first glance, and words like “wholesome” or “natural” may be used in their marketing to make them seem healthier than they actually are. Surprisingly, these snacks (such as granola bars, protein bars, and dried fruit) can contain just as much sugar as chocolate and candy bars.
Dried fruit is a great example. It’s full of fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants. However, it also contains concentrated amounts of natural sugar (and some versions may be “candied” with additional added sugar), so you should moderate your intake to keep from overdoing it.
8. Limit sugary breakfast foods
Some breakfast cereals can be loaded with added sugar. One report found that some of the most popular ones contained more than half their weight in added sugar. One cereal in the report contained more than 12 teaspoons (50 grams) per serving, making it 88% sugar by weight.
What’s more, the report found that granola, which is usually marketed as a health food, has more sugar than any other type of cereal, on average. Popular breakfast foods — such as pancakes, waffles, muffins, and jams — are also loaded with added sugar.
9. Read labels
Eating less sugar isn’t as easy as just avoiding sweet foods. You’ve already seen that it can hide in unlikely foods such as ketchup and granola. Fortunately, food manufacturers are now required to disclose added sugars on food labels. You’ll see added sugars listed under total carbohydrates on foods that contain them.
Alternatively, you can check the ingredient list for sugar. The higher on the ingredient list sugar appears, the more sugar the item contains, since ingredients are listed from the highest amount to the lowest amount used by weight.
10. Switch to natural zero-calorie sweeteners
There are several artificial sweeteners on the market that are totally free of sugar and calories, such as sucralose and aspartame. However, these artificial sweeteners may be linked to imbalances in gut bacteria that can lead to poorer blood sugar control, increased food cravings, and weight gain. For this reason, it may be best to avoid artificial sweeteners too.
Some other natural zero-calories sweeteners show promise. These include stevia, erythritol, monk fruit, and allulose. They are all naturally derived, although they do go through some processing before they arrive at your local grocery store. Still, research on these sugar alternatives is ongoing.
11. Get enough sleep
Good sleep habits are incredibly important for your health. Poor sleep has been linked to depression, poor concentration, reduced immune function, and obesity. However, lack of sleep may also affect the types of food you eat, predisposing you to choices that are higher in sugar, fat, salt, and calories.
One study found that people who went to bed late and didn’t get a full night’s sleep consumed more calories, fast food, and soda and fewer fruits and vegetables than those who went to bed earlier and got a full night’s sleep.
Additionally, a recent observational study noted that higher intakes of added sugar were associated with an increased risk of insomnia in postmenopausal women. If you’re struggling to stop making high sugar food choices, getting better sleep may help you regain some control.
12. Eat some protein and fiber
Stabilize your blood sugar by eating some slow-digesting protein and fiber. If you don't, your blood sugar will crash and you'll potentially feel hungry and want to eat again. Great snack options are an apple and nut butter, a hard boiled egg and pistachios, or hummus and veggies.
13. Go to a yoga class
Eighty percent of people say they eat more sweets when they're stressed out. A recent study by the University of California, Davis, found that when stressed women drank a sugary beverage, their body's response to stress was tempered. Translation? Tame your stress, tame your sweet tooth.
14. Prep a healthy meal for later
Eating sweets makes you crave more not-so-good for you food. Throw a healthy meal in your slow cooker for later so that you won't be tempted to order takeout or swing through a drive-through.
15. Eat some probiotic foods
A recent study from Oregon State University showed that the "bad" bacteria in your gut feeds on sugar and may affect your cognitive function. Next time you overdo it on the sugar, try drinking kombucha or eating some Greek yogurt, cultured cottage cheese, or refrigerated sauerkraut to add some "good" bacteria to the mix.