There are so many reasons why someone might want to cut down on their sugar intake. Excessive sugar intake has been associated with some of the most common diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease (including high cholesterol and high blood sugar), cancer, and more. Sugar intake has also been correlated with skin issues such as acne or psoriasis, and may affect other chronic diseases such as autoimmune and renal diseases, plus other health concerns such as hormonal imbalances. If weight loss is your goal, reducing your sugar intake may help too.
Sugar is quite the exciting substance for our taste buds, as it triggers our brain’s reward system and in this way has been compared to highly addictive drugs. Consider research where rats preferred to self-administer sweetened water over cocaine. In my personal experience, cutting down on sugar initially was quite difficult. My favorite sugar sources (hi, chocolate bars and ice cream!) were always on my mind and I was cranky without them. But know that it gets better!
Now, I can enjoy the same chocolate and ice cream without obsessing over them beforehand, and a much smaller portion leaves me satisfied and happy. Getting over the initial hump is hard, it’s possible to even experience withdrawal symptoms when coming off of your sugar high. This is one big reason why I suggest cutting down slowly over time, instead of trying to make the switch quickly.
However, on the other hand, it’s important to remember that sugars found in whole foods – such as fruits, some vegetables, honey, maple syrup, milk, and more – are often also packaged with a hefty dose of healthy nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber, plus other disease-fighting properties. Therefore, cutting sugar in all forms completely out of your diet is definitely unnecessary and arguably unnatural.
It is key to manage your relationship with sugar during this transition period. The point is to adjust your diet in a healthier direction, not to abuse yourself with severe or excessive food restrictions. That’s why this article is titled “how to eat LESS sugar”, not how to eat NO sugar. This is about balance, not elimination.
FIRST ~ Identify The Main Sources & Their Triggers
To start, identify the high sugar foods that frequent your diet. You may be surprised by some, such as flavored yogurt, BBQ sauce, ketchup, peanut butter, spaghetti sauce, “sports” drinks, bread, juice, trail mix, granola, iced tea, protein or breakfast bars, premade soup, bottled smoothies, cereal, dried fruit like raisins (especially if they have added sugar), and more. Be sure to check out the food label, especially the “Added Sugar” line. For reference, 4 grams of sugar is equal to 1 teaspoon. A 12 ounce can of soda has around 40 grams of sugar.
Consider any possible triggers. Is there a certain reason you reach for sugary foods? Is your morning coffee loaded up with the stuff? Is it the end of the day, or after a particularly stressful day, that you reach for the sweets? Is there another emotion that’s driving you towards sugar? Maybe it’s just habit, like your convenient breakfast spot has those sweet pastries? Did you skip a meal or two earlier in the day, and now are grabbing something sugary because you’re starving?
NEXT ~ Develop One or More Strategies
Once you’ve determined where sugar is entering your diet in excess amounts, develop a strategy to start cutting down. Here’s my strategic suggestions in no particular order:
Begin to Measure
What gets measured, gets managed. In addition to checking out the “added sugars” line in the nutrition facts label (see next section), you can also try putting a measuring spoon in your sugar bowl for coffee and tea. That way, you have the opportunity to measure exactly how much sugar you’re actually adding to your food and drinks, and gives the tools you need to begin cutting down over time. The positive impact of this technique is magnified if you can prepare more of your food in your own house – so making coffee at home instead of buying it, baking/cooking your sweets instead of buying them, and adding your own sweetener to items like plain yogurt instead of buying flavored and sweetened yogurt. The American Diabetes Association recommends a maximum of 6-9 teaspoons (or 24-36 grams) of sugar in a day. I personally feel best when I stick to a maximum of 5 grams of sugar per day.
Read the Nutrition Facts Label
There are so many names for added sugars that it’s totally overwhelming to try and learn them all. Instead, check out the nutrition facts label and look for the “sugars” and “added sugars” lines to guide your choices. Personally I look at these 2 lines much more than anything else on the nutrition facts label, including calories and fat. Again, 4 grams of sugar is equal to 1 teaspoon, and a maximum of 6-9 teaspoons per day (or 24-36 grams) is recommended.
Dealing with Desserts
Desserts are oh-so yummy and definitely part of a normal diet! The goal here is to cut down, not cut out completely! To help reduce your sugar intake, consider consuming homemade desserts only. This means politely saying no to cake at your coworkers birthday parties, passing by the massive and numerous dessert sections across your grocery store (and, let’s be real – across the drug store, hardware store, gas station, etc.), and clearing out those candies stashed hidden around our homes, offices, pockets, purses, and cars. Making this commitment also means that you are able to find the time and energy to make your own desserts. This also gives you the opportunity to vary the type of sweetener your use, like honey and maple syrup instead of cane sugar, and to control how much sweetener goes your desserts. I love this technique because homemade sweets are almost always way tastier than store bought (which are often tasteless), so you get the eat the best stuff and also improve your palate.
Another idea is basically the opposite – you could also consider consuming desserts only when they’re free. So, feel free to enjoy at parties, events, holidays, birthdays – whenever you’re served dessert and don’t have to buy it yourself. Become a dessert opportunist, but not a regular.
Timing of Day
Challenge yourself to wait to eat sugar until as late in the day as possible. Personally, I feel that the earlier I start eating sweets, then the more I will eat over the course of a whole day. Can you avoid sugar until it’s time for an after dinner dessert? Count it as a success!
Also evaluate if you’re consuming sugar at times of the day when you need energy. Sugar gives us quick calories, and calories are what lets us function. Maybe you hit a slump mid-morning or mid-afternoon at work, and find that that’s when you’re reaching for the sweets. Instead, try eating a healthier snack, drinking water, taking even a short walk, going outside, or another strategy to give yourself some energy without the sugar rush.
I consider it very important to eat at least three regular meals/snacks per day, as it will also help prevent your blood sugar from tanking. Keeping more even levels of blood sugar will make it easier to not reach for less healthy options, because you won’t feel starved and desperate.
Sleep! One of those things that’s SO IMPORTANT and we cannot possibly talk about or encourage enough. Sleep deprivation has been correlated with an increased intake of sugary, caffeinated drinks, and with an increased desire for high calorie foods. If you find yourself reaching for late night sweets, try moving up your bedtime.
Eat Real Meals when Hungry. Sweets are for Dessert.
I’m human. You’re human. It’s the 21st century. We both eat ice cream, cookies, cake, chocolate, and so on. But – try not to eat them when you’re hungry. Instead, aim to eat at least 3 times per day to satisfy your appetite, and then have sweets as a dessert or a light snack. If you’re eating unhealthy food to fill your stomach instead of to just quiet your sugar tooth, then you will likely consume more sugar overall. Fill your belly with something of more substance, then let the figurative cherry on top be your sweet fix. If you’re already satisfied and relatively full from a real meal, you can more easily enjoy a smaller serving of something else healthy.
Personally, I observe a noticeable and pretty immediate decline in my health and well-being when I eat unhealthier items for a meal. I feel much better when I have real meals (of veggies, fruits, mainly whole grains, and high quality proteins and fats – the MyPlate template is an excellent tool to guide you), and save my less healthy items for after my meal.
Drinking Your Sugar
If you find yourself hooked on sugary drinks, try cutting back with drinks that are still sweetened but that have less sugar overall. Feel free to gradually take yourself down – for example, try diluting your soda with a little seltzer water that you can increase over time. Or, try switching to juice from soda, with the goal of eventually diluting that juice. If you love that bubbly carbonated feeling, then try kombucha (my all-time favorite brand is GT’s – and I call their the Divine Grape flavor the gateway kombucha), flavored sparkling water, investing in a Soda Stream, or adding seltzer to your favorite sweetened drink.
Consider your Microbiome
The types of microbes living inside your intestinal tract can influence your cravings, too. Gut microbes can encourage you to choose less items that they themselves want to eat, even if those foods are not healthy for you. It’s becoming more clear that there is a bottom-up communication line from the intestinal microbiome to the brain. The fastest and most effective way to change your intestinal microbiome is to change your diet, so fighting through the pain of these misleading cravings may be the best solution to date for microbiome woes.
I hope this is a helpful guide for you to begin reducing your sugar intake! Leave a comment below if you have any questions. Happy eating!