How to Ditch the Sugar Habit
Hungry for More
The average American now consumes more than 100 pounds of sugar a year, yet most of us have no clue we're eating that much. Most of the sugar in our diets comes not from the table sugar we sprinkle into our tea or mix into muffin batter but from sweeteners added to all sorts of packaged foods, even healthy ones like peanut butter and pasta sauce. Why do manufacturers put sugar in so many things that don't need it? The answer is simple: Most people think a product with added sugar tastes better than it does without it. But the more sweetly delicious food gets, the more nutritional value it loses. Many processed foods have few vitamins and minerals and don't do much to satisfy hunger. Dr. Katz says, "They provide more of what we get too much of" -- hello, sugar -- "and less of what we get too little of," like antioxidants.
Sweeteners are now tucked into a vast array of foods, including salad dressing, bread, mustard and crackers. Some of the healthy snacks fit women eat regularly, like fruit-flavored yogurt, are loaded with sugar, says Alyssa Chicci, RD, a dietitian in Phoenix. "A six-ounce container often contains anywhere from 22 to 31 grams of sugar per serving," she points out.
Ironically, the sugar in foods only intensifies our craving for the sweet stuff. "The more sugar people get, the more they need in order to feel satisfied," Dr. Katz explains.
So how much sugar should we be eating? Dr. Katz and Chicci say that no more than 8 to 10 percent of your daily calories should come from added sugar. That's roughly 140 to 180 calories if you consume 1,800 a day. You're probably getting almost twice that now. Here's how to cut back.
Eat more whole foods. The less processed food in your diet, the less added sugar you'll get. When you crave something crunchy, reach for carrots or bell pepper slices instead of crackers. Skip the energy bar and have a banana.
Learn to spot the hidden sweet stuff. "Today there are often several sweeteners in foods, so you can easily get bamboozled when you look at a label," says Michael Goran, PhD, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. Sugar is rarely listed as an ingredient. Instead it will show up as dextrose, sucrose, maltose, honey, molasses, maple syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate and agave nectar. "When you add them up, sweeteners can total more than any other ingredient in a food," Chicci says. Scan labels carefully, and when choosing foods like juice, yogurt, dried fruit, soy milk and peanut butter, opt for those that have no added sugar.
Pay attention to rank. Manufacturers have to list ingredients by weight; the more of a substance that's in a product, the closer it is to the top of the list. "When the first ingredient is high-fructose corn syrup, for example, you know it contains more of that than anything else," Chicci explains.
Beware of "lightly sweetened" or "low sugar" products. This advice might sound counterintuitive, but "there are no FDA regulations governing the use of those phrases, and their meaning is ambiguous," Chicci says. The product could contain almost as much sugar as the original version does. Instead, look for labels that say a product is "sugar-free" or has "no added sugars."
Don't go all artificial. It seems sensible to use an artificial sweetener in place of sugar. But a new study in the journal Appetite found that using these sweeteners could result in weight gain. Experts believe that they make you hungry because they give you the sweet taste but not the calories, leaving you unsatisfied. Limit your consumption of artificial sweeteners the same way you limit your consumption of sugar.
Sip smarter. Sweetened soda, bottled tea and fancy coffee drinks are basically liquid candy, according to Chicci. Opt for unsweetened versions, or drink water with lemon or lime squeezed into it for flavor.
Train your tongue. Because your taste buds have fallen in love with the taste of sugary foods, you'll need to let them get used to unsweetened stuff. Try a food at least 10 times, suggests Jessica Crandall, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Or eat something unsweetened, like plain yogurt, mixed with the sweetened kind for a week or two to ease into the lower-sugar lifestyle.
Don't skip meals. "Eating regularly will prevent your blood sugar from dropping too low, which can make you crave sugar," Chicci says.
Feast on fruity desserts. Fruit is naturally sweet, has a lot of filling fiber and few calories, and is packed with nutrients. Try strawberries with plain yogurt, fruit salad garnished with mint, or grilled peaches (cut peaches in half, remove pits, brush with canola oil and grill about two to three minutes a side; serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt).
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