Sugar is delicious, obviously.
But you probably know that it’s smart to limit the amount of sugar you eat.
The average American eats about 82 grams of added sugar a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s more than three times the amount that experts suggest for women and children, and more than twice what they recommend for men. We’re talking roughly 19.5 teaspoons of sugar, when you shouldn’t be eating more than about six to nine teaspoons.
Because while sugar tastes great, it can also make you feel pretty crummy.
Not to mention: It’s terrible for your health. Eating too much sugar has been linked to metabolic syndrome, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, and even premature aging.
So if you’re trying to limit your sugar intake, here are 14 tips that might help:
1. Know how much is too much.
Women should eat no more than about 25 grams of added sugar per day (that’s roughly six teaspoons, or 100 calories).
Men should eat no more than about 38 grams of added sugar per day (about nine teaspoons, or 150 calories).
That’s according to the American Heart Association. Keep those numbers in mind, because your goal is going to be to end up underneath them as much as is possible.
2. Mentally prepare yourself.
“Just prepare yourself that this is going to be a little bit of a challenge at first,” Erica Giovinazzo, MS, RD, told BuzzFeed Life. “We’ve created these habits over years, and it’s hard to break them — and it’s especially hard with something like sugar, which can be almost like an addiction for some people.”
The good news is that you can train your body to stop craving sugar. It just won’t be easy at first, Giovinazzo says, and it’ll require some willpower and determination. But it will get easier with practice.
3. Keep a food diary for a few days before you start.
“Write down everything you eat for three days,” Giovinazzo says. “And make them three real days, not three days where you’re eating as ideally as possible.” She says this will help you pinpoint your biggest sources of sugar on a daily basis, and get you to start thinking about ways you might make substitutions.
4. Learn the difference between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar.
To help us out with this one, BuzzFeed Life reached out to Kimber Stanhope, PhD, RD, an associate research nutritional biologist for the University of California Davis department of molecular biosciences. Stanhope does research on the effect sugar consumption has on the body.
Here’s what you should know: Some sugar occurs naturally, like in fruits, veggies, and dairy products. But when it comes to your health, the sugar you should be most concerned with is the sugar added to products as an extra ingredient, Stanhope says.
There isn’t enough naturally occurring sugar in dairy and veggies for it to be a concern for most healthy people. And while fruits can have a high amount of fructose (an especially problematic type of sugar), you’d need to eat an enormous amount of fruit to hit dangerous sugar levels, Stanhope says.
Plus, fruits also contain bioactives, like antioxidants, that may potentially offset the negative effects of sugar. And the fiber in fruit slows down the process of digestion. That helps keep your liver from getting overloaded with more fructose than it can use. The longer it takes to reach your liver, the more likely the fructose will be used for helpful things, Stanhope says, like fueling your muscles or brain, rather than turned into fat and sent into the bloodstream or stored in the liver (both markers of bad things — heart disease and diabetes, respectively).
Got that? Natural sugar = basically OK in moderation. Added sugar = the bigger problem.
5. Read nutrition labels and ingredient lists so that you can identify how much added sugar a product has.
Yes, boring. But also incredibly important if your goal is to cut sugar. Beyond the obvious culprits — cookies, cakes, cupcakes — sugar is also in the vast majority of all of our packaged foods. In a review of over 85,000 packaged food products from 2005 through 2009, researchers found that 74% of those products contained sweeteners.
Some surprising major offenders include pasta sauce, salad dressing, low-fat yogurts, and protein bars, to name a few.
A quick note about the problem with nutrition labels:
For now, they don’t distinguish between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar, Stanhope says.
Take a Dannon low-fat Greek yogurt with strawberries, for instance. The nutrition label says it has 19 grams of sugar, but there’s no way to tell how much of that comes from the naturally occurring sugars in the milk and the strawberries, and how much comes from added sugar meant to make it taste sweeter.
One way to tell if a product has added sugar is to look at the ingredients list. Naturally occurring sugars aren’t listed at all, but anything added will be. So if you see any words that indicate sugar, you know the product has added sugars in it and you might want to find an alternative, or limit the amount of it you’re eating.
In the case of the Dannon, sugar and fructose are both listed as ingredients — so you can safely guess that a good portion of those 19 grams of sugar are added.
6. There are 56 different names for added sugar you might see on a list of ingredients. Get to know them:
On packaged foods, ingredients are listed in order from greatest amounts to least, so the closer to the front of the list any variation of sugar is… the more of it there is.
Also look out for numerous types of sugar listed. That’s another indication that the product contains a lot of added sugars.
Graphic from 56 Different Names for Sugar, courtesy Women’s Health.
7. Watch what you drink.
Sweetened drinks account for 36% of the added sugar that Americans consume, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Sugary drinks include soda, of course. Also many flavored coffee beverages, bottled teas, sports drinks, and energy drinks. Check the label before buying a bottled drink to see how much sugar it has. You may be shocked.
Stick to water, black coffee (or coffee with minimal sugar), unsweetened tea, sparkling water, or milk if you can stomach it. Here are 14 beautiful ways to infuse your water with fruits, also, in case you absolutely cannot stand to go without a hint of sweetness.
8. Limit your juice intake, also.
Even if the juice is 100% fruit juice with no added sugars, the fructose in it will be digested much faster than if you were to eat those sugars in the original fruit form, due to lack of fiber. This leads to a spike in energy and then a crash, which makes you crave sugar again pretty quickly, Giovinazzo says.
9. Snack on foods with fat and protein throughout the day.
Pear slices and almond butter. Plain Greek yogurt with berries. A hard boiled egg. Shrimp cocktail. And so many more delicious options! Eat ‘em.
“Eat every few hours throughout the day,” Giovinazzo says. That keeps you from ever feeling totally famished. “If you wait until you’re starving to eat, then your blood sugar is going to go a little bit low and your cravings are going to go up because you’re so hungry. That’s when people will get a bagel or a muffin because it’s fast and it’s there and they’re hungry and it looks good.” Small healthy snacks in between meals can help you moderate your sugar cravings.
The ideal snack should have some fat or protein, Giovinazzo says. That’s because these macronutrients take longer to digest, which keeps your energy levels stable — no spikes and crashes that you get with carbohydrates, which digest quickly.
Giovinazzo recommends a list of good snacks in a post she wrote on her blog.
10. Don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry.
Don’t make things harder for yourself — when you’re hungry, it’s easier to lose sight of your goals (less sugar!). If you go shopping when you’ve already eaten, though, you’ll be better able to focus on picking healthier food.
11. Stick to the outside edges of the grocery store when you’re shopping.
In other words: Focus on loading up on whole foods as much as possible. Veggies, fruits, protein sources like nuts and meat… essentially, things that have been minimally processed. The less processing, the less added sugar you’ll encounter.
12. Beware of low-fat products.
Fat free may have slightly fewer calories, but in some cases fat-free products can be loaded with sugar to make them taste better, Giovinazzo says. Just check the label to be sure.
13. Get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night.
Research shows that not getting enough sleep makes you crave high-calorie foods — like anything with a ton of sugar in it. Fight your sugar cravings by sleeping soundly. Here are 14 scientific hacks for a better night’s sleep that might help.
14. Eat fruit to satisfy your sugar cravings.
If you’re craving sugar, fruit is a totally healthy way to satisfy that craving, Giovinazzo says. (See above for why the sugar in fruit isn’t something to worry about). One way to make your snack even healthier is to combine it with a healthy fat, she says — so try some apple slices with almond butter, or nuts. This will help the snack take longer to digest and keep you feeling more satisfied for longer.
Want to learn more? A team of health scientists (including Stanhope) from several universities in California collaborated to create the website SugarScience.org, where they have amassed information from over 8,000 scientific papers about the health effects of sugar. They go into great detail about all the ways sugar can make you sick, and it’s definitely worth a read.