It’s hard to get away from sugar. Sure it’s in your favorite desserts, but it was also hiding in the ketchup and hot dog buns at yesterday’s barbecue as well as in the dressing of the otherwise healthy salad.
In fact, the average American downs about 57 pounds of added sugar every year! That’s concerning, because research shows that consuming too much can up your risk of conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. But sugar provides the fuel your body and brain need to function properly, so we consulted dietitians to better understand what we’re eating and how we can cut back without feeling deprived.
What sugar does in your body
First, a science lesson: Simply put, sugar is a carbohydrate, which means it contains carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. When we eat carbs, they are digested and broken down into glucose, which serves as the preferred energy source for cells throughout the body. If glucose levels in your blood drop too low (say, if you have hypoglycemia or you haven’t eaten anything in a while), that can hinder your brainpower, cause fatigue, and even make you shaky.
There are two main types of sugar. Simple sugars (monosaccharides or disaccharides) are made up of only one or two sugar molecules and found in foods like candy, soda, fruit juice, honey, and table sugar. Complex sugars involve three or more linked sugar molecules and are found in foods like apples, broccoli, lentils, spinach, and unrefined whole grains. The latter are digested and absorbed more slowly, so eating them doesn’t cause sudden blood sugar spikes.
Beyond that, sugar can be categorized as natural or added. The natural kind is just what it sounds like—“sugar found inherently in food such as fresh produce,” says Elizabeth Shaw, M.S., R.D., owner of Shaw Simple Swaps. Consuming good-for-you items like fruits and vegetables that contain natural sugar “can be a wonderful way to obtain many nutrients the body needs, like antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber,” says Shaw.
According to groups like the World Health Organization, naturally occurring sugar poses less of a health risk than added sugars—which are, well, added to foods to enhance flavor, color, texture, and shelf life. Top sources for Americans include sweetened beverages, desserts and sweet snacks, candy, cereal, coffee, tea, and sandwiches, but sugar is also added to foods like ketchup and marinara sauce. High-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, and rice syrup are common names for sugar on nutrition labels.
This is also where things get tricky: Sugar sources like honey and maple syrup technically come from nature and are considered better choices than cane sugar, but when they act as sweeteners in packaged products or you mix some into your morning oatmeal, that’s adding it, so it counts toward your daily added- sugar consumption.
“Research has shown that consistently high intakes of added sugars reduce the proportion of beneficial bacteria in the gut while decreasing the diversity of gut bacteria,” says Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., owner of Maya Feller Nutrition. Also, when you regularly provide your body with excess sugar, it struggles to keep up, and you could end up with too much in your bloodstream. “In the case of elevated blood sugars, the body is under consistent stress,” explains Feller. “This can negatively impact the heart, eyes, and vascular system—increasing the risk of developing additional metabolic conditions.”
Added sugar in moderation is fine, but most people consume much more than they realize. American adults eat an average of more than 70 g of added sugar per day, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend limiting added sugar to 10% of total daily calories. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s 50 g. The American Heart Association recommends stricter limits: for women, no more than 25 g of added sugar per day, and for men, a maximum of 36 g daily.
The science behind why we crave sweets
Because our bodies need glucose, we’re evolutionarily programmed to seek it out. “When sugar hits our tongue, it activates certain taste buds that send a signal up to the brain,” says Nicole Avena, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and author of Why Diets Fail: Because You’re Addicted to Sugar. This activates the brain’s reward system: Feel-good dopamine is released and the behavior is reinforced, which makes us want to repeat it (just one more cookie!).
Sugar isn’t the only dopamine- producing food, but it’s unique in terms of how the body reacts to it. “Usually when we eat something new and tasty, dopamine is released the first time we taste it,” explains Avena. “This is an evolutionary advantage to help us pay attention to new tastes, in case they make us sick. If we eat something new and don’t get sick, typically the dopamine response goes away the next time. With sugar, it’s more like what happens with a drug of abuse, where dopamine is released every time it’s consumed.”
The gut-brain connection is also at work. “When that sweet thing you’ve eaten hits your gut,” Avena says, “it activates sugar receptors there, which signal the brain to release insulin.” That insulin signals fat cells to store extra glucose, fatty acids, and other calorie-rich substances. As a result, too few calories remain in the bloodstream, so the brain thinks it’s low on fuel, your hunger level rises, and sugar is appealing because it provides quick energy. Thus the cycle begins again.
How to stop sugar cravings
“Your brain can readapt when you cut back on sugar, and you won’t crave it as much,” says Avena. “However, it can take a while, even months, for this to happen, depending on the severity of dependence on sugar one has.” Use these nutritionist-backed tips to break the cycle.
Listen to your body
“Just because you have a craving for something sweet, that doesn’t mean you have to eat sugar,” writes Michele Promaulayko in her book Sugar Free 3. Take a minute to notice what’s going on in your body and address the root cause of your discomfort. Do you have a headache? Are you stressed out? Do you feel physical hunger? Are you bored? Do you need an energy boost? Or do you really want a sweet treat? If that’s what you need, go ahead, be present with it, and mindfully enjoy every bite.
Keep a food log
It sounds tedious, but it will really help you see the bigger picture of your diet. “Keep a sugar log for a week to figure out where your sugar is coming from,” says DJ Blatner, R.D.N., author of The Superfood Swap. You may not realize how much sweetened salad dressing you’re eating until you write it down.
“My motto with all my clients is ‘Small changes lead to big differences,’ ” says Shaw. Try to tackle one area that’s a significant contributor to your daily intake of added sugar. “If this is soda or juice, decrease your portions gradually instead of cutting it out cold turkey,” she adds. (For ideas on replacing common culprits, see the box on the next page.)
Pay attention to patterns
If you notice that a sugar craving hits you at 3 p.m. daily without fail, that’s a good sign that you should add a protein-filled afternoon snack to power you through the day, says Promaulayko. This will not only make you feel better, but also set you up for fewer nighttime cravings. Try prepping a non-sweet snack, like hard-boiled eggs, at the start of the week so you’ll have something handy to head off trips to the pantry or vending machine.
Balance your meals
Make sure every meal you eat contains protein, veggies and/or other healthy carbs, and healthy fats. This will keep you full and stabilize your blood sugar. Smart breakfast options: a vegetable frittata, avocado on whole-wheat toast, cottage cheese with berries, a protein- rich smoothie, or even dinner leftovers.
Pinpoint favorite recipes
Figure out low-sugar dishes you love that make you feel satisfied, not deprived. Pick two go-to breakfasts, two go-to lunches, and two go-to dinners, and keep the ingredients on hand so you can stay consistent even in a pinch.
While it helps to have delicious staples, being curious in the kitchen can provide a fun outlet and get you started on healthier eating habits. Explore new recipes and eat produce you’ve never tried before. “Focus on what you’re adding to— not subtracting from—your diet,” says Blatner. “Enjoy the process of finding naturally sweetened or no-sugar swaps.”
Shut down sugar pushers
Yeah, your mom may try to get you to eat dessert, or your friends might roll their eyes when you turn down an extravagant cocktail. Tell friends, family, coworkers, and your significant other what you’re trying to accomplish and ask for their encouragement. You may even inspire them to make positive changes of their own.
Look beyond your diet
Healthy habits that extend past meals (such as sleeping seven to eight hours every night, drinking plenty of water, and getting at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity) can give you the steady energy you need to get through the day without depending on foods and drinks full of added sugar, says Blatner.
The evolutionary drive to nourish your body is strong, so don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling to cut back on sugar—and know that completely eliminating it from your diet isn’t worth it. “Because humans enjoy sweets, it’s difficult to cut them out entirely, and doing so can lead to feelings of deprivation, which might lead a person to go overboard when they finally have it,” says Marisa Moore, R.D.N., L.D., a culinary and integrative dietitian. Skip the guilt and shame and do what Moore recommends: Give yourself some grace.
Try sweet swaps
When you still crave a sugar bomb, here’s what to try instead:
- Soda: Sip unsweetened fruit teas or add fresh fruit, ginger, or herbs to H2O.
- Sweetened coffee and tea: Stir in vanilla, cinnamon, coconut collagen, or cocoa powder for a flavor kick.
- Desserts: Cover dates with cocoa powder, dip berries in dark chocolate, make ice cream with frozen bananas, or grill peaches or plums.
- Sugary toppings: Use chia jam, mashed fruit, sweet spices like nutmeg, or chopped unsweetened dried fruit.
- Cereal: Bake no-sugar granola, keep homemade protein pancakes in the freezer, or mix sliced dates, ripe banana slices, or stewed apples into oatmeal.
- Flavored yogurt: Blend frozen berries into plain versions.
- Candy: Opt for dark chocolate, which is high in helpful flavanols.
The FDA recently updated the nutrition facts label on foods and beverages. Now, both total sugars and added sugars are listed. “Total sugars” includes both added and natural sugars, whereas the “added sugars” value underneath that indicates the amount of sugar that has been added to the product. And remember that ingredient lists are ordered by weight, so if an added sugar is a product’s first ingredient, the item’s nutritional value is likely to be poor.
A version of this article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of Prevention. Additional reporting by Lisa Bain, Alyssa Jung, and Stefani Stassos.
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