The first thing to know: Added sugars, of one kind or another, are almost everywhere in the modern diet. They’re in sandwich bread, chicken stock, pickles, salad dressing, crackers, yogurt and cereal, as well as in the obvious foods and drinks, like soda and desserts.
The biggest problem with added sweeteners is that they make it easy to overeat. They’re tasty and highly caloric but they often don’t make you feel full. Instead, they can trick you into wanting even more food. Because we’re surrounded by added sweeteners — in our kitchens, in restaurants, at schools and offices — most of us will eat too much of them unless we consciously set out to do otherwise.
How Did We Get Here?
It’s not an accident. The sugar industry has conducted an aggressive, decades-long campaign to blame the obesity epidemic on fats, not sugars. Fats, after all, seem as if they should cause obesity. Thanks partly to that campaign, sugar consumption soared in the United States even as people were trying to lose weight. But research increasingly indicates that an overabundance of simple carbohydrates, and sugar in particular, is the No. 1 problem in modern diets. Sugar is the driving force behind the diabetes and obesity epidemics. Fortunately, more people are realizing the harms of sugar and cutting back.
What to Cut
Health experts recommend that you focus on reducing added sweeteners — like granulated sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, stevia and molasses. You don’t need to worry so much about the sugars that are a natural part of fruit, vegetables and dairy products. Most people don’t overeat naturally occurring sugars, as Marion Nestle of New York University says. The fiber, vitamins and minerals that surround them fill you up.
A typical adult should not eat more than 50 grams (or about 12 teaspoons) of added sugars per day, and closer to 25 is healthier. The average American would need to reduce added-sweetener consumption by about 40 percent to get down to even the 50-gram threshold. Here’s how you can do it — without spending more money on food than you already do.
Changing your diet is hard. If your strategy involves thinking about sugar all the time — whenever you’re shopping or eating — you’ll likely fail. You’ll also be miserable in the process. It’s much more effective to come up with a few simple rules and habits that then become second nature. (One strategy to consider: Eliminate all added sugars for one month, and then add back only the ones you miss. It’s easier than it sounds.)
Above all, most people’s goal should be to find a few simple, lasting ways to cut back on sugar. Once you’re done reading this guide, we suggest you choose two or three of our ideas and try them for a few weeks.
Eliminate soda from your regular diet. Just get rid of it. If you must, drink diet soda. Ideally, though, you should get rid of diet soda, too.
That may sound extreme, but sweetened beverages are by far the biggest source of added sugar in the American diet — 47 percent, according to the federal government. Soda — along with sweetened sports drinks, energy drinks and iced teas — is essentially flavored, liquefied sugar that pumps calories into your body without filling you up. Among all foods and beverages, says Kelly Brownell, an obesity expert and dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, “the science is most robust and most convincing on the link between soft drinks and negative health outcomes.”
Get this: A single 16-ounce bottle of Coke has 52 grams of sugar. That’s more added sugar than most adults should consume in an entire day.
As for diet soda, researchers aren’t yet sure whether they’re damaging or harmless. Some scientists think diet soda is perfectly fine. Others, like the Yale cardiologist Dr. Harlan Krumholz, think it may be damaging. Dr. Krumholz recently announced that after years of pounding diet sodas, he was giving them up. There is reason to believe, he wrote, that the artificial sweeteners they contain lead to “weight gain and metabolic abnormalities.”
The Soda Alternative
Many people who think they’re addicted to soda are attracted to either the caffeine or the carbonation in the drink. You can get caffeine from coffee and tea (lightly sweetened or unsweetened), and you can get carbonation from seltzer, flavored or otherwise.
For many people, the shift to seltzer, club soda or sparkling water is life changing. It turns hydration into a small treat that’s still calorie-free. Buy yourself a seltzer maker, as I have, and gorge on the stuff at home, while saving money. Or buy fizzy water in cans or bottles. Sales of carbonated water have more than doubled since 2010, with the brand LaCroix now offering more than 20 different flavors, all without added sugar.
If they’re not sweet enough for you, you can also add a dash of juice to plain seltzer. But many people find that they lose their taste for soda after giving it up. And many Americans are giving it up: Since the late 1990s, sales of full-calorie soda have fallen more than 25 percent.
There are two main strategies to ensure that breakfast doesn’t become a morning dessert. The first is for people who can’t imagine moving away from a grain-based breakfast, like cereal or toast. If you fall into this category, you have to be quite careful, because processed grains are often packed with sugar.
A few grain-based breakfasts with no or very low sugar:
- Cheerios. They’re quite low in sugar.
- Plain oatmeal. Flavor it with fresh fruit and, if necessary, a small sprinkling of brown sugar.
- Bread. A few breads have no sugar (like Ezekiel 4:9 Whole Grain). A longer list of brands have only one gram, or less, per slice (including Sara Lee Whole Wheat and Nature’s Own Whole Wheat). Authentic Middle Eastern breads, like pita and lavash, are particularly good options and a growing number of supermarkets sell them.
- Homemade granola. You can also make your own granola and play around with the sugar amounts.
But there is also a more creative alternative. Move away from grain-based breakfasts. If you do that (as I have recently, after decades of eating cereal), avoiding added sugar is easy. My new breakfast routine actually feels more indulgent than my old one. Most days, I eat three or four of the following:
- Scrambled or fried eggs
- Plain yogurt
- A small piece of toast
- A few nuts
- A small portion of well-spiced vegetables, like spinach, carrots and sweet potatoes.
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