1. “The lower, the better” is my motto when it comes to reducing sugar, but it may not be possible to get to “zero” and that’s okay. If you want a number as an upper limit, aim for fewer than 24 grams of sugar (or 6 teaspoons), but this is somewhat arbitrary since I’m simply aiming lower than the lowest recommended amounts (the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization both recommend consuming less than 6 teaspoons of sugar per day.) Since women and men eat an average of 60 and 84 grams of sugar per day respectively, aiming for 24 grams of sugar per day would be a significant improvement, but feel free to go as low as you can!
2. Give it enough time, and it gets easier. You don’t have to completely deprive yourself of added sugar, but notice it adds up quickly and try to keep it as low as possible by slashing it in whatever foods you can. If you slash it low enough and give it enough time (about 3 to 4 weeks), you’ll notice things taste sweeter with less added sugar.
3. You don’t have to do any math. Simply choose whole, real foods whenever possible. Sticking with nutrient-rich real foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, meats, seafood, along with (if you choose) some dairy products, legumes, and whole grains (not necessarily processed products made with them) will naturally steer you away from excess sugar.
4. Read the ingredient list on food labels carefully and don’t rely on your taste buds when choosing packaged foods. Up to 74% of packaged foods contain added sugar, but many don’t taste sweet. That’s why they call it “hidden sugar.” Whenever possible, choose unsweetened versions of foods, for example unsweetened non-dairy milks (almond, coconut, soy, etc.), applesauce, iced tea. For other food products, read the ingredient list on the label for the many names for sugar; start by looking for words like these: sugar, cane syrup, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), dextrose, malodextrin, brown sugar, beet sugar, caramel, agave nectar, glucose, maltose, rice syrup, etc. Here’s a list of the 50+ names for sugar.
5. Look at grams of sugar on The Nutrition Facts Label only if you want to. This number is very difficult to interpret, as is The Nutrition Facts label in general, which is why I first recommend eating real foods, limiting processed, packaged foods and reading the ingredient list before you consider reading this part of the label! Natural sugars and added sugars are both included in this number (although read here for my explanation about how the Nutrition Facts Label will be changing as of 2018 to include added sugars.) I used to find this more frustrating because natural sources of carbohydrates are not easily differentiated from added sugars. However, research is emerging that suggests too much of any type of sugar may be harmful. That is, it is possible to overdo natural sugars (think fruit juice, for example) and exceed recommended limits, which has negative hormonal and inflammatory effects on your body. Because of this, in addition to grams of sugar on the Nutrition Facts label, you have to also look at Total Carbohydrates and fiber to get a more complete idea of how much of the food is broken down into sugar in your body.
6. Don’t be fooled by words like “natural” or “skinny.” These words have no real definition. Even foods that appear to be natural, like fruit juice, dried fruit, and fruited yogurt, still contain a lot of added sugar. Refer to Tip #4! Read the ingredient list.
7. Avoid artificial sweeteners if possible. The science generally supports the safety of artificial sweeteners. But I recommend avoiding them if you can live without them. They are not “real food” and your body appears to be fooled by the sweet taste they provide. Researchers have learned the body expects calories when you eat something sweet, and this may be the reason artificially sweetened foods as associated with weight gain–not loss. It may also be easier to adjust to eating less sugar without them.
8. Add low-sugar flavor to your foods. Try using cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, ginger, unsweetened cocoa powder, or vanilla extract to add to the natural sweetness of lower sugar foods, such as coffee, yogurt or fruit. For savory dishes like meats and vegetables, add other spices, citrus, prepared mustard, garlic chili paste (like sriracha but without sugar) or even salt. Sugar is linked with hypertension, and only some people are salt sensitive, so lowering your intake of sugar even while increasing salt may improve hypertension.
9. Limit refined grains, too–your body handles them much like sugar. Baked goods are a main source of refined grains–cookies, cakes, muffins, bagels, and crackers, for example. It’s a good idea to limit these types of food because the refined grains and sugar they contain adds up. And while they taste good, they are not real food, even when you switch to whole grain versions.