If you’re looking to cut back on sugar, several strategies can help.
Developing more healthy eating and drinking habits, learning to spot added sugar on packaging, and swapping out high-sugar foods for low-sugar alternatives can make a big difference.
Having a sweet treat from time to time is perfectly fine. And no foods should be off-limits.
But eating too much sugar can increase your risk of a wide range of health issues, from weight gain and tooth decay to diabetes and heart disease.
Below, we explore how you can reduce your sugar intake. We also look at the benefits of making this change if you’re currently consuming too much sugar.
Plus, we describe what to look for on labels and how to work lower-sugar swaps into your diet.
Most of the issues around eating too much sugar come from foods that contain added or “hidden” sugars — not fruits and vegetables, which contain naturally occurring sugars.
These plants also contain fiber, vitamins, and compounds like polyphenols, making them more nutritious than processed foods, which have added sugars.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that added sugars make up less than 10% of an adult’s daily energy intake.
So, a person who needs 2,000 calories a day should aim to consume no more than 12 teaspoons of added sugar a day, which is around 50 grams.
If that sounds like a lot, it’s worth bearing in mind that a 12-ounce can of regular soda contains 10 tsp of sugar.
In the United Kingdom, the recommendation is for added sugars to make up less than 5% of an adult's daily calories. For a person eating 2,000 calories a day, that’s no more than 6 tsp of added sugar daily.
Many of us eat far more than the recommended amounts. In the United States, adults consume an average of 17 tsp of added sugar a day.
And in the U.K., 31% of adults aged 19–64 are consuming more than the recommended amount.
Plenty of health benefits come with reducing your sugar intake if you’re consuming too much. But cutting back can be a challenge.
Rather than making drastic changes, slowly reducing your intake of sugary foods and drinks over a few weeks is more likely to be manageable and sustainable.
So, with that in mind: Here are six ways to help develop healthy habits.
1. Combining foods
Pairing foods that contain sugar with foods that contain fiber, protein, or healthy fats can make it easier to reduce your sugary food’s portion size. It can also slow the rate at which your body absorbs the sugar.
So, for example, if you were going to have some chocolate cake, you could opt for a smaller slice and have it with some Greek yogurt and strawberries.
Having more control over your blood sugar levels can help prevent pronounced blood sugar responses. So, you’d be less likely to have big blood sugar dips after you eat.
At ZOE, we run the largest nutrition science study in the world. Our research has shown that people who have these big dips are more likely to feel hungrier sooner and eat more food over the course of the day.
Avoiding big dips and feeling less hungry will mean you’re less likely to reach for sugary snacks.
So, while pairing foods won’t prevent the effects of eating too much sugar, it may help you eat fewer sugary foods in the long run.
You can learn more about how your blood sugar levels change when you eat different combinations of foods with our personalized nutrition program. Learn more by taking our free quiz.
2. Prioritize sleep
We also know from our research that blood sugar responses are more pronounced after a poor night’s sleep.
So, taking steps to get a good night’s sleep could make it easier to cut back on the sweet treats. It can also help your body process sugary foods.
3. Reduce sugary cues
It may seem obvious, but keeping sugary foods out of the house makes them easier to avoid.
You can also try replacing sugary foods that you regularly eat with some healthier options — we’ll look at some swaps later on.
4. Be mindful of portion sizes
No foods are off-limits. If you want something sugary, have it. But try having half a portion (and half the sugar).
5. Maintain a healthy relationship with food
Focusing on your hunger cues and avoiding strict goals might change how you look at sugary foods.
These approaches might not work for everyone. But having a greater awareness of your eating habits may give you more control over them.
We form solid habits by repeating the same actions and behaviors. So, try to make slow, steady changes rather than making big ones all at once.
For example, if you drink a couple of sodas every day, try swapping one for an alternative, like sparkling water.
Making changes gradually means that you’re more likely to keep them up and develop a healthy habit.
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What to look out for and cut back on
Sugar has many different names in ingredients lists, including:
high fructose corn syrup
And remember, sugar “alternatives” are still sugar, even when they sound like healthier options. Some include:
maple or agave syrup
coconut or palm sugar
fruit juice concentrate
In the U.S., food labels list “total sugars” — which include the natural sugars in food — and “added sugars.”
Added sugars are put in during processing. This doesn’t include sugars that occur naturally, in fruit and milk, for example.
Another tip: Foods labeled “low fat” may be higher in sugar. This is because many food manufacturers add sugar to make the food taste better.
Sugary drinks are the biggest source of added sugar in the American diet. So, you might consider these first when you're making changes. Some examples include:
Added sugars can also appear in surprising places, like:
store-bought pasta sauce
breakfast cereals and cereal bars
many condiments, like ketchup, BBQ sauce, and applesauce
You can learn more about the food industry and food additives in our podcast on ultra-processed food.
Swaps to reduce your sugar intake
The good news is that there are plenty of swaps you can try when you’re cutting back on added sugar.
|Instead of …||Try …|
|sodas or milkshakes||kombucha, sparkling water infused with fruit, or milk — dairy or unsweetened plant milk|
|toast with jam or chocolate spread||toast with nut butter and sliced fruit|
|cakes, pastries, or cookies||a slice of malt loaf, a fruity tea cake with olive oil-based spread, or plain yogurt topped with fruit|
|adding sugar to desserts, pastries, and porridge||adding cinnamon, nutmeg, or vanilla extract|
|reduced-fat products||full-fat versions|
|candy||dried fruit or a few squares of dark chocolate (containing at least 70% cocoa)|
Are artificial sweeteners a good option?
Our bodies process natural and artificial sweeteners in different ways. But in short, there’s no evidence that artificial sweeteners are healthy for us.
So, the healthiest option is to swap out something sugary for something that isn’t. So, you might replace a sugary soda with sparkling water infused with fruit.
The next realistic option might be swapping a sugary soda for a diet soda with sweeteners, especially if you’re trying to watch your calorie intake.
Still, diet soda shouldn’t be your go-to drink. Plenty of alternatives are more nutritious and tooth-friendly, including fruit teas or plain ol’ water.
We discuss the pros and cons of artificial sweeteners in a ZOE Science & Nutrition podcast episode.
How does eating too much sugar affect the body?
It’s normal for your blood sugar level to rise after you eat — it’s the natural response to eating carbohydrates.
But when your blood sugar level is consistently too high, it can lead to a greater risk of certain health conditions.
For example, consistently high blood sugar levels can damage the walls of your blood vessels.
Over time, this may increase the likelihood of fat and cholesterol buildups, as well as the risk of heart disease.
Eating too much sugar also wears away tooth enamel, leading to decay.
Cravings are intense desires for specific foods. They’re not the same as feeling hungry.
The triggers can vary between people, but some include:
environmental triggers, such as the sight or smell of sugary foods
emotional triggers, such as stress or sadness
biological triggers, such as hormone fluctuations
We offer tips on how to approach these desires in our article on food cravings.
How does reducing sugar intake affect the body?
There are many health benefits to reducing your sugar intake if you’re eating too much. For example, you might:
find it easier to maintain a healthy weight
have a reduced risk of tooth decay
feel more energetic
have a reduced risk of chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease
Cutting back on sugary foods and replacing them with foods rich in fiber, protein, and healthy fats will keep you feeling fuller for longer.
This means you’ll be less likely to want sugary snacks.
Foods higher in fiber, protein, and healthy fats also pack a bigger nutritional punch, which is important for your overall health.
Many of us eat more sugar than we should. And this can affect our health in unfavorable ways.
It’s tempting to think that sugar alternatives, like artificial sweeteners, are healthier, but it’s just not that simple.
Enjoy your favorite sweet treats in moderation, and if you get a sugar craving, consider a sweet swap. Also, keep an eye on food and drink labels — sugar has many cryptic names.
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