While there’s nothing wrong with indulging in a craving for a scoop of ice cream or margarita every so often, too much sugar has negative health effects and can be detrimental to weight loss. The FDA recommends getting no more than 10% of your daily calories from added sugars, and defines them as sugars added during processing or packaging. This includes syrups, honey and concentrated fruit or vegetable juices with more sugar than would be expected from the same volume of 100% fruit or vegetable juice of the same type.
Naturally occurring sugars in things like fruits, vegetables and dairy are much more nutritious than added sugars because they come with important vitamins and nutrients, as well as fiber and protein that slow their digestion and make them a more steady source of energy.
Finding ways to swap added sugar for naturally occurring sugar (or to cut down on sugar altogether) is a good idea for your energy levels and your overall health.
Here are 18 simple ways to get started:
KNOW SUGAR BY ANY NAME
Step one: Head for your pantry and check out the nutrition labels on your favorite foods and drinks. “Sugar can be listed by many names including high fructose corn syrup, cane syrup, caramel, beet sugar, dextrose, fructose, honey, maltodextrin, turbinado and many more,” says Shaw. And sometimes, foods that sound good for you like granola and yogurt with descriptions like “high fiber” or “low fat” use more sugar in order to maintain flavor. Here’s your quick guide to 44 different nicknames for added sugar.
INVESTIGATE YOUR INTAKE
To figure out just how much sugar you’re consuming, keep a food diary with an app like MyFitnessPal to track your intake, says Dr. Caroline Cederquist, an obesity medicine specialist. After one week, take stock of how much you’ll need to cut down on high-sugar foods in order to stay under your daily limit and support your weight-loss goals.
USE FRUIT AND CINNAMON TO SWEETEN BREAKFAST
Packaged cereal, granola and yogurt often contain sneaky amounts of added sugar — and adding honey, maple syrup or another sweetener yourself on top adds up if you’re not careful. Instead, opt for plain yogurt topped with fresh fruit and some nuts. Or make overnight oats with a hefty pinch of cinnamon (which can make things taste sweeter, even though it’s sugar-free) and later stir in chopped fruit and some unsweetened nut butter.
GO SAVORY FOR BREAKFAST
Another way to cut back on sugar at breakfast is to opt for savory foods instead of sweet ones. If you’re used to sitting down to waffles or pancakes, try swapping them for veggie omelets or sweet potato hash a few times a week. If you love the convenience of cereal or grab-and-go breakfast bars, try making baked egg cups at the beginning of the week, then reheating a few for breakfast each day.
READ NUTRITION LABELS CAREFULLY
Search for a store-bought granola with no more than 5 grams of added sugar per serving. KIND Peanut Butter Granola Clusters fit the bill, as does Bear Naked Granola V’nilla Almond. Both are lightly sweet, packed with whole grains and contain healthy fats from nuts.
OPT FOR COLD OR NITRO BREWS
Drinking a daily coffee with a spoonful of sugar is a habit that could easily sabotage your weight-loss goals. Instead, try a high-quality cold brew, or the increasingly popular nitro brews, which have a deeper but less-biting flavor than traditional drip or steeped coffees, making them easier to drink plain or with a splash of milk.
MAKE YOUR OWN COCKTAILS
Pre-mixed drinks like margaritas, daiquiris and fruity sangrias are loaded with added sugar since bartenders often rely on pre-made sour mixes or flavored syrups. If you want to indulge in an alcoholic beverage, try making these lower-sugar versions at home.
CUT BACK ON SUGAR WHEN BAKING
A little added sugar in pies is helpful for bringing out the sweetness of the fruit filling and creating an ideal texture. However, in most cases, you can cut the amount of sugar in your favorite recipes by 1/3, or even by 1/2 — smaller amounts still work well for turning already-sweet fruit into a more indulgent, but healthier, dessert.
BAKE WITH MASHED BANANAS
Ripe, dark brown bananas are packed with naturally occurring sugar, but also deliver important nutrients like potassium, which can help lower blood pressure and reduce your risk of stroke. Many recipes call for mashed banana to be used in place of most of the sugar and some of the added fat, which makes a baked good more nutritious without compromising on texture.
CHOOSE IN-SEASON FRUIT
If you’ve ever eaten a blueberry in January, you know offseason produce isn’t nearly as flavorful as in-season picks — it’s less sweet, more tart and often less colorful. What fruits are in season and for how long depends on where you live, so your best bet is to ask vendors at your local farmers market.
READ MORE > ASK THE RD: IS SUGAR REALLY ADDICTIVE?
SWAP SODA FOR FLAVORED SELTZER
Flavored bubbly water is a great option in lieu of sugar-laden soda, provided you look for ones that don’t have added syrups or sugar. Try a can of La Croix or make your own fancier version by combining plain seltzer with some mashed and sliced fruit.
REACH FOR SKINNY GLASSES
For a very occasional treat, pour juice, sweet tea, or soda into small, narrow glasses, which make it look as if you’re drinking more than you really are, says Cederquist. Then, reserve big and tall glasses for when you want to encourage yourself to drink healthier choices like water, tea and seltzer.
BUY UNSWEETENED CANNED FRUIT
Canned fruit like peaches and orange segments get a bad rap because they’re often packed in sugar syrup. But, there’s nothing inherently wrong with canned fruit, and it can actually be a convenient and budget-friendly way to add more variety to your diet. Just choose fruit canned in water with no-added sugar.
SKIP HIGH-SUGAR CONDIMENTS
Ketchup and barbecue sauce are certainly tasty, but they’re often packed with added sugar. While some brands now sell condiments sweetened with things like date paste or fruit extract, even these “healthier” versions pack a lot of sugar without fiber and other nutrients. Instead, try limiting high-sugar condiments by using flavorings such as mustard, oil-and-vinegar dressing, pesto or even mayonnaise made with olive oil or another unsaturated fat. Some are relatively high in fat, so you don’t want to go overboard — but, healthy fats help you stay full for longer, and can actually increase the number of vitamins your body absorbs with a meal.
SET BOUNDARIES ON SWEETS
If you’ve got high-sugar kryptonite foods like ice cream, cookies and chocolate that you just can’t stop eating once you start, begin to set specific limits for how often and when you enjoy them, says Colleen Tewksbury, PhD, MPH, a registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For instance, reserve a square of chocolate for a treat after dinner each night or save major indulgences for special occasions.
SHRINK PORTION SIZES
“Mindful enjoyment of sweet foods and drinks can fit into a healthy weight management plan, but the key is portion control,” says Cederquist. Instead of buying a big box of cookies or pint of ice cream, opt for single-serving desserts or portion out your own servings into individual bags or containers. This way, you have to consciously decide to open two if you’re craving more — whereas it’s much easier to chow down on a larger portion when you buy in bulk.
SLIM DOWN OUR GROCERY LIST
“It’s easier to say ‘no’ one time in the grocery aisle than 100 times in your kitchen,” says Cederquist. If there are certain foods or drinks portion control doesn’t work with (because you just keep going back for more), consider simply not buying them or keeping them on a higher shelf in your pantry.
GET PLENTY OF SLEEP
Make sure you’re getting adequate sleep each night and not just relying on caffeine to keep you going. There’s mounting evidence that people who get less than the recommended 7–9 hours of sleep per night consume more sugary treats and sugar-sweetened beverages, on average, than those who get adequate sleep. The next time you’re wondering whether to cue up another episode on Netflix or head to bed, opt for the latter.
Originally published August 2018, updated with additional reporting by Lauren Krouse
Discover hundreds of healthy low sugar recipes via “Recipe Discovery” in the MyFitnessPal app.