What if you could play a computer game to train your brain to resist sugar cravings? Sounds like the stuff of sci-fi novels, but researchers at Drexel University are working on it. In fact, their first (admittedly small) test of such a game was pretty successful at getting participants to eat less sugar, according to their findings published in the March 2019 issue of the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
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And that's certainly a step in the right direction, because not only can sugar contribute to heart disease just like saturated fat, according to a 2016 review published in JAMA Internal Medicine. But until that computer game is widely available (fingers crossed for sooner rather than later!), here are some expert-approved tips to reduce the amount of added sugar you consume.
First, How Much Sugar Is Too Much?
"We're all eating too much sugar," says Laura Schmidt, a professor of health policy at the University of California at San Francisco's School of Medicine. "Kids especially are consuming disproportionately more than adults."
Schmidt says this overconsumption of sugar is a major health concern, and that Americans need to collectively cut way back. But over the past few decades, Americans have only increased their sugar intake.
On average, they now get more than 13 percent of their daily calories (about 270 calories) from these sugars. That's higher than the U.S. dietary guidelines, which urge Americans to eat no more than 10 percent of their calories a day from added sugar.
For an average 2,000-calorie diet, that works out to 200 calories tops. You can reach that pretty quickly, considering a 12-ounce can of soda has around 130 calories, or eight teaspoons, of sugar.
The American Heart Association (AHA) is even stricter, recommending a max of six teaspoons of added sugar a day for women (about 100 calories) and nine teaspoons for men (about 150 calories).
Read more: 15 Reasons to Kick Sugar
How to Reduce Added Sugars in Your Diet
Limiting your sugar intake when sugar is everywhere is hard! And it's not the naturally occurring sugars in whole foods (like fruit and milk) that you should avoid but the ones processed into foods or the sugar you add yourself (like into your morning cup of coffee). Whether you ease into it or go cold turkey, you can cut back. Here are five easy ways to get started.
1. Meal Prep Like a Pro
"The best way to reduce or cut sugar from your diet is to get yourself into the kitchen and prepare your own food," says Diane Sanfilippo, a certified nutrition consultant and author of Practical Paleo.
But you don't have to cook it all from scratch, she says. Start with a few clean ingredients (always read the labels for added sugars or preservatives) like a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken, some pre-cut vegetables and sweet potatoes to put together meals to bring to work.
Or try some of these other great ideas:
- Cook some hard-boiled eggs for grab-and-go breakfasts or snacks.
- Pass on pre-sweetened foods like flavored yogurts and eat the plain version with fresh fruit instead.
- For extra flavor, experiment with spices and extracts instead of using sugar.
The key is to choose whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole gains and fish, whenever possible when preparing meals instead of the processed or pre-prepared stuff. These foods are higher in nutrients and will make the most of your calories, as well as minimize the added sugars you're eating.
Having these less sugary options on hand can also help you deal with sugar cravings. "The hardest part about reducing or cutting sugar from your diet will be the urges and cravings that are bound to hit within the first week to 10 days," says Sanfilippo. "Have food prepared and ready to go to eat, and you're way ahead of the game."
2. Kick Your Soda Habit
It's no secret that the main source of added sugars in the American diet is from soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages like sports and energy drinks and fruit juices.
"Sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages make up 36 percent of our added sugar intake," says Schmidt. "If we can get Americans to stop their consumption of sugary beverages, they'd be pretty close to dietary recommendations for sugar. These beverages have little to no nutritional value and there's some evidence that they leave you still hungry."
She says that while there's been a decline in sugary beverage consumption, people still drink too much of it. On any given day, half of the people in the U.S. consume sugary drinks — 25 percent consume at least 200 calories from these drinks and 5 percent drink at least 567 calories.
Instead, Schmidt recommends drinking unsweetened soda water with fresh fruit, cucumbers or something else with flavor. If you're craving something sweeter, start with half 100-percent fruit juice and half soda water and gradually decrease the amount of juice over time and up the amount of water until you're just using the juice to spike the water. You can do the same with soda if you're finding it really hard to kick the habit.
Read more: 10 Easy Drink Swaps to Cut Down on Sugar
3. Shop Strategically
Another strategy is to start buying products with less added sugar. A 2012 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that a whopping 75 percent of packaged foods in the supermarket had sugar added, in everything from cakes and cookies to granola bars and yogurt.
But finding out just how much added sugar is in a product isn't always easy. Currently the "sugars" line on a product's nutrition facts panel only lists total sugars, which can include both added sugar and the naturally occurring kind.
"Examine not just the nutrition facts panel to assess how many grams of sugar, but read the ingredient list for words aligned with sugar too," says Allison Stowell, a registered dietitian.
There are tons of different names for sugar, though. Here are a few to watch out for:
ending in "ose," such as dextrose and sucrose
- High fructose corn syrup
- Brown sugar
- Fruit juice concentrates
- Maple syrup
Ingredients are listed in order of how much is in the product, so if sugar's near the top or several sugars appear on the label, that's a red flag. The good news is the Food and Drug Administration now requires nutrition facts label to list "added sugars."
4. Eliminate Temptation
Help yourself as you're trying to cut back on the sweet stuff by removing sugary temptations from sight. "The number one thing is to get those sugary foods out of your environment; get it out of your home," says Schmidt.
That means clearing your cupboards and pantry of these foods and trying not to buy any more of them. The harder it is to access those junky foods if a craving hits, the less likely you are to eat them.
Instead, Schmidt recommends making an event of eating sugary foods, rather than it being the norm. Craving ice cream? Go to the ice cream shop instead of keeping a gallon in your freezer. That way, you're less likely to go back for seconds (or thirds).
The same goes at work. Do you reach for a soda when you hit an afternoon lull? Make sure there aren't any in the work fridge and have another healthier beverage around instead. You can also use the opportunity to help reduce your friend's and co-workers' sugar intake, too (just be sure not to become the bossy sugar police).
"Office birthdays, dinner out with friends and weekend parties are all breeding grounds for the pressures that come when food is around," says Sanfilippo. "We should be creating more environments where we celebrate and enjoy social time together around healthy foods."
5. Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
As you start minimizing sugar, you may be tempted to swap in more artificial sweeteners, like those found in diet soda and sugar-free candy. It's true that these sweeteners can help ease the process, and the AHA says you can try them in moderation, but some caution against their use as a sugar-cutting strategy.
"While we believe artificial sweeteners to be safe, and they do benefit individuals who are cutting back on sugar to reduce their calorie intake, I don't recommend using them to wean off sugar because they perpetuate the craving for sweet that these individuals are trying to overcome," says Stowell.
Schmidt also warns that these sweeteners could have similar detrimental effects as sugar. "There's growing evidence that the three main sweeteners (saccharin, surculose and aspartame) are linked to weight gain and glucose intolerance, which is related to a rise in insulin and type 2 diabetes," she says.
Instead, ease into cutting back your sugar intake. If you currently use two packets of sugar in your coffee, for instance, scale back over a few weeks to 1.5, then one, and then nothing.
Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Natural Sweeteners