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Amongst the wide variety of opinions out there, there are certain tenants of healthy nutrition that span across most dietary approaches. Many of us know that its best to eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, consume enough fiber, and limit fried foods and trans fat. But perhaps the most well-known strategy to improving health and nutrition habits is reduction of sugar intake.

Although we all know we need to be eating less sugar, on a population scale, we’re failing:

A couple hundred years ago, we consumed four cups of sugar per year. Now, on average, Americans consume six cups per week, totaling 312 cups per year.

For context, we want to be aiming for less than 6 teaspoons per day for women and less than 9 teaspoons per day for men. That’s just under one cup per week for women and about one and a quarter cups per week for men.

It’s no wonder that there is a widespread struggle with metabolic issues, chronic health conditions, and growing waistlines. It’s clear that we need some practical, simple ways to eat less sugar.

Sugar Consumption is a Big Deal

Both the chronic pain and the financial cost linked to preventable metabolic issues in this country is massive. There’s a significant link between several conditions and sugar consumption, including:

Excess body fat and inflammation Heart health concerns, including cholesterol, triglycerides, and vascular issues Depression and mood disorders Erectile dysfunction Gout
Pre-diabetes and diabetes High blood pressure Certain cancers Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, or fatty liver Acne

Where Sugar is Hiding

If you’ve never intentionally scrubbed food labels to spot sugar and purposefully reduce your intake, chances are it’s too high. This is largely due to how insidious and widespread sugar is in our food supply.

If you’re looking at an ingredient list, sugar can show up under several guises. While this list is not exhaustive, it’s a good starting point to use:

Common Names for Added Sugars
Cane Sugar​

Coconut sugar​

Coconut palm sugar ​

Fructose​

Dextrose​

Maltose​

Sucrose​

Fruit juice concentrate​

Fruit juice solids​

Apple juice concentrate​

Honey​

Molasses

Brown rice syrup​

Corn syrup​

High-fructose corn syrup​

Corn syrup solids​

Maple syrup​

Raw sugar​

Invert sugar​

Barley malt​

Fruit nectar​

Malt syrup​

Agave​

Evaporated sweetener

“But I don’t eat a lot of sugar”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked about nutrition with someone who genuinely believed their sugar consumption was low, only for us to dig deeper and discover that they have been duped.

Our food supply is brimming with added sugars. It’s obvious when it’s concentrated in soft drinks, muffins, scones, donuts, cookies, and other sweet items. However, the sneakiest sources are those hidden in savory foods or under a faux health food halo.

In my experience, here are some foods with added sugars that tend to be most surprising:

  • Granola bars, nut bars, or energy bars. While convenient, most of them have either a sweetened fruit filling or a sticky syrup holding them together.
  • Trail mix. A lot of people rely on this as a so-called healthy snack for the nuts and seeds, but the mixes often also contain dried fruit, sugary-coated yogurt pieces, or candy-coated chocolates.
  • Vanilla yogurt. While almost all flavored and fruited yogurt sneaks in a surge of sugar, I call out vanilla on purpose because it seems to be the most surprising to clients. It’s just as full of sugar as it’s fruit-flavored counterparts.
  • Protein balls. This one is tricky! I love a good protein ball recipe and recommend them frequently for clients. But if you’re not careful, many of them use too much honey or maple syrup (instead of nut butter) to hold them together.
  • Savory crackers or breads. If you scan the ingredient list, chances are you’ll see sugar in a snack or grain product that otherwise tastes salty or savory.
  • Coffee drinks, including bottled, canned, and from a coffee shop. Most of the to-go lattes and shots of caffeine that are quick to grab are highly sweetened. I’ve noticed that even plain cold brew (both store-bought and from the local coffee shop) is often “lightly” sweetened.
  • Nut butters and hazelnut spread. Although options like peanut butter or chocolate hazelnut spread are beloved by many, a lot of products contain more sugar than healthy fat.
  • Dairy-free alternatives. The expansion of milk and yogurt made from almond, coconut, and rice have been a lifesaver for those who are avoiding dairy. But unless you’re looking for a product that is unsweetened, even the plain versions pack in a lot of sugar.
  • Marinades, sauces, and dressings. These can be a culprit both at home and with takeout. Sweet-and-sour sauce, spicy-sweet chili sauce, barbecue, and honey-garlic flavors are frequent offenders, along with salad dressing such as honey mustard or raspberry vinaigrette.
  • 100 percent fruit juice. While it’s well-known that juice is sweet, health messaging sometimes erroneously suggests that drinking fruit juice is just as healthy as eating a whole piece of fruit. It isn’t.

Reducing Your Intake

If you’re ready to make changes to your sugar consumption, here’s a quick how-to guide:

Step No. 1: Prevent cravings.

Sugar intake is a lot easier to moderate when you don’t have the urge to consume it in the first place. When we focus on what to do, it tends to nudge out the things we’re trying to limit without leaving us feeling deprived. Here’s how:

  • Hydrate with water. It’s easy to mistake thirst for a sugar craving. Aim for half of your goal body weight in ounces of water daily.
  • Balance your blood sugar. Plan your meals around quality meat, fish, or eggs, fibrous vegetables, and fat for flavor. Cravings often result from a spike — and subsequent crash — of blood sugar from meals that are rich in carbs and lacking in protein and fat.
  • Reinvent your snacks. Most snacks, such as chips, crackers, or granola bars send you on a blood sugar roller coaster. Try olives, avocado, nuts, plain Greek yogurt, boiled eggs, or cheese instead.
  • When you’re under-slept, appetite-regulating hormones shift unfavorably and trigger cravings. Stop the late-night TV and social media scrolling and simply go to bed.
  • Replete nutrients. Deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals can cause cravings. Be sure you’re on a high-quality multivitamin and sufficient in key minerals like magnesium.

Step No. 2: Evaluate your current intake, then stop it or swap it.

You can’t change what you don’t measure, so it’s helpful to determine the top culprits of your personal sugar intake.

For one entire week, check your labels guilt-free. Look at everything from soup cans and deli meat to gravy, sauces, nut butters, breads, and snack foods. (Note that every 4 grams of sugar on a label is equivalent to approximately 1 teaspoon.)

Once you have a better idea of your personal top sources of sugar, plan to either drop that food completely or swap it with a heathier alternative.

Here are some specific examples to steer you in a healthier direction:

Instead of this
Try this
Ketchup Hot sauce or mustard
Barbecue wings or ribs Dry rub wings or ribs
Raspberry vinaigrette Homemade dressing made with olive oil, red wine vinegar, and Italian spices
Regular soft drinks Flavored water or the occasional stevia-sweetened soft drink
Flavored yogurt Plain yogurt with protein powder or berries, cinnamon, and vanilla extract stirred in
Chocolate hazelnut spread Nut butter that contains only nuts and salt in the ingredients. Or for sweetness, try almond butter with cinnamon and a few drops of liquid stevia mixed in.
Fruit and nut mix Dry roasted nuts and seeds or a spicy nut mix
Sweetened latte Hot tea, a plain latte, or blended coffee
Pancakes and syrup Protein pancakes topped with cinnamon or nut butter
Table sugar Granulated natural sweeteners such as stevia, monk fruit, erythritol, or allulose

Step No. 3: If it’s a sugar source you aren’t ready to eliminate, reduce the serving size or frequency.

While eliminating added sugar completely would be a commendable goal, it might be easier said than done for certain habits.

For example, one of my clients has a weekend tradition with her two young sons that involves getting a dozen donuts from a local shop to bring back home to the family as a Sunday morning breakfast. Instead of foregoing the tradition completely, it might be more realistic to purchase fewer donuts (for each person to only have one) and serve them up alongside a protein-rich breakfast, such as a veggie and cheese omelet.

This approach will not only have more staying power, but will naturally portion-control the donut intake and get rid of any leftovers that might be tempting come Monday morning.

Step No. 4: Drop the guilt and mindfully choose your indulgences.

Most of our sugar intake is mindless. But if there’s a certain item that has added sugar and has genuine meaning or nostalgia to you, plan for it. Think of it this way: Leftover breakroom muffins are unlikely to have the same meaning to you as Grandma’s secret family pecan pie recipe at Thanksgiving.

If you have a regular forethought of “Is this indulgence meaningful?” it can help you prioritize when to enjoy the food and when to consider waiving it completely. And if it’s planned for, you can be extra mindful of both workout consistency and reducing other sources of sugar around the times you plan to meaningfully indulge.

When you’re armed with pragmatic strategies, the goal of eating less sugar becomes more realistic. Use the tips outlined above to give yourself a step-by-step approach to reel in sugar consumption and start transforming your health.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Training Facebook group.

samantha-mckinney-life-time-training-registered-dietician
Samantha McKinney, RD, CPT

Samantha McKinney has been a dietitian, trainer and coach for over 10 years. At first, her interests and experience were in a highly clinical setting in the medical field, which ended up laying a strong foundation for understanding metabolism as her true passion evolved: wellness and prevention. She hasn’t looked back since and has had the honor of supporting Life Time’s members and nutrition programs in various roles since 2011.

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