One of the best things you can do for your health is to cut back on foods with added sugar.
Editors note: This content was published was first published in Jan. 2020, and has been republished into this new format to allow you to move through each task at your own pace.
Here’s the last New Year’s health resolution you might ever need: resolve to stop eating added sugar.
While you might think you’re not eating much sugar, chances are you’re eating a lot more than you realize. Added sugar lurks in nearly 70 percent of packaged foods and is found in breads, health foods, snacks, yogurts, most breakfast foods and sauces. The average American eats about 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day (not counting the sugars that occur naturally in foods like fruit or dairy products). That’s about double the recommended limit for men (nine teaspoons) and triple the limit for women (six teaspoons). For children, the limit should be about three teaspoons of added sugar and no more than six, depending on age and caloric needs.
Cutting added sugar isn’t about dieting and deprivation, and you don’t have to count calories or cut fat. In fact, when you stop eating foods with added sugar, you’ll replace them with foods that taste even better. And yes, you can still have dessert.
Whether you are thin or fat, you can benefit by reducing the sugar in your diet. “It’s not about being obese, it has to do with metabolic health,” says Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, and one of the first to raise the alarm about the health risks of added sugar. (His 90-minute lecture called Sugar: The Bitter Truth has been viewed more than nine million times since 2009.)
“Sugar turns on the aging programs in your body,” Dr. Lustig says. “The more sugar you eat, the faster you age.”
A number of health authorities, ranging from the World Health Organization to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, which issues national dietary guidelines for Americans, agree that cutting back on added sugars is a good idea. And critics like Dr. Lustig believe that the case against sugar is as strong as the case against smoking or excess alcohol. (These recommendations have come under attack by groups with ties to the food industry.)
Yet many of us who wouldn’t dream of smoking or getting drunk on a daily basis might be unknowingly undermining our health by eating too much sugar.
So how do you start reducing the added sugar in your diet? It’s a good idea to cut sugar out of breakfast, which tends to be the sweetest meal of the day. Cutting sugary beverages and eating whole foods rather than packaged foods makes a big dent in your sugar consumption. If you crave dessert, eat fruit instead (skip the grapes, which are mostly sugar), and it’s best to limit other types of dessert to once a week.
And when you read food labels, look for added sugar in disguise. “One should keep in mind that added sugars go by many different names like ‘brown sugar,’ ‘beet sugar,’ ‘agave nectar’ and ‘honey,’” says Dr. Frank Hu, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “But don’t be fooled by these names, because they are all added sugars with similar metabolic effects and extra calories.”
Cutting added sugar isn’t easy. During the first five days of no added sugar, you will probably experience cravings for sweets. And be warned that studies show that many of us are particularly vulnerable to craving sugary snacks in the evening.
But stick with it, and soon the cravings will fade. You’ll start to feel more energetic, more focused and less irritable. You might even lose weight.
The goal is to change your diet and stick with your new habits for a lifetime of healthful eating. After just 10 days of cutting added sugar, one important study of overweight children has shown improvements in numerous metabolic markers, including blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.
Note that cutting added sugar doesn’t mean you’ll be eliminating sweet foods from your life entirely. If you adopt a standard daily diet of whole foods with no added sugar, you will still be ingesting about 10 percent of your calories from natural sugars. And once you’ve got added sugar under control, the occasional treat of chocolate or dessert won’t derail you. Dr. Lustig recommends three weeks of no added sugar to get your brain’s dopamine system back to normal.
“Then you can introduce something back in,” Dr. Lustig says. “But it’s got to be under your control, not the food industry’s control.”
A No-Sugar Morning
Real Food vs. Packaged Food
Stop Drinking Your Flavors
Spice It Up
Sweeten Your Vegetables
A Chocolate Reward
For your first challenge, I want you to eat a no-sugar and no-grain breakfast. If you’ve already had breakfast, plan for tomorrow’s breakfast right now.
We’re starting with breakfast because it’s typically the sweetest meal of the day. Many grain-based breakfast foods are packed with added sugar — even plain toast can contain as much extra sugar as a small candy bar or lollipop. A no-sugar morning might sound tough if you’ve grown accustomed to eating cereals, granola bars, muffins, pastries and sweet fruit yogurts. But to truly kick the added-sugar habit, you need to take the sweet and the grains out of your first meal of the day. (Even many whole grain breakfast foods have added sugar so it’s a good idea to start your no-sugar challenge by cutting all grains from your breakfast and learning to eat non-grain based foods. But if you are 100 percent sure your whole grain breakfast (like whole, unprocessed oats) doesn’t have added sugar, it’s fine to keep eating it.)
To kick the sugar and grain habit at breakfast, go for high-protein or plant-based breakfast foods.
Eggs (scrambled, fried or boiled — or a frittata with vegetables)
Berries and a handful of nuts
Lettuce boat with mashed avocado and tomato (meat eaters can add bacon)
Plain, whole-fat yogurt with fruit and nuts
Apple slices with peanut butter
Baked sweet potato with salsa or carmelized onions and sausage
Smoked salmon with or without eggs
A breakfast salad with feta, avocado and hard-boiled eggs (a popular Australian breakfast)
When you decide to cut sugar and grains from breakfast, your morning meal will be more creative and more delicious. Now, remember to stick with your no-sugar breakfast for the next 7 days of the challenge.
Did you know your favorite morning fruit yogurt has just as much sugar as ice cream? Or the delicious muffin from the coffee shop has just as much sugar as a frosted cupcake? And your favorite granola has about the same amount of sugar as a chocolate chip cookie? Breakfast tends to be the sweetest meal of the day for many people, so when you cut sugar from your first meal, you’re making a big dent in you overall sugar intake. And studies show that people who consume extra protein at breakfast have lower blood sugar levels and are less hungry later in the day than those who eat more carbs. Note that a lot of our breakfast habits are the result of marketing — not nutrition. The push to brand breakfast as the most important meal of the day can be traced to a bacon company, and cereal makers continue to tout a cereal breakfast as a way to stay slim. That said, if you love breakfast, keep eating it! Just cut out the added sugar.
Today your goal is to stop eating the added sugar lurking in processed foods. Start by cutting just one packaged food item from your snacks or meals and replace it with a single-ingredient, whole food. Instead of that granola bar or bag of chips, switch to plain, roasted nuts or a piece of fruit. Each day this week, be on the lookout for packaged foods to cut during the rest of the week. Here’s a tip to decide which foods have to go: If a food comes unpackaged, it’s likely unprocessed, but since most foods come in some sort of package, look at the label and check the number of ingredients. Real food will have no more than two to three ingredients on the label. Foods with several ingredients on the label are more likely to be ultra-processed with lots of added sugar. Remember to check labels on sauces and condiments too — often these foods are loaded with sugar. Going forward, make a commitment to check the label before buying and eating packaged, bottled, wrapped and boxed foods. Instead, fill your home with whole foods that don’t come in a container (think fruit, vegetables, fresh fish, dried beans) or choose foods that come in one-ingredient containers (milk, eggs, nuts, frozen fruits and vegetables).
A team of researchers at the University of North Carolina found that 68 percent of processed foods had added sugar. Some of those products are obvious — like cookies, candy and ice cream. But sugar lurks in unexpected places: pasta sauces, soups, fruit juices, yogurt and even meat products. Added sugar can be found under a variety of names. High-fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, rice syrup, flo-malt, edible lactose, sugar beet and sorghum are just a few. Studies show that people consumed significantly more calories and gained more weight when they were fed a diet that was high in ultra-processed foods. These foods caused a rise in hunger hormones compared with a diet that contained mostly minimally processed foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, grilled chicken, fish and beef, and whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Today’s challenge is to eat more fruit. Yes, we’re cutting added sugar, but don’t be afraid of the natural sugars that are found in fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Not only will the natural sweetness of fruit satisfy your sweet tooth after meals, but the fiber in fruit will fill you up so you won’t snack later.
The best options? Berries are the top pick for a naturally-sweetened low-carb treat. Apples and oranges, which have lots of fiber, are good options too. Skip bananas and grapes: They break down quickly and raise blood sugar faster than other fruits.
And remember, don’t juice your fruit. When you drink only the juice, you destroy the fiber and turn healthy fruit into a sweet beverage that has nearly as much sugar as soda.
So add an apple to your lunch today, or snack on some blueberries in between meals. Keep the fresh fruit in easy reach for the rest of the week as a go-to snack.
Some trendy low-carb diets frown on fruit because it contains natural sugar. But the sugar challenge is about cutting back on added sugar, not naturally-occuring sugars. Unlike sugary processed foods, fresh fruits contain fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that fill you up, improve your health and boost your immune system. While people tend to overeat hollow calories like those found in sugary colas and candy bars, most people don’t overeat foods with naturally-occurring sugar because the accompanying fiber fills us up. Eating fruit right after a meal will stem your cravings for something sweet.
Your challenge today and for the rest of the sugar challenge is to drink only water. You can have plain still or sparkling water, but skip the juice, sports drinks, soda (regular or diet), flavored milk, bottled sweet coffees and Starbucks Frappuccinos. Don’t worry, you can still have your regular morning coffee or tea (feel free to add milk, but no sugar!). Today, carry a water bottle with you and notice how often you drink from it, and whether you are craving a flavored beverage. Keep that water bottle nearby for the rest of the week and beyond — before you know it, you won’t miss the sweet drinks at all.
About 40 percent of the added sugar in our diet comes from sweet liquids (fruit drinks, sugary sodas, juices and sweet tea). Many of us are trained from a very young age to expect that drinks should be flavorful, whether it’s a juice box, orange juice, sports drink or sugary soda. But in most of the world, the beverage of choice is fresh water, and the goal of drinking is to quench thirst, not satisfy the taste buds. It may be time to retrain your brain to stop expecting a jolt of sweet when you take a drink. It’s better to skip the fruit juice. Even though fresh-squeezed juice technically doesn’t have added sugar, it still concentrates fruit sugars without the benefit of the added fiber. Your body reacts to the sugar spike in juice the same way it reacts to soda. If you are drinking artificially-sweetened no-calorie beverages, it’s better to switch to water. Some science suggests that the brain doesn’t like to be tricked by artificial sweeteners and that you will end up overeating other foods to compensate for giving your body fake sugar. And if you still need a reason to stop drinking your flavors, colas (regular and diet) are associated with ruined tooth enamel and weaker bones!
For today’s challenge, make an effort to eat something spicy, flavorful and delicious. It might be a bowl of vegetarian chili, spicy Thai curry or maybe just mildly spiced Chinese food or blackened fish. While the research on the effects of eating spicy food is mixed, some studies suggest that spicy meals cut down sugar cravings and lead to less overeating later. If you find that your spicy meal makes you want something sweet, cleanse your palate with a few berries or orange slices for a sweet ending to your meal.
Adding spicy food to your diet not only makes a meal more interesting, research suggests it may reduce food cravings, especially for sugar. A small Purdue study found that adding cayenne pepper to the diet of someone who doesn’t usually eat spicy food curbed appetite and cravings. In a small study out of Denmark, 25 men and women ate tomato soup with varying levels of added cayenne pepper. The study suggested that people who didn’t usually eat spicy foods ate less sugar and fewer calories of mac and cheese after eating the peppered soup. The data on how spicy foods affect appetite are not conclusive, and results from other studies vary. But adding a little spice to your meal is a risk-free way of increasing flavor, and it may even reduce your craving for sugar.
For today’s challenge, I want you to unlock the natural sugar in your vegetables. Pick a favorite root vegetable, and roast it at a high temperature. Or try some roasted asparagus, broccoli or corn. Roasting vegetables reduces the water content in them and caramelizes the natural sugars, making your veggies taste sweeter without any added sugar. Add butter, olive oil or salt to make them even more delicious. Roasting bite-size cauliflower pieces with a little olive oil and salt creates a sweet snack that rivals any dessert. Now eat!
The goal of this challenge is to recognize the natural sweetness in vegetables, and all the ways we can enhance their natural flavor. Home cooks too often take a puritanical approach to vegetables — steaming them and serving them without butter or sauce. Most of us have been taught to fear fat. But many vegetables contain fat-soluble vitamins, and we need some fat in our diet to absorb their nutrients. A little oil or butter on your vegetables will make them more tasty and help increase your overall consumption of vegetables, which is a win-win for your health.
Today’s challenge is to savor a piece of chocolate. But not just any chocolate. A good rule to know is that the darker the chocolate, the less sugar it has — but you should still check the label. Cocoa doesn’t contain natural sugar, so any sugar in a chocolate bar is added sugar. Some chocolate makers use cane sugar; others, like Pure7, use honey. Bars with 80 percent to 90 percent dark cacao will typically have only seven grams of sugar, so if you eat half a bar, you’re eating very little sugar. Sugar content goes up as the percentage of chocolate goes down. By the time you get to milk chocolate, you’re not even eating real chocolate anymore. A Hershey’s milk chocolate bar, for example, contains 24 grams of sugar. Reaching for a piece of high-cacao dark chocolate is a great reminder that life can be sweeter when you eat less sugar.
Research shows that chocolate — the real, dark, low-sugar kind — is good for you. Real, low-sugar chocolate is packed with flavonoid antioxidants, contains soluble fiber and is loaded with minerals. Studies show that people who eat small amounts of chocolate two to five times a week have better heart health: Chocolate may help the brain and skin, and it may also reduce insulin resistance. Even though some of the research is observational (and not definitive), a little dark chocolate isn’t going to hurt you, and it’s definitely better for you than other sugar-laden sweets. And here’s another reason to love real chocolate. Studies suggest that you are less likely to overeat or consume junk food when you eat dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate.
One of the best things you can do for your health is to cut back on foods with added sugar.