Added Sugar Is Probably a Bigger Problem in Your Diet Than You Think

A look at the science of what added sugar does to your health, plus simple tricks to scale back.

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Sugar is everywhere, and it’s surprisingly sneaky. Eating too much added sugar—the stuff pumped into food and drinks as opposed to what occurs naturally—is a culprit in a host of health problems that go beyond weight gain and diabetes. The sweet stuff has been implicated in everything from depression to heart disease to cancer. This is a strong indication that the body responds to sugary calories differently than it does to other kinds of calories. And even if you’ve been watching your sugar intake, added sugars are likely sneaking into your daily meals more often than you think.

How Much Sugar is Too Much?

The added sweeteners found abundantly in our food supply have become such a pressing matter that the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans cap how much we should consume each day. While calorie and sugar needs vary from one person to the next—a triathlete can get away with consuming more of both than a sedentary person—your goal should be to limit added sugar intake to no more than 10% of your total daily calories.

The World Health Organization also suggests striving for a 10% limit, but it stresses that 5% would be even better, or about 25 grams of added sugar in a day.

If you’re like most Americans you’re blowing away this upper limit—17% of the daily calories in the average diet hails from added sugars. 

How Can I Cut Back on Added Sugars?

The sheer amount of sugar in our food supply can make it seem like a Sisyphean effort to cut back. From sweets to sodas, and even many savory foods, it’s seemingly everywhere. While sugar consumption is one of the toughest food habits to break, it’s possible to lower intake by using these simple tactics to wean yourself and make better choices.

1. Refine Your Shopping Cart

You may know to skip the pastry counter, checkout line candy bars, and ice cream freezers at the supermarket. But what about your go-to pasta sauce? Or your favorite brand of almond butter? The not-so-sweet truth about added sugar is that it’s hiding literally everywhere—even foods like whole-grain bread.

The sad reality is about 75% of packaged foods on store shelves contain some form of added sweetener, a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics revealed. A ½-cup of spaghetti sauce may pack almost as much sugar as a donut.

It’s best to assume that any food that comes in a package might contain a sweetener in one form or another. So even if you strictly avoid obvious sugar-packed drinks and snacks, you may still consume more of the ingredient than you realize.

How to Shop Smarter

You can weed out a lot of the sweet stuff from your diet by comparing brands of similar products and choosing items that contain less added sugar. This process is now easier thanks to a new FDA labeling law that requires food and beverage packages to have a Nutrition Facts label that contains a separate line showing how much sugar has been added as opposed to what occurs naturally.

Another pro move: Look for label lingo such as “no added sugar” or “unsweetened,” which means any sugar in the item was placed there by Mother Nature. Some foods that claim to be low-fat are often sugar-lofty because manufacturers are trying to distract your taste buds when fat is reduced.

2. Know the Lingo

When you read food and drink ingredient lists, look for more than just the word “sugar.” Sugar tends to disguise itself with other names that make it sound much more wholesome than it really is (ahem, fruit juice concentrate). To successfully weed out added sweeteners, you need to be able to recognize the many aliases food and drink companies employ. 

What to Look For

Be sure to flip over packages and examine ingredient lists word-for-word on the hunt for sugar by any given name. These double agents include agave, maltodextrin, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, corn syrup, coconut nectar, barley malt, organic dried cane syrup, fruit juice concentrate, turbinado, dextrose, and maltose (basically any word ending in -ose).

Even honey and maple syrup should be considered added sugars. A study in The Journal of Nutrition found that when people ate the same amount (about 2 tablespoons) of honey, sucrose (i.e. white sugar), or much-maligned high fructose corn syrup every day for two weeks, they experienced the same concerning metabolic changes including a rise in blood triglycerides and markers of inflammation, both risk factors for heart problems. If you see any of these listed high up in the ingredient list or multiple sweeteners appear in the list then it’s a good bet the item should be approached with caution.

3. Drink Responsibly

Sweetened drinks remain the biggest source of added sugar calories in the standard American diet. And because sugar in liquid form is digested more quickly, its impact on health can be more aggressive. Avoiding the usual suspects including sodas, energy drinks, and bottled coffee and tea is a good starting point, but they’re far from the only sugar-packed potions out there. Beverages that are being marketed as health-promoting are increasingly feeding our sugar urges. These include everything from kombucha to oat milk to green juices to enhanced waters.  

How to Avoid Sweetened Drinks

To avoid drinking your way into the sugar danger zone, be sure that the majority of your daily beverage intake hails from unsweetened drinks such as black coffee, brewed green tea, plain milk, unsweetened veggie juices, and reliable tap water. During a long workout or immediately afterward is a good time to allow any sweetened drinks to sneak into your diet. This includes a post-sweat recovery smoothie that might include a drizzle of honey.

Since fruit juices lack the fiber found in whole fruits and deliver a more concentrated dose of fruit sugar, it’s also a good idea to go easy on the OJ.

4. Measure Your Serving Sizes

Do you really know how much maple syrup you’re pouring on your Sunday pancakes or how many white crystals you’re stirring into your coffee? Was that 1 teaspoon or 1 tablespoon of brown sugar that went on your oatmeal? Studies show we are generally horrible at estimating portion sizes, so it’s easy to see how people could be adding more sugar to their daily menu than they think. 

How to Keep Servings in Check

Break out the measuring spoons and cups to get a better awareness of the amount of sweeteners you are sweetening your foods and drinks with. If you’re topping off your yogurt with a tablespoon of honey, perhaps you could trim back to 1 or 2 teaspoons. Cutting back a little bit here and there can add up. 

5. Scale Back the Sugar in Recipes

If you’re embracing your inner Martha Stewart and baking up a batch of muffins or cookies, keep in mind that many recipes call for more sugar than what’s necessary—mainly to appease taste buds that are trained to want a sweet fix. So. if you come across a recipe for blueberry muffins that request a cup of sugar consider this a red flag that needs tweaking.  

How to Shrink Sugar Use

Unless a recipe is written specifically to be lower in sugar than what is typical, try experimenting by reducing the amount of sweetener called for by one-quarter to one-third. This shouldn’t noticeably change the final result’s texture, moistness, or taste, but will give you less of a sugar buzz.

You can also include natural sources of sweetness in recipes like berries, mashed banana, dried fruits, and pureed pumpkin to slash the amount of processed sugars. Also, use spices like cinnamon and allspice to add a sense of calorie-free sweetness to food instead of honey or refined white sugar.

6. Set Up Your Plate to Banish Cravings

It’s a vicious cycle: Spikes and sudden drops in blood sugar levels caused by sugar can lead to further sugar urges, which then sets you up for more sugar highs and lows. Making sure to include slow-digesting protein and fiber with your meals and snacks will bolster satiety as well as help stabilize blood sugar levels throughout the day setting you up for less sugar lust.

Balance Sugar with Other Nutrients

For meals, aim to include at least 20 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber to help stave off the hunger monster. As for snacks, look for options that give you at least 5 grams of protein and 3 to 5 grams of fiber—a cup of plain Greek yogurt with ½ cup raspberries would fit the bill. 

7. Satisfy a Sweet Tooth the Natural Way

Our cave-dwelling ancestors didn’t get their sweet fix from M&Ms; they got it from foods that contain natural sweetness. The naturally occurring sugar present in fruits and certain vegetables like beets are bundled with fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants.

Additionally, the amount of sugar you’d consume from whole foods is generally lower since the quantity of sugar per serving is often lower. You’d have to eat a lot of whole carrots to get anywhere near the same levels of sugar found in carrot cake. Once you’ve removed a good portion of the added sugar from your diet, your tastebuds will likely become more sensitive to the subtle sweetness inherent in natural fruits and vegetables.

How to Substitute Sugar for Natural Sweetness

Try getting a larger percentage of your daily sugar from plants and unsweetened dairy, which will not only serve to boost your nutrient intake but also recalibrate your taste buds. This can be as easy as adorning a bowl of plain yogurt with berries and serving up a roasted root vegetable medley for dinner.

Dried fruit can serve as a good alternative to some of the packaged sugary energy foods during long workouts. There are also snack foods on the market such as KIND Whole Fruit bars and BARE apple chips that are plenty sweet without any added sweeteners. 

8. Sweat Away Sugar Urges

The next time you’re about to drop your hand in the cookie jar, hop on the saddle instead. Research shows the simple act of exercising is enough to tame cravings for sugary snack foods. Exercise can alter your hormone stew including temporarily suppressing hunger hormones and also tame cravings associated with boredom or stress.

How to Fight Sugar Cravings

You don’t need an epic workout to tamp down cravings. Simply taking a 15-minute brisk walk is enough to reset your appetite for the sweet stuff. If there’s a particular time of day where you find yourself eating or drinking sugary items such as after dinner, consider scheduling in a bit of movement during this time. 

9. Get Enough Sleep

Sleeping for less than seven hours each night may lead people to increase their intake of sugary foods and eat a generally less healthy diet, finds a King’s College London study. The researchers found improving sleep patterns in participants resulted in a 10-gram (2.5 teaspoons worth) reduction in added sugar intake.

Sleep, or a lack of it, affects our brain and our appetite hormones. For instance, a lack of adequate amounts of shut-eye can dampen the brain’s reward pathways that serve to drive sugary food and drink intake. It can also drive up levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, making it harder to resist chocolate temptation.

Tips to Improve Sleep

If you’re struggling to get adequate sleep, look for ways to improve your sleep hygiene. This can include going without caffeine-containing drinks, foods, and supplements later in the day, avoiding electronic screens at least an hour before bedtime, and establishing relaxing post-sunset routines.