You know the friend that eats the icing off all the cupcakes? The same one that has no shame in calling frosting dinner? Well, that was me. If you’re a sugar fiend or even an occasional dabbler, you know that the love affair with sugar is a gut-wrenching one.
But as a nutritionist, I also understand the health consequences of overindulging — weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease, just to name a few.
Sugar is nostalgic. Our favorite treats can remind us of special memories, such as going to Grandma’s and eating her lemon meringue pie. Sugar is also addictive. For many of us, sugary treats are part of our daily behavior, like a seemingly harmless Hershey’s Kiss after lunch that leads to ten more.
What makes it more difficult is the sugar lurking in our foods that we don’t consider to be sweet at all. From your morning coffee and cup of yogurt, to the salad you have for lunch, and the energy bar you grab before hitting the gym, that healthy diet of yours is actually jam packed with sugar. Lots and lots of sugar.
But never fear: I’ve got you covered. Here are 12 tips to help you break up with — and by break up with, I mean divorce forever — that sweet, sneaky sugar.
1. Start your day strong
There’s a good chance that the granola you’re adding to your yogurt, or the “good-for-you” high-fiber cereal you’re forcing yourself to eat, has a whole lot of added sugar — as many as 17 grams per serving. You might as well be eating glazed donut holes for breakfast instead. Be sure to check for ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane syrup, brown rice syrup, or carob syrup. Many of these are just deceptive names for sugar.
My tactic for avoiding sugar altogether at breakfast is opting for a no-sugar, starchy protein-packed morning meal. This can be a slice of Ezekiel (sprouted grain) toast topped with smashed avocado and a sliced hardboiled egg, or a bowl of plain oatmeal with a tablespoon of chopped nuts and a dash of cinnamon. The protein in either of these options will help keep you satisfied and reduce sugar cravings later in the day.
2. Say goodbye to your java drink (not your barista)
That morning vanilla latte? It could be costing you up to 30 grams of sugar, or 5 grams per pump. The good news is you don’t have to quit caffeine. Simply skip the syrups, the gourmet frozen drinks, and of course, the extra packets of sugar. Instead, go for coffee or tea with milk, or an unsweetened alternative, and sprinkle a dash of nutmeg or cinnamon on top to help regulate your blood sugar.
If you’re a sugar or artificial sweetener junkie, it’s OK to take it slow. Cut your sugar intake in half for one week, then cut it again the next week, and keep at it until you’ve completely forgotten about your latte routine.
3. Hydrate the right way
Patting yourself on the back for getting those greens by juicing? Good job. Well, sort of. The green drink you’re grabbing from Jamba Juice may be loaded with more fruit and sugar than actual greens! Read those labels carefully. If you’re consciously consuming the fruit for the benefits of the fruit itself, be aware that one piece of fruit can have 15 grams of sugar. So, if that healthy morning smoothie has a few whole fruits blended together, you’re already way past your recommended intake for the day.
I suggest carrying around a 32-ounce water bottle. Fill it up twice per day and you’ve hit all, if not more or close to, your hydration needs. If plain water doesn’t excite you, make your own spa water by adding fresh mint and lemon slices. If you’re having a tough time fighting the soda habit, go for bubbles, just make them chemical and calorie free. You can also try adding frozen or fresh fruit to plain club soda for a refreshing alternative.
4. Be a (conscientious) brown bagger
Before you reach for the low-fat dressing to pour on your lunch salad, think again. Your “healthy” salad topping might be a total sugar bomb. When manufacturers make low-fat products, they often substitute sugar for fat. And guess what? The fat is actually far better for you. It helps you absorb the awesome nutrients in the salad, and keeps you feeling full longer.
Instead of opting for store-bought dressings, make your own: Combine ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, ¼ cup lemon juice, ½ teaspoon salt, and a ¼ teaspoon cracked pepper together in a sealed jar. This makes six servings, and you can store what you don’t use in the fridge. Not only will you save calories and sugar, but you’ll likely be saving some money by making your own too.
5. Pack in the protein
A lunch filled with lean protein and veggies will keep you satisfied longer, which will make you less likely to dive head first into the birthday cupcakes being passed around the office. This Clean Eating Chicken Apple Salad by The Gracious Pantry is a simple weekday lunch option. Protein keeps you satisfied by reducing ghrelin, that pesky hunger hormone that gives you the false sense that you might waste away if you don’t quickly reach for a handful of candy. The cold truth about restrictive dieting? When you’re not properly fueling yourself with an adequate amount of calories, the very first thing you crave is sugar. Go figure.
My go-to protein snacks are:
- mixed nuts, such as pecans, cashews, walnuts, and almonds
- Greek yogurt topped with hemp seeds
- two slices of fresh turkey
6. Run away from the sugar-fueled workout
Chowing down on pre-workout fuel is beneficial to your fitness goals. But choosing a sugary yogurt, a packaged energy bar, or a machine-made smoothie may add far more to your waistline than you’re working off. Again, read those labels carefully and choose accordingly.
7. Avoid a sugar sandwich
An average slice of multi-grain bread has about 1.6 grams of sugar, and making a whole sandwich quickly doubles this amount. This secret source of sugar may not seem like a lot, but you can avoid it altogether by reading the ingredients.
High fructose corn syrup is commonly added to bread products for extra flavor. Do your research and choose a brand containing 0 grams of sugar — you won’t miss it, I promise. Ezekiel bread is always a winner in my book because it contains no added sugar.
8. Dine on a better pasta sauce
Think less about the pasta itself, and more about what you’re putting on it. Just a ½ cup of traditional tomato sauce can pack as many as 10 grams of sugar. Make sure to buy a store-bought pasta sauce that has zero sugar in the ingredient list.
Or, for a truly healthier option, make a super simple fresh pesto instead! Blend 2 cups basil, 1 clove garlic, 2 tablespoons pine nuts, salt, and pepper in a food processor with ½ cup olive oil for a perfectly flavorful, authentic sauce.
9. Season sans sugar
When dipping, slathering, or marinating, consider your options carefully. Barbecue sauce and ketchup are loaded with sugar. Just 2 tablespoons of barbecue sauce can have more than 16 grams — and nobody’s eating a pulled pork sandwich with just two tablespoons!
Herbs and spices add flavor and boast a number of health benefits, such as antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Plus, they contain virtually no calories, and, of course, no sugar. Up your seasoning game with cayenne, garlic, oregano, rosemary, or turmeric. And check out this recipe for Gluten-Free Barbecue Sauce by Naturally Savvy Recipes.
10. Snack your way to health
Certain snacks like peanut butter and crackers or trail mix can be great on-the-go options. Or, they can be sugar bombs. Similar to low-fat salad dressing, reduced-fat peanut butter may contain added sugar to make up for the flavorful fat that’s taken out. Keep reading those packages carefully and do your best to enjoy the natural flavors and sweetness of foods without the added sugar.
Here are some of my favorite low-sugar snacks:
- sliced apple + 2 teaspoons almond butter + dash of cinnamon
- 6 olives + red pepper sticks
- 10 cashews + 6 oz. Greek yogurt + drop of vanilla
- 2 tablespoons guacamole + endive
- 1 cup mixed berries + 1 tablespoon shredded coconut
11. Keep it interesting
A diet filled with the same foods day after day is almost guaranteed to leave you unsatisfied and craving a sugar fix. Avoid OD’ing on candy corn by upping the variety of foods and drinks in your diet.
Purchase some in-season produce and put it to good use. I love eggplant in the late summer and early fall months for its versatility and super nutrients. I throw it on the grill, bake it, or use it to make baba ganoush and put it on everything, from whole grain crackers to lettuce for a superfast and delicious salad. If you’re feeling a little adventurous, try this Low-Carb Eggplant Pizza by the Diet Doctor.
12. Don’t let your emotions get the best of you
Hormones, emotions, and memories can create a Pavlovian-like response to sugary comfort foods — a sensory cue that causes us to crave. This is why even the aroma of cookies baking can cause a sugar craving to kick in. Acknowledge these moments for what they are when they happen, and move on. On the flip side, it’s OK to indulge from time to time. Just don’t let the craving and indulgence control you.
I’ve been known to walk into the office holding a chocolate chip cookie or a Rice Krispy treat and say, “Exhibit A: This my friends is emotional eating. But, I’m aware and I’m going to enjoy and acknowledge it and still have my grilled salmon and asparagus for dinner.” True story. It happens.
There you have it: 12 simple, though not necessarily simple to do, steps to help you break up with sugar. A successful sugar break up should be focused on moderation and being mindful about what you really want. I can’t promise the process will be easy. But I can promise that by following these steps, you can dramatically reduce the amount of sugar in your diet. And, with that, you’ll likely up your energy, improve the glow of your skin, reduce bloat, sleep better, think more clearly, and perhaps improve your immune system too.