Eating too much sugar is one of the worst things you can do to your body. It can have many negative effects on your health.
While sugar is naturally found in foods like fruits and vegetables, this type has little effect on your blood sugar and is considered very healthy.
Fruits and vegetables also contain lots of healthy vitamins and minerals.
The danger is from added sugars in processed foods.
The average American currently consumes around 17 teaspoons (68 grams) of added sugar per day (6).
This is way more than the upper daily limit that some experts recommend, which is 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women and 9 teaspoons (37 grams) for men (7).
This article lists 14 simple ways to stop eating so much sugar.
Some popular drinks contain a heap of added sugar.
Sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks and fruit drinks contribute an astounding 44% of the added sugar in the American diet (8).
So-called "healthy" drinks, such as smoothies and fruit juices, can still contain eye-watering amounts of it.
For example, 15.2 ounces (450 ml) of 100% apple juice contains more than 12 teaspoons (49 grams) (9).
Your body does not recognize calories from drinks in the same way it does from food. Drinks don't make you feel as full, so people who consume lots of calories from drinks do not eat less to compensate (10).
Here are some better, lower-sugar drink options:
- Water: It's free and has zero calories.
- Sparkling water with a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime: Homemade soda.
- Water with mint and cucumber: Amazingly refreshing in warm weather.
- Herbal or fruit teas: Drink them hot or cold with ice.
- Tea and coffee: Stick to unsweetened tea or black or flat white coffee.
Cutting back on sugary drinks can massively reduce your sugar intake and help you lose weight.
Summary: Avoiding sugary drinks, such as sodas, energy drinks and some fruit drinks, will drastically reduce your sugar intake and could help you lose weight.
Most desserts don't provide much in the way of nutritional value.
They are loaded with sugar, which causes blood sugar spikes and can leave you feeling tired, hungry and craving more sugar.
Grain and dairy-based desserts, such as cakes, pies, doughnuts and ice cream, account for over 18% of the intake of added sugar in the American diet (14).
If you really feel the need for something sweet, try these alternatives:
- Fresh fruit: Naturally sweet and full of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
- Greek yogurt with cinnamon or fruit: Rich in calcium, protein and vitamin B12.
- Baked fruit with cream: Try pears, apple or plums.
- Dark chocolate: In general, the higher the cocoa content, the lower the sugar.
- A handful of dates: They're naturally sweet and extremely nutritious.
Swapping sugar-heavy desserts for fresh or baked fruit not only reduces your sugar intake, it also increases the fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in your diet.
Summary: Desserts such as ice cream, cakes and cookies are loaded with sugar and provide little nutrition. Switch to fresh or baked fruit to reduce your sugar intake and increase your fiber, vitamin and mineral intake.
Sauces such as ketchup, barbecue sauce and sweet chili sauce are commonplace in most kitchens. However, most people aren't aware of their shocking sugar content.
A single tablespoon (15-gram) serving of ketchup may contain 1 teaspoon (4 grams) (15).
Although, some varieties have no added sugar. Always read the label to be sure you are choosing the lowest-sugar option.
Here are some other options to flavor your food:
- Fresh or dried herbs and spices: Contain no sugar or calories and can have added health benefits.
- Fresh chili: Give your food a sugar-free kick.
- Yellow mustard: Tasty and contains virtually no sugar or calories.
- Vinegar: Sugar and calorie-free, with a zing similar to that of ketchup. Some balsamic vinegars and creams may contain sugar.
- Harissa paste: Can be bought or made and is a good replacement for sweet chili sauce.
- Pesto: Fresh and nutty, great on sandwiches or eggs.
- Mayonnaise: Although it's sugar-free, it's high in fat, so be cautious if you're trying to lose weight.
Summary: Common table sauces can contain a shocking amount of sugar. Always read the label to make sure you choose sugar-free options or use herbs and spices to flavor your food.
Low-fat options of your favorite foods — peanut butter, yogurt, salad dressing — are everywhere.
If you've been told that fat is bad, it may feel natural to reach for these alternatives, rather than the full-fat versions, when you're trying to lose weight.
However, the unsettling truth is that they usually contain more sugar and sometimes more calories than their full-fat counterparts.
A 4-ounce (113-gram) serving of low-fat vanilla yogurt contains 4 teaspoons (16 grams) of sugar and 96 calories.
Another example is an 8-ounce (237-ml) coffee made with whole milk and no added sugar, which contains half a teaspoon (2 grams) of naturally occurring milk sugar and 18 calories (18).
In contrast, the same amount of a low-fat mocha drink contains 6.5 teaspoons (26 grams) of added sugar and 160 calories (19).
When you're trying to cut your sugar intake, it's often better to choose the full-fat version instead.
Summary: Low-fat foods may contain more sugar and calories than full-fat versions. It is often better to choose full-fat versions when you're trying to reduce your sugar intake.
Whole foods have not been processed or refined. They are also free of additives and other artificial substances.
At the other end are ultra-processed foods. These are prepared foods that contain salt, sugar and fats, but also substances not usually used in home cooking.
These substances can be artificial flavors, colors, emulsifiers or other additives. Examples of ultra-processed foods are soft drinks, desserts, cereals, pizzas and pies.
Ultra-processed foods differ from standard processed foods, which usually only have minimal ingredients added, all of which you might find in a standard kitchen.
Examples of standard processed foods are simple bread and cheese (22).
90% of the added sugars in the average American's diet come from ultra-processed foods, whereas only 8.7% come from foods prepared from scratch at home using whole foods (22).
And it isn't just junk food that contains high amounts of it.
Seemingly healthy options like canned pasta sauce can also contain alarming amounts. One serving (128 grams) can contain nearly 3 teaspoons (11 grams) (23).
Try to cook from scratch when possible so you can avoid added sugars. You don't have to cook elaborate meals. Simple tricks like marinating meat and fish in herbs, spices and olive oil will give you delicious results.
Summary: Whole foods are free of added sugar and other additives commonly found in processed foods. Eating more whole foods and cooking from scratch will reduce your sugar intake.
Canned foods can be a useful and cheap addition to your diet, but they can also contain a lot of added sugar.
Fruits and vegetables contain naturally occurring sugars. However, they're not an issue since they do not affect your blood sugar in the same way that added sugar does.
Avoid canned foods that are packed in syrup or have sugar in the ingredients list. Fruit is sweet enough, so go for versions that are labeled with "in own juice" or "no added sugar."
If you buy canned fruits or vegetables that do have added sugar, you can remove some of it by rinsing them in water before you eat them.
Summary: Canned foods, including canned fruits and vegetables, may contain added sugar. Always read labels to ensure you choose versions without it.
Most people know that candy and cookies contain a lot of sugar, so they may look for "healthy" snack alternatives.
Surprisingly, snacks like granola bars, protein bars and dried fruit can contain as much, if not more, sugar than their unhealthy rivals, such as chocolate bars.
Some granola bars can contain as much as 8 teaspoons (32 grams) (24).
Dried fruit is full of fiber, nutrients and antioxidants. However, it is also full of natural sugar, so it should be eaten in moderation.
Some dried fruit also contains high quantities of added sugar. To avoid this, look for ingredients labels that say "100% fruit."
Or try these healthy snack ideas instead:
- A handful of nuts: Packed with good calories, protein and healthy fats.
- Trail mix: Make sure it's just nuts and dried fruit, without added sugar.
- No-added-sugar jerky: Full of protein and low in calories.
- Hard-boiled egg: This superfood is high in protein, vitamins and minerals.
- Fresh fruit: Contains natural sugar to satisfy those sugar cravings.
Don't be fooled by the "healthy" marketing messages on some snacks. Be prepared and take low-sugar snacks with you when you're on the go.
Summary: So-called healthy snacks, such as granola and protein bars, can contain lots of added sugar. Be prepared and take low-sugar snacks like nuts and fresh fruit with you when you're out and about.
Breakfast cereals are among the worst when it comes to added sugar.
One report found that some of the most popular ones contained over half of their weight in added sugar.
One cereal in the report contained over 12 teaspoons (50 grams) per serving, which made it 88% sugar by weight.
What's more, the report found that granola, which is usually marketed as "healthy," has more sugar than any other type of cereal, on average.
Popular breakfast foods, such as pancakes, waffles, muffins and jams, are also loaded with added sugar.
Switch to these low-sugar breakfast options instead:
- Hot oatmeal: Add some chopped fruit if you like it sweet.
- Greek yogurt: Add fruit and nuts for extra good calories.
- Eggs: Boiled, poached, scrambled or as an omelet.
- Avocado: Packed full of nutrition and healthy fats for energy.
Choosing a low-sugar option with high protein and fiber at breakfast will help you feel full until lunchtime, preventing unnecessary snacking.
Summary: Breakfast cereals are among the worst culprits for added sugar, along with pancakes, waffles and jams. Switch to low-sugar options such as eggs, oatmeal or plain yogurt.
Eating less sugar isn't as easy as just avoiding sweet foods. You've already seen that it can hide in unlikely foods, including some breakfast cereals, granola bars and dried fruit.
However, some savory foods, such as bread, can also contain a lot of added sugar. Two slices can contain 1.5 teaspoons (6 grams) (25).
Unfortunately, it isn't always easy to identify added sugars on a food label. Current food labels don't differentiate between natural sugars, such as those in milk or fruits, and added sugars.
To see if a food has sugars added, you will need to check the ingredients list. It is also important to note the order in which sugar appears on the list, since ingredients are listed in order of the highest percentage first.
Food companies also use more than 50 other names for added sugar, which makes it more difficult to spot. Here are some of the most common:
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Cane sugar or juice
- Invert sugar
- Rice syrup
Thankfully, identifying sugar in packaged food in the US just got much easier.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has changed their rules so that companies have to show the amount of added sugar in their products on the ingredients label in grams, along with a percentage of the daily value (26).
Companies have until 2018 to change their labels to comply.
Summary: Always read food labels to check for sugar by its many names. The closer to the beginning it is on the ingredients list, the greater percentage of sugar the product contains.
A high sugar intake is linked to increased appetite and weight gain.
Conversely, a diet low in added sugar but high in protein and fat has the opposite effect, reducing hunger and food intake.
Added sugar in the diet, particularly fructose, increases appetite. The signals that usually let your brain know that you are full do not work properly, which can lead to overeating and weight gain (27, 28).
On the other hand, protein has been proven to reduce appetite and hunger. If you feel full, then you are less likely to crave the quick hunger fix that sugar provides (29).
Protein has also been shown to directly reduce food cravings. One study showed that increasing protein in the diet by 25% reduced cravings by 60% (30).
Fat is very high in energy. It contains 9 calories per gram, compared to 4 calories per gram in protein or carbs.
A high fat intake is also associated with reduced appetite. According to the fat content of a food, fat receptors in the mouth and gut alter the way it's digested. This causes a reduction in appetite and subsequently, calorie intake (31).
To curb sugar cravings, stock up on protein and fat-rich whole foods, such as meat, fish, eggs, full-fat dairy products, avocados and nuts.
Summary: A high sugar intake is linked to increased appetite and weight gain. Eating more protein and fat has been shown to have the opposite effect, reducing appetite and cravings.
Addiction to sugar produces cravings and a "tolerance" level, meaning more and more of it must be consumed to satisfy those cravings (34).
It is also possible to suffer from sugar withdrawal.
This shows that giving up sugar can be very difficult for some people. If you are struggling, there are a few naturally sweet alternatives that are actually good for you.
- Stevia: Extracted from the leaves of a plant called Stevia rebaudiana, it has virtually no calories and has been shown to help reduce blood pressure and blood sugar in people with diabetes (37, 38).
- Erythritol: Found naturally in fruit, it only contains 6% of the calories of sugar, but it's much sweeter, so only a little is needed. It also doesn't cause blood sugar spikes (39).
- Xylitol: A sweetener found naturally in many fruits and vegetables. It doesn't cause blood sugar spikes (40).
Once you cut your sugar intake, you'll adjust to enjoying foods that are less sweet.
Summary: Sugar can be addictive for some people. If you find giving up sugar to be particularly difficult, natural sweeteners such as stevia, erythritol and xylitol can help.
If you keep high-sugar foods in the house, you are more likely to eat them.
It takes a lot of willpower to stop yourself if you only have to go as far as the pantry or fridge to get a sugar hit.
Although cravings for snacks and sweet foods can occur at any time of the day or night, they may be worse in the evenings.
Evidence shows that your circadian rhythm, or internal clock, increases hunger and cravings for sweet and starchy foods in the evenings (41).
It is important to consider how you're going to distract yourself when you feel the need to eat something sweet.
Studies have shown that distraction, such as doing puzzles, can be very effective at reducing cravings (42).
If that doesn't work, then try to keep some healthy, low-sugar snacks in the house to munch on instead.
Summary: If you have sugar-filled snacks in the house, you are more likely to reach for them when cravings strike. Consider using distraction techniques if you feel cravings and keep low-sugar snack options handy.
If you've ever been shopping when you're hungry, you know what can happen.
Not only do you buy more food, but you also tend to put less healthy options in your shopping cart.
Shopping while hungry has been shown not only to increase the amount of food purchased, but also to affect the type of foods you buy (43).
In a controlled study, 68 participants fasted for five hours. Half the participants were then allowed to eat as many wheat crackers as they liked just before going shopping, while the other half went shopping on an empty stomach.
They found that the hungry group purchased more high-calorie products, compared to those who were less hungry (44).
In another study, 82 grocery shoppers were observed to see if the time of day they went shopping had any effect on their purchases.
The study found that those who shopped between 4–7 pm, around dinnertime, when they were likely to be hungry, bought more high-calorie products than those who shopped between 1–4 pm, shortly after lunch (44).
Summary: Research has shown that if grocery shoppers are hungry, they tend to buy more high-calorie foods. Try to eat a meal or healthy snack before you go shopping.
One study looked into this phenomenon in 23 healthy adults. Their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), first after a full night's sleep and then following a sleepless night.
The researchers found that function of the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls decision making, was impaired after a sleepless night.
Furthermore, the area of the brain that responds to rewards and controls motivation and desire was stimulated.
These changes meant that participants favored high-calorie, sweet and salty foods when they were sleep deprived (50).
Another study found that people who went to bed late and did not get a full night's sleep consumed more calories, junk food and soda and fewer fruits and vegetables, compared to those who went to bed earlier and got a full night's sleep (51).
So going to bed early and sleeping well may help you reduce your sugar intake.
Summary: A lack of sleep causes people to favor high-calorie, sweet and salty foods over healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. Get a good night's sleep to help you eat less sugar.
The average American consumes more than twice the recommended maximum amount of added sugar per day.
Excess sugar in the diet can be incredibly harmful and has been linked to many chronic diseases, including cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
It is important to avoid obvious sources of sugar in your diet, such as desserts and sodas, but also to be aware of the hidden sugar in some common processed foods, including sauces, low-fat foods and so-called “healthy” snacks.
Choose a diet based on whole foods, rather than highly processed alternatives, to be fully in control of your sugar intake and not consume excess amount of it.