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Cutting Back on Sugar

Apr 4 2021
7 min read
spoonful of sugar over a cup of tea

There are plenty of reasons to cut back on sugar:

It contributes to tooth decay, obesity, and diabetes, and it may be indirectly associated with increased risk of heart disease, inflammation, cancer, and dementia. In addition, while it provides energy because it’s a carbohydrate, it lacks vitamins and minerals.

These are some compelling motivations for keeping sugar intake to a minimum, so the question remains: How can that little caramel or cookie still seem to have as much hold over you as it does?

There’s no denying that it’s plain tempting. But the true allure goes beyond your taste buds. Sugar stimulates pleasure pathways in your brain, and could actually activate your brain much in the way that illegal drugs do. At first, you may only need a small amount to trigger a pleasure response, but over time, you need more and more to get the same levels of satisfaction. In fact, going without sugar after regular consumption can lead to withdrawal-like symptoms. So, the goal is to keep sugar intake to a healthy minimum not only to reduce potential health risks, but to also prevent cravings that can lead to eating even more.

How Much Sugar Is Too Much

If you look up the nutritional components of, say, an apple or a slice of cheese, you’ll notice some sugar. Unless you’re consuming these whole foods in very large quantities, don’t be concerned. They are essential parts of a balanced diet. The effects of the natural sugar in fruit (fructose) and unflavored dairy products (lactose) are tempered by the other healthy nutrients they contain.

The concern comes with added sugars – those that are included in a recipe or product simply to up the sweetness factor. The average American consumes 22.2 teaspoons of added sugar (355 calories worth) each day. That far exceeds what’s recommended by the American Heart Association: a maximum of 6 teaspoons (24 grams, 100 calories) a day for women, and 9 teaspoons (36 grams, 150 calories) for men. This is, in part, because of the sugar content in what we consider “sugary foods” – sodas, cakes, and the like. But it’s also because of hidden sources of sugar in a variety of the foods we eat.

Sneaky Aliases to Look For

Added sugar can “hide” on food labels under different names, some of which include:

  • Agave nectar
  • Barley malt
  • Cane crystals
  • Cane sugar (evaporated cane juice or cane crystals)*
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Crystalline fructose
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice*
  • Fruit juice concentrates*
  • Glucose
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey*
  • Invert sugar
  • Lactose
  • Maltose
  • Malt syrup
  • Molasses*
  • Sucrose

(*Life is sweet at Canyon Ranch! We cook with minimal added sugar, using a variety of natural sweeteners (including these options) only in modest quantities to create our satisfying recipes. Compared to their counterparts, these options are lower in sugar.)

Tomato sauce, light salad dressing, reduced fat peanut butter, cereal, and other processed products you may choose as part of a healthy diet could be surprisingly high in added sugar. For example, six ounces of regular, plain yogurt has about 12 grams of sugar – all from naturally occurring lactose. But change your order to a fruit-flavored version and that number can more than double, largely because of added sugars used for flavoring. To help you visualize what that means, every 4 grams of added sugar equals one teaspoon of the stuff. Would you add three teaspoons of sugar to your yogurt?

Strategies for Success

Start by trying to determine how much sugar you’re consuming. In the U.S., the FDA now mandates that food labels list total grams of sugar, as well as how many grams of that total are added (versus naturally occurring) sugars. Write down everything you’ve eaten in a week and review that list for processed foods you can consider replacing with whole food options. For example, you might choose to make your own no-sugar-added pasta topper, like our Chunky Tomato Sauce, instead of purchasing a jarred version.

“Reset” Your Brain Chemistry and Habits

Slowly introduce small changes, like drinking your tea or coffee plain, or with just a little milk. Then switch to naturally flavored seltzer instead of soft drinks, or drizzle salad with some fresh-squeezed lemon juice or unseasoned rice vinegar and a touch of flavorful extra virgin olive oil, instead of dousing it with bottled dressing. Gradually reducing the overall amount of sugar you consume can make it easier to adapt to consuming less. Remember – sweet eating leads to sweet craving.

Choose Healthy Treats

Train your brain by opting for good-for-you picks like a juicy peach or fresh berries. If you make foods like these the sweetest ones you consume, eventually a sip or bite of your old, sugary favorites will become too overwhelming.

Eat Sugary “Must Haves” in a Safe Environment

If you just can’t give up ice cream, for example, try only having it when you go out to a parlor, where you can get a small portion and walk away. Of course, if even a tiny amount makes you turn around and place a second order, you may want to cut the food out entirely.

Avoid Undereating

When your blood sugar is low, which can happen when it has been more than three or four hours since you last ate, you’ll innately go for the food that will get that level up the fastest – and sugary items top the list. Work to fit in all your meals, and reach for snacks that contain carbohydrates, protein, and a little bit of fat (nuts, cheese); they’ll keep you satisfied longer.

Pass on Artificial Sweeteners

Besides the fact that safety research is limited, the super sweetness of these products may dull your taste buds over time. This may prevent you from finding less sweet (and more nutritious) foods palatable, and even sugar-packed choices might be unsatisfying in small amounts. Artificial sweeteners may also affect the appetite center in your brain.