“Eat less sugar” may be a short and sweet suggestion, but the USDA’s most recent dietary guidelines have gotten some pretty long-winded responses from dieters, foodies, and health experts alike—and with good reason. This is the very first time our government has issued added sugar guidelines, recommending that we keep our consumption of the stuff to no more than 10 percent of overall calories. That’s equal to about 180 calories or 45 grams a day for women and 200 calories or 50 grams for men. To put things into perspective, the average American eats a whopping 82 grams of added sugar a day, according to the CDC.
Do you think there’s no way that stat could include a health-conscious person like yourself? You may want to take a closer look at your plate. Even if you’re not downing sleeves of cookies or guzzling cans of soda, that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. In fact, added sugar often lurks in the places you’d least expect it—in “wholesome” bread, your go-to “healthy” snack bar and your post-workout smoothie—and it may be just the reason you can’t get that flat belly you’ve been working on.
The good news is that it’s possible to cut back. To help you do just that (and ward off tooth decay, diabetes and high blood pressure), we’ve compiled a list of easy ways to slash your sugar intake without sacrificing the deliciousness of all your favorite foods.
1. Educate yourself
Before you freak out and throw away everything in your kitchen, take a moment to fully understand the official sugar recommendation and the difference between added sugar and naturally occurring sugar. Fruits, vegetables and plain dairy products have naturally occurring sugar that you shouldn’t overly concern you. Because fruits and veggies contain other nutrients, like fiber and healthy fats, the liver doesn’t process the sugar in the same way it would a cookie or a candy bar. In other words, the sugar in apples and peppers won’t contribute to weight gain and diabetes like a soda will.
Unfortunately, our labeling laws haven’t quite caught up to our dietary guidelines, and food products do not yet have a column dedicated to added sugars. Instead, the naturally occurring sugars and the added stuff is all clumped together under “sugar.” This is particularly confusing when you’re buying things like flavored yogurt, which contain both types of the sweet stuff. So when in doubt, read the ingredients list. If you see words like sugar, honey, agave or even organic cane juice, know that there’s added sugar in your food. To find out how much, look at a similar unflavored version of the product you’re interested in buying and see how they differ. For example, if a serving of plain oatmeal has 1 gram of sugar and a flavored version has 16, it’s safe to assume you’d be consuming 15 grams of added sugar. When it comes to candy and sweets, assume all it’s all the added variety.
2. Look for aliases
There are over 56 different names for added sugar, including high fructose corn syrup, dried cane syrup, molasses, agave, brown rice syrup, maple syrup and sucrose—or any word ending in “ose.” If several forms of sugars appear on the label, think twice about making it a regular addition to your diet; it’s probably far less healthy than you hope.
3. Rethink your drink
According to the National Institutes of Health, the third largest sources of food calories in the American diet comes from soda, which is also one of the biggest sources of sugar. “One 12-ounce can of Mountain Dew delivers 52 grams of sugar, which is more than a day’s worth,” says food expert and author of the The 7-Day Flat-Belly Tea Cleanse, Kelly Choi. “Ditch the sugar water and keep your taste buds happy with unsweetened teas or water infused with fresh fruit. This simple swap can help you shed over ten pounds in a year!”
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4. Buy unsweetened
Whether you’re buying applesauce, almond milk, nut butter or canned fruit, look for an unsweetened variety. Products with “no added sugar” and “unsweetened” labels will save you tons of sugar and calories over the course of a year.
5. Shop on a full stomach
It’s true what they say: Out of house, out of mouth. Seems simple enough—until you’re actually in the grocery store. To ensure you’ll have the restraint to keep sweet, sinful treats out of your shopping cart, have a small snack before you leave the house. Experts say that when we’re hungry, we’re far more likely to lose sight of our dietary goals and load up on unhealthy, sugar-laden eats.
6. Stock up on nature’s candy
So what should you buy instead of all those sweet snacks? Nature’s candy, of course, which is naturally free of all added sugars. In fact, dietitians say that eating fruit is one of the healthiest ways to satisfy a sweet craving. To ensure your fruity nosh leaves you full and satisfied, pair it with a healthy fat, like nuts or nut butter (which digest slowly), keeping you fuller for longer.
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7. Beware of dried fruit
Though we’ve never met a raw fruit we didn’t love, canned and dried fruit are entirely different stories. Food manufacturers often add sugar, juice concentrates and syrups to extend their fruit’s shelf life and improve the flavor. Steer clear to stay slim.
8. Chew fennel seeds
Can’t shake those post-dinner dessert cravings? Carolyn Brown, registered dietitian of Foodtrainers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, recommends chewing fennel seeds to take the edge off. Why? They’re naturally sweet but don’t contain any sugars, so they will help quell your cravings. And, as a bonus, fennel seeds are known to stop belly bloat and act as an appetite suppressant, giving you a double dose of belly-trimming benefits.
9. Trick your tastebuds
Next time you’re having a hard to ignore sweet-tooth attack, fix yourself a cup of tea. Mint, ginger, cinnamon and chai teas will all help you fend off those longings by hitting that “sweet spot” without sugar overload, explains Brown. And with so many varieties, it’s hard to get bored. If you need to sweeten it up, add just a teaspoon of honey (measure it out to ensure you don’t overdo it), which is a bit healthier for you than straight sugar or sweeteners.
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10. Balance it out
Typically grab a bag of M&Ms or a chocolate bar as an afternoon snack? Cut your serving size in half, save the leftovers for tomorrow and subsidize your plate with something fresh and healthy, like nuts, fruit, steel cut oats or one of our go-to high protein snacks. You’ll get a smaller sugar boost, without sacrificing the sugary taste you crave.