Sugar has emerged in recent years as a more insidious and dangerous threat to our health than we had previously thought. Accumulating scientific evidence is revealing the role sugar plays in the persistent obesity epidemic that plagues our nation—as well as in cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and metabolic syndrome, dementia and depression, infertility and impotence, and the inflammation that is also implicated in these and many other diseases.
Accordingly, health and nutrition experts have increasingly urged government and health authorities to set limits for (if not regulate) sugar consumption. The momentum and gravity of resistant health problems has led the FDA for the first time to announce a recommendation for a cap on daily sugar intake.
The proposed guidelines suggest a goal of no more than 10 percent of daily calories from sugar. This is consistent with World Health Organization’s recommendation (they urge efforts to shoot for five percent of calories if possible). For anyone over the age of three, that means eating no more than 50 grams of sugar a day (so, 200 calories, or 10%, of a 2,000 calorie diet). (Children aged 1-3 should get no more than 25 grams of sugar.)
Given the amount of sugar in the food supply today, if you aren’t especially conscious about ingredients, you may be getting a lot more than that. (Estimates are that the average American consumes anywhere from a quarter- to a half-pound of sugar a day—that’s 150-170 pounds a year!) If you do, you’re not only at risk for the above-named health issues; you probably don’t look and feel nearly as good as you could either. Even if you’re not showing immediate signs of illness, sugar probably adversely affects your mood, skin, immune system, and more.
I’m thrilled to see this recommendation. But of course, on its heels, doomsayers (sometimes, vexingly, it’s the very same health experts who lobbied for the recs!) lament the difficulty of following them. Many are already pronouncing it “impossible.” Sheesh. Not exactly inspiring.
I say you can do it. And—please, enough of this kind of talk already—it doesn’t mean a life of tasteless cardboard food if you do. Far from it.
I am happy to report that I already do it every day, and have for a long time. I would have known it because I don’t experience any of the issues that sugar is infamous for causing—but I also checked the data. I use MyFitnessPal (which I find fun and informative to do). I am pleased to note that in spite of enjoying chocolate, granola, fruit, cookies, and other baked goods, I keep my sugar at or below 50 (often 40-45 grams, sometimes even 35!) daily.
The trick is in the choices you make and the overall quality of the foods you eat—both in terms of the sweets you select specifically, as well as the foods you eat throughout the rest of the day. While eating as much whole unprocessed food as possible, you can still incorporate sweet treats IF you choose the right brands and products.
By eating a whole-foods, plant-based, organically produced, high-quality smorgasbord throughout the day, choosing very few packaged foods and only select USDA-organic-labeled brands from companies that have some integrity, you naturally drive down your total sugar tally. (Note: I am NOT saying “organic” products can’t be high in sugar—they can and often are, e.g. many cookies, cereals, granolas bars, etc. It’s just that the better the company, the higher chance it’s decent.)
Because even “health brand” products can be loaded with sugar, you do have to read labels—a skill I firmly believe every single American who can read should possess. This skill should be taught in grade school—no one should be befuddled when looking at a food label (however the USDA and FDA decide to lay it out). I can do it—these days, at a cursory glance‚and I believe almost anyone can learn. (I’m developing a practical, real-world tutorial on just that, which is included in my Nourish U course.)
Here are 15 tricks to keeping your total sugar grams to 50 or under—and still loving your food, your health and your life!
- Start tracking. Get an app like MyFitnessPal or FatSecret and track every morsel. Just for a while (if you don’t enjoy it, you can stop after a month of self-education!) You’ll start to see where you’re getting your sugar from, and how much you’re totaling up during the day. This will help you see how high in sugar the traditionally “known” sweets are—and it will also alert you to the hidden sugars. You’ll know what needs replacing, and you’ll be able to seek out and switch brands. Which leads me to…
- Read labels. You gotta do it. Don’t be daunted. Becoming an ingredient and nutrient value detective is not so hard. It can actually become a fun game. There are two things you want to check relative to this topic: the grams of sugar per serving (I try not to buy anything that has more than 7 grams per serving, preferably less) and the ingredients themselves. Be SURE that you note what “a serving” is according to that label, because if it’s 7 grams per half-cup serving and you eat a cup and a half, now you’ve got 21g—get it?) As for ingredients, all of these are sugar: corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fructose, dextrose, sucrose. I prefer to use products that sweetened with organic coconut sugar, unevaporated cane juice, or sweeteners like date, maple, molasses or fruit. These products tend to be better quality food anyway (the companies that use them are generally committed to something more than the cheapest crap at the lowest price).You don’t have to continue this forever. Just get familiar. (Although you might become obsessed with the game.) Just spend a month reading everything. Check it all for a while—the burritos, the nut butters, the salsa, the soup, the nuts. Not just the obvious stuff like cereal and cookies. You’ll find yourself in the aisles muttering “There’s sugar in THAT?” After a while, you’ll get to know the culprits and the good guys, and that will make you choosier.
- Go dark on the chocolate. Dark chocolate is a great way to get your sweet fix, because it not only satisfies that dessert urge but by most scientific accounts offers a host of health benefits. Dark chocolate is actually included in the Healing Foods Pyramid™ as part of a balanced whole foods/plant-based diet. Quality dark chocolate is rich in fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese and other minerals, and is loaded with biologically active organic antioxidant compounds such as polyphenols, flavanols, and catechins, among others. There is scientific evidence that cocoa and dark chocolate can improve blood flow, lower blood pressure, improve brain/neuro function, protect skin, lower inflammation and more. Like lower-sugar fruits (see #11 below), very dark chocolate is a modest sugar investment you can get some nutrition bang for.If you choose extra dark—meaning over 80% (and yes, you will get used to it, see #11)—you’ll almost always be getting less sugar. HOWEVER, chocolate is also a great case study for how different brands of the same thing can vary in amounts of sugar. Even among the “darker darks,” sugar content can vary widely. The same size serving of one brand’s 80-85% bar may contain twice as much sugar than another. I’ve seen 85% bars that have 10-15 grams of sugar per serving. I prefer those that supply only 2-6 grams per half a 2-ounce or 2.5-ounce bar (which is a LOT of chocolate! I usually do an ounce at a time).My faves: Endangered Species 88%, Green and Black’s 85%, Equal Exchange 80% (these days, this one tastes like milk chocolate to me!) or 88%, Guittard Nocturne 91%, and Grenada 82%. Vivani, Theo, Lulu, Righteously Raw and many more—including countless small, artisanal brands—also make good “eighty-somethings.”
- Choose unsweetened nut milks. Coconut, soy, almond, rice, hemp, hazelnut, cashew—this is a hidden liquid sugar source many never consider. If you choose the unsweetened vanilla, you get a nice hit of sweetness without the sugar. Most of the unsweetened varieties have zero or 1 gram of sugar. Adding a bunch more sugar to your breakfast cereal that already has sugar (or to your coffee or cocoa) is a surefire way to crash your day’s allotment before you even get out the door.
- Don’t waste your sugar quota on things that don’t need to be sweet. Weed out condiments, breads, crackers, soups, sauces, dressings and dairy products that add needless sugar. Companies put sugar in the darndest things! We can’t always stop them, but we can be aware and not buy them. Again, if you shop more at natural-foods type places than mainstream groceries, you will find many more conscious brands (at better prices). Though again not strictly the case, those brands tend not to put sugar in things that don’t need sugar (or, at least, they may use less of it). Campbell’s Soup vs. Amy’s, for instance. This is why label-reading is vital. You’ll start to see at a glance: wow, this bread has one gram sugar per slice, and that one has five! This barbecue sauce has 2 grams per two tablespoons; that one has 8! This vegetable soup has 18 grams per can; that one only has 6!)
- There IS a lower sugar option for everything you love. I promise. Granola? It could run you 15-30 gram of sugar per quarter cup—but if you try Purely Elizabeth, Mamma Chia, Cascadian Farms, Living Intentions, or Nature’s Path, you’ll find that you can get a third or half-cup for 5 or 6 grams of sugar. Energy bars? You can find tasty ones that have 2-9 grams of sugar each—or you can blow your day’s wad with one that has 25-40 grams of sugar per bitty bar. Cocoa? Some prepared mixes (even the organic ones) will run you 15-40 grams of sugar per serving!—others much less. (It’s easy to make your own, with quality unsweetened cacao and a bit of date, coconut or maple sugar—see #8 below.) Cheerios? Fuhgeddiboutit. Besides the recent outcry over the misleading “High Protein” version (with 7 grams of protein per serving, but 17 grams of sugar compared to the 1 g in regular Cheerios—whoa!), their ingredients are totally bleh. For an extra buck or so a box, you can get Cascadian Farms Honey Nut Os, Nature’s Path Heritage Os, or One Degree Ancient Grain Os (to name just a few)—not only low-sugar but with whole/multi-grain, organic ingredients. (Feel like an extra buck a box is too much? Check your cart—got soda? Got candy? Take it out and reduce your costs and your sugar “bill” further. Cornflakes? Raisin bran? Bread? Oatmeal? Soup? Ketchup? Salad dressing? Yogurt? Creamer? There is a brand (or several!) for you. If you’re having trouble finding a low-sugar alt, ask me. I love the hunt, and I adore a good product makeover! BONUS: by avoiding the brands that are most sugar-loaded (often with the crummiest kinds, like high fructose corn syrup) you’ll be leaning more toward better food and better ingredients generally. Not strictly—you’ll still have to check labels—but you boost your odds considerably. Just watch.
- Switch up your grocery store. Seriously, if you have a Whole Foods, co-op, or even a Wegman’s nearby, get off the Safeway/Kroger/WinCo/Albertson’s/Food City/Stop-N-Shop train. Conventional stores are not necessarily cheaper, especially when you’re buying organically produced food and the kind of brands you’ll want to substituted for mainstream sugar-filled waste. “Whole Paycheck” is a bit of a myth. Sure, if you’re lured into buying fancy gourmet artisanal brands of nut butter, “wellness shots,” condiments, cheeses and chocolate-covered Spanish figs, yeah—you can run up your bill. But for basic whole, fresh, organically-produced foods, and for quality brands of packaged foods (especially if you buy the 365 Organic house brand), the natural food-type stores can’t be beat. You will have more choices and these stores tend to have better standards for what they’ll even carry. And they get more traffic for the good stuff, so it’s cheaper there. BONUS: I bet you will enjoy grocery shopping more. I have converted many friends and family on this count. Mainstream “grocery stores,” you begin to realize, are not so much about food. They don’t even smell like food—they smell like floor wax or detergent. (For real. Notice next time.) And they sell mostly mega-food brands that are familiar from the past, but aren’t the only options. I understand that if you live in a food desert you may not have a choice (in that case, online purveyors like Thrive Market may come to the rescue)—but if you do, give it a try. Explore a new store and start reading labels there—see #2!).
- Try date sugar. When you do add sugar to coffee, cocoa, baking, and anything else you dust with the sweet stuff, try date sugar—the only sugar that is 2 g of sugar per teaspoons instead of four. That’s half (I know, I’m a math genius!) and it adds up. Date sugar also offers more flavor. Yep, it’s pricey, but hey—you’re not using tons anyway, right?
- Make your own…whatever it is. When I crave a particular item and my aisle-puttering has not revealed anything low-sugar enough for my standards, I figure out how to make my own. For example, even some of my favorite organic soup brands, like Amy’s, Engine 2, and Fig Foods, have 10 grams sugar per package, so I tend to make my soups homemade (keeping the packaged around for emergencies only, and scouting the very lowest-sugar flavors I can for that). I tend to bake my own treats when I have a hankering for cake or cookies (see #10, next), or at holiday time (check out my recent experiment with super-low-sugar baked donuts here).If I want dark chocolate with dried cherries, cranberries, orange peel, figs, or almonds in it, and the only brands featuring these are 60% or 70% (considered “dark” by some, but not dark enough or low-sugar enough for me), I melt down my 80-90% faves, stir in some of the dried ingredients, and make a “bark.” (Fun and yummy!)
- Cut the sugar in your baked goods in half—or even more. This takes some experimenting, but it’s worthwhile. I’ve been able to make some crowd-pleasers without dumping entire cups of sugar into the mixing bowl. (As your sweet tooth calms down, you’ll be sensitive to less and less, too. See #11, next.) Tricks for keeping your baked goods tasty even with less sugar: use fruit and dark chocolate in the recipes (the burst of flavor is even more noticeable without the numbing overall cloying sweetness); mix mesquite flour or coconut flour into the flour base; use a flavorful sweetener like molasses or maple syrup rather than plain old white sugar (they’ve got a smidge more nutritional value anyway). Dusting the outside/top of a quickbread, muffin or baked donut with sugar and spice offers a “first bite sweet hit,” yet doesn’t add much to the total load.
- Allow your taste buds time to adjust. After eating mostly whole fresh foods for a few weeks and reducing the total sugar load, you’ll be surprised how refreshed your palate is—and how sweet the less-sweet tastes. I can’t stand over-sugared any more—it tastes bland and sickly-sweet to me. Sweet is not FLAVOR, and often masks specific rich flavors in food. Give this a chance.
- Keep it complex. There are times when “complicated” is good! Make all your grain products high-fiber and, well, grainy. White refined flour is a lot like sugar for your body, and in some ways worse. Avoid anything with “enriched bleached flour.” Try crackers made out of flaxseeds (I like Flackers); grains like quinoa, farro, and buckwheat for your meals; and actual multigrain breads (again with the labels—don’t just trust the NAME; look at the ingredients). In a true multigrain bread you actually want to see 12 or 15 or 21 (or thereabouts) kinds of grains (my current fave lists not only wheat but oats, millet, barley, rye, amaranth, triticale, buckwheat, spelt, quinoa, kamut, and more, plus seeds like flax, poppy and sesame.BONUS: You tend to get some decent protein from this kind of bread or cereal too: some super-grainy-seedy breads have 6 g protein per slice! Yep, like those tricky Protein Cheerios—but without the 17g of sugar. (See how you can start to take control of these things with a little awareness?)Complex carbs break down to sugar more slowly, keeping your blood sugar from rocketing up and down rapidly, and all that fiber slows and regulates the release of glucose as well. (Not to mention fiber has a host of other health benefits.)
- Choose lower-sugar fruits most of the time. Educate yourself about the grams of sugar per typical serving in each fruit, and know which ones are lowest. A cup of raspberries, blueberries or strawberries has way less sugar than a cup of mango, cherries or grapes. Stone fruits (especially plums and apricots) have less sugar generally than apples and pears. Grapefruit has less than orange—you know that by the taste! Those sweeter fruits are tasty and nutrient-rich too, but you can limit them to occasional treats and get plenty of nutrition from the lower-sugar ones. Berries are some of the most well-studied nutrient superfood powerhouses around.Again, you only need to do this at first; then you’ll be informed. You’ll know to use less of the banana and kiwi in your fruit salad and more of the cantaloupe and blackberry. Even natural sugar from whole foods counts toward your total, so choose judiciously and save the higher-sugar varieties for special occasions. 13a) Also on the topic of fruit—try to CHEW your fruit rather than drink it (read labels and prepare to be shocked—even quality organic juices are loaded with as much sugar as soda—natural or not). Put more veggies than fruits in your smoothie (you don’t need two apples or a whole mango and banana in your smoothie to sweeten it!). I put one mere ounce—about 3 small chunks of frozen banana—in a smoothie to get sweetness and creamy texture. 13b) Use dried fruit sparingly, as a condiment—don’t chow down on handfuls, because even without sugar added (which it often is—read labels!) the drying process concentrates the sugar. Example: An ounce of fresh apricot has about 3 grams sugar; an ounce of dried has 15 grams. Yikes! Get the picture?
- Fill up on veggies, legumes, whole grains and healthy proteins. Prioritize whole, real, unprocessed food for your meals. You’ll crave sugar less and have less room for it too; your blood sugar will remain more stable (and hello, you’ll get too many other bennies to list here). Make sure you get enough lean, healthy protein at each meal, along with some kind of complex carb (see #12). And plenty of veggies! When I eat a big bowl of stir-fried veggies with a small scoop of quinoa and some baked tofu or tempeh for dinner, I don’t have room for 15 cookies. I might enjoy one or two for dessert, or a cup of home-made cocoa (with unsweetened cacao powder, unsweetened nut milk and a hint of date sugar—see # 6 and #9) or a small piece of chocolate or “bark.” I couldn’t eat more if I tried.
- Bring snacks with you. Don’t expect the world to feed you. Someday, I hope, all you’ll find out in the world is nourishing, superb quality food—but we aren’t there yet. Have on hand quality snacks that offer both protein and complex carb—in your purse, your car, your bike bag, your flight bag. (If you live in a warm climate like I do, don’t leave chocolate in the car, though!) Nuts and seeds, dark chocolate, low-sugar energy bars, low-glycemic fruits, jerky (for me as a veg, that means seitan jerky), seedy crackers, small squeeze pouches of superfood smoothies, string cheese if you’re not vegan. I don’t travel so much as a mile from home without something to munch on, just in case. You never know what will happen. Choose your sweets—don’t be stranded into substandard quality.
These are my hacks and tricks for enjoying a delicious, fulfilling, and supremely healthy diet and still satisfying my considerable sweet tooth. I promise that if you try these for a month, you will find your taste for uber-sweet waning—and you will enjoy all the healthy benefits of a lower sugar intake. Besides prevention of all the conditions in which sugar has been implicated, I am willing to bet you’ll see clearer skin, improved mood, better sleep, more even and consistent energy throughout the day, stronger workouts, and more.
One more thing worth mentioning: Sugar is a serious issue, no doubt one of the top concerns to address in our eating today. But there is NO one thing that will resolve everything, no single answer, and no need for drama. Reducing doesn’t mean eliminating. (If we think that’s what it means, most of us won’t act at all.) It is much more important to eat an overall high-quality diet. Focusing on all the food diversity involved in that tends to help take care of any unhealthy excess—naturally and organically (so to speak).
The New York Times recently quoted Alice H. Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science at Tufts University who served on the dietary guidelines committee for the FDA sugar recs, who noted: “Every time we focus on just one component of the diet, we get in these crazy situations.” When we harped only on fat, we got too much sugar. We got the infamous Snackwells.
My recs won’t take you in that direction. The “one thing” mentality is a deep-rooted culprit that makes everything harder for everyone. We constantly fail to see the big picture when it comes to food, and we simply must account for the whole picture.
Functional medicine doc Mark Hyman has said one of the most succinct and right-on things I’ve ever heard about sugar in this great video (tons of other great bottom-line food points in it that I enthusiastically second, other than his penchant for lamb fat):
“Sugar is okay to eat, but it’s a recreational drug. I love tequila, but I’m not going to have a glass of tequila in my hand all day long, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In America we eat sugar for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast cereal that’s 75% sugar should be called dessert, not breakfast. So that’s the problem. Not that we can’t have sugar, just that’s it’s a recreational drug.”
— Dr. Mark Hyman
Finally: parents? I know it’s hard when you want to make your child happy, but you’re not three, you know better, and you’re the one paying at checkout. Kids will eat the less-sweet alternatives when they get hungry if it’s all that’s in the house. And do this for yourself, too—don’t play “do as I say, not as I do.” They will eventually like it (so will you!), and one day they will thank you.
She offers individual and group coaching, including “NOURISH U: The Joyful Self-Care Success System—9 Weeks to Happier Healthy Habits and a Fully-Charged Life.” This is a streamlined, hype-free online training in what really works and matters most—supported by over two decades of research and experience. Her intelligent, hype-free approach eliminates focus on irrelevant “weight” and “magic bullet solutions,” and dispenses with “regimens.” She helps clients and students natural integrate food, exercise, rest, meditation and traditional healing…to get the body that’s fit for their dreams.
Robyn has helped thousands of people overcome confusion, overwhelm, and resistance to healthy living , and her books—published in five languages—have over 200,000 copies in print. She has walked the talk for over 25 happy healthy years, LIVING the perspectives and practices she shares.
Raised in NYC and later a longtime Seattleite, Robyn now lives in Tucson, Arizona. She hikes, bikes, runs, swims, does yoga, meditates, and loves to cook and eat. Her favorite food is dark chocolate; she is obsessed with herbal teas, natural lip balms, organic hair products, and trail shoes; and she usually wins at Scrabble (by quite a bit). Find her blog at www.robynlandis.net and contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She wrote this post enjoying a cup of homemade cocoa.