How to Cut Down on Sugar

sugar with X in it
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There's no doubt about it: people, in general, are eating too much sugar - and yet we seem to be hooked on it (perhaps literally). Sugar in one of its many forms is added to almost every processed food - it's hard to find even a cracker or soup without sugar, let alone cereal, BBQ sauce, and canned fruit.

Is Sugar Worse than Other Carbs?

All carbohydrates (like potatoes, bread, and pasta) break down into sugar in the body, but added sugars are arguably the worst carbohydrate sources. This is because starches break down mostly into glucose, whereas most sugars also have a substantial portion of fructose, which has problems of its own, along with the glucose. (Note that too much glucose is also bad, it's just that fructose has what I call "it's own special badness.")

How to Cut Down on Sugar

To cut down on something, you have to know where it is, and where your biggest "bang for the buck" will be.

1. Sugar-Sweetened Beverages - If you are drinking these, as most people are, this is probably the worst way to consume sugar, as liquid forms of sugar basically go directly into the bloodstream. Don't just think of soda - think coffee drinks, bottled lemonade, sports drinks, etc.

2. Candy, Cookies, Cakes, Ice Cream, Pies, Doughnuts, Muffins, etc - These are the other obvious category of foods that contain lots of sugar. Surprised that muffins are on this list? Don't be - commercial muffins often have as much sugar as a comparably-sized piece of cake. If it seems too much to give these up, try to cut down on portions. The first few bites are usually the most rewarding anyway. Really focus on the enjoyment of those bites and you may be surprised how satisfied you are. Even better, have a square of really good dark chocolate, and savor every melting drop in your mouth. Or try recipes for sugar-free desserts, or have fruit, preferably fruits lowest in sugars.

3. Jams, jellies, preserves - These usually are almost pure sugar - in other words, a tablespoon of jam usually has about a tablespoon of sugar in it. Check out this Guide to Sugar-Free and Low-Sugar Jams and Preserves.

4. Condiments and salad dressings - It's sometimes shocking how much sugar is in barbecue sauce, salad dressings, and other marinades and condiments.

Read labels carefully! Try to find sugar-free ketchup, as the regular kind has about a teaspoon of sugar for every tablespoon of ketchup. In the case of salad dressings, the low-fat dressings often have the most sugar. More about healthy salad dressings and good choices for low-sugar condiments

5. Read, read, read those labels! Sugar is in so many things, from applesauce to pasta sauce. There's honey-roasted peanuts and honey-baked ham. Recently I found a loaf of bread where there were five different forms of sugar on the ingredient list.

More Tips

  • Try cutting out sweet foods for a week or 10 days. This usually will help break our reliance on them. (If you are cutting out other carbs as well, check out Getting Through the First Week.)
  • Have an assortment of sugar-free foods on hand (list of low-carb snacks).
  • Have patience with yourself. It's natural to prefer sweet foods, but we have become conditioned to sweeter and sweeter foods over time (e.g. Corn Flakes have had more sugar added to them with each passing decade). Over time, we get used to foods that are less sweet and come to prefer them.
  • Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep is associated with insulin resistance, which makes it more difficult for the body to process carbohydrates.

What about "Natural" Sugars?

Don't get trapped by sugars advertised as "natural". Agave nectar evaporated cane juice, rice syrup, barley malt, sorghum syrup, etc, are all refined from some plant or other and it all comes down to "sugar."

Dried fruit is very high in sugar (2 tablespoons of chopped dates contain a tablespoon of sugar). If you're trying to wean yourself away from sugar and you'd like to try dried fruit, experiment with small amounts and see how you react.

What About Sugar Substitutes?

This is something that each person has to decide on their own. Here are some of my thoughts:

  • I think the intensity of sweetness in and of itself is worth the effort to wean ourselves away from, but sugar substitutes can be a "bridge" to doing that, as they don't raise blood sugar.
  • If you want the most "natural" of sugar substitutes, try erythritol, xylitol, or stevia. However, be aware that these, too, are refined products.
  • I personally don't think that artificial sweeteners are a problem for most people in moderation (some people react to one or another of them). Most of them are so sweet (hundreds of times sweeter than sugar) that only a very small amount is ingested. Certainly, and especially for people whose bodies don't tolerate sugar well, they are preferable to sugar, in my opinion.
  • On the hand, many sugar substitutes, especially powders, use sugar as a filler! I avoid these, preferring liquid forms of sucralose or one of the more "natural" products suggested above.
  • Fresh whole foods are always preferable to foods with additives such as artificial sweeteners.
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