Excessive sugar intake does a lot more than hold on to unwanted pounds. Twenty years ago - all the focus was on fat. In recent years, accumulating evidence suggests that fat intake may not be the cause of Canada's obesity epidemic - but rather, it's refined sugar and refined carbohydrates that are at the root of the problem. Research suggests a diet high in refined sugar raises the risk of dying from heart disease, increases risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, contributes significantly to Type 2 diabetes, and may even interfere with brain function, leading to food addiction. Looking to reduce your intake of refined sugar? Try our free 30-day no-sugar challenge.
Even if you don’t drink cola by the litre or tuck into a bowl of ice cream each night, sugar from everyday foods such as breakfast cereals, fruit flavoured yogurt, takeout noodle bowls, sauces and condiments may be stoking your sweet tooth and packing in a lot more sugar than you bargained for. Eating less added sugar may seem like an impossible task but the the good news is that it is possible to rein in your sugar cravings... for good!
Research suggests that as you cut sugar, added sugars or "free sugars" will, over time, taste more intensely sweet, leading you to seek less sweet foods. One study looked at 36 healthy men and women, between the ages of 21 and 54. Upon enrolment, all reported drinking at least two sugar-sweetened beverages a day. Participants were divided into two groups. One group was assigned to a low-sugar diet for three months. Dietary changes included replacing high-sugar foods with protein, fat and/or complex carbohydrates and diluting any sugary drinks by 50 per cent with water. Use of artificial sweeteners was not allowed. Participants in the control group were told not to alter their sugar intake during the three-month period. All participants kept detailed food and exercise diaries. Each month they were asked to rate sweetness intensity and pleasantness (e.g. likeability) of vanilla puddings and raspberry beverages that varied in sugar concentration. After two months of eating a sugar-reduced diet, participants rated both low- and high-sugar puddings as 40 per cent sweeter than did the control group. A similar effect was seen for the raspberry-flavoured drinks. Our key takeaways - by reducing your sugar intake, over time (and not a long time), it is possible to get used to (and enjoy) foods that are naturally less sweet. The longer you stick with it, the more likely you will come to prefer lower-sugar foods.
8 ways to de-sugar your diet
These eight tips will help you reduce added sugars in your diet. You may want to back slowly to acclimate your taste buds or you may want to dive right in and go cold turkey with our 30 day no sugar challenge.
- Read labels: The nutrition facts box doesn’t typically distinguish between natural sugars (e.g. lactose in milk, or fructose in whole fruit) and added sugars. One cup of skim milk, for example, has 13 grams of sugar but all of it is naturally occurring lactose. To scope out added sugars – the kind you want to limit – read ingredient lists. Added sugars include corn syrup, glucose-fructose, dextrose, agave, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses and evaporated cane juice. It’s not uncommon to find multiple types in one product. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight; the higher up on the list you see added sugars, the more added sugars in each serving. For foods that do contain added sugars, compare nutrition labels to choose ones with fewer grams of added sugar.
- Buy "unsweetened" and watch out for "sugar free": Unflavoured or "original" flavour doesn’t always mean sugar-free. Unflavoured (a.k.a. "original") almond milk, for instance, has eight grams of added sugars (two teaspoons’ worth) per one cup serving. One package of Quaker Apples & Cinnamon instant oatmeal has nine grams of added sugar. Be weary of "sugar free" labels too - often brands replace sugar with artificial sweeteners in the "sugar free" versions of popular packaged products. Look for all natural and unsweetened dairy products (eg. plain yogurt instead of vanilla or fruit flavoured, or plain milk instead of strawberry-flavoured or chocolate milk) and unsweetened non-dairy beverages (e.g. soy, almond, coconut, rice). Choose no-sugar-added peanut butter or all natural nut butters, and no-sugar added oatmeal.
- Stick to plain yogurt: Most single 100-gram tubs of sweetened yogurt pack in two teaspoons’ worth (eight grams) of added sugar. Most fruit-flavoured yogurts are made using a “fruit preparation” that lists sugar as the first ingredient. Choose plain yogurt and sweeten it naturally with chopped whole fruit.
- Cut sugar in recipes: Reduce the amount of sugar by one-quarter, then by one-third and finally by one-half in recipes. If you are interested in cutting refined sugars completely - find recipes where you can replace sugar with sweet potato, mashed ripe banana, or a bit of pureed dried fruit. Over time, you won’t notice the difference at all. Coconut sugar, beet sugar, raw honey, maple syrup, brown sugar, and brown-rice syrup all sound healthier than plain white sugar - and some of these natural sugar sources do contain small amounts of vitamins or minerals, but the cupcakes, pound cakes, cookies, or dessert bars made with "all natural" sugars typically aren’t much healthier than those made with white table sugar. These are still added sugars that should be limited in your diet.
- Add flavour with spices: To enhance taste without adding sugar (or calories), flavour lattes or smoothies with all natural almond or vanilla extract, or sprinkle some cinnamon or nutmeg over your oatmeal or baked apples. Instead of adding honey or maple syrup to salad dressings or marinades, add citrus zest, grainy mustard, or chopped fresh herbs.
- Lose the sugar bowl: It's hard to reduce sugar when you leave it to stare at you in the face every day. If you add sugar (or honey) to your coffee or tea or your typically drizzle maple syrup over your oatmeal, cut back gradually. Reduce the amount of sweetener you use by one-half each week. When you’re used to the new level of sweetness, cut back again.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners: Replacing real sugar with fake sugar (or even all natural calorie-free sweeteners) won’t lessen your desire for a sweet tasting foods, it will only continue to fuel it. Plus, artificial sweeteners can be intensely sweet and dull your taste buds to the taste of naturally sweet foods like whole fruit. There is some research that increased intake of artificial sugars is associated with weight gain.
- Eat snacks higher in protein and healthy fats: To keep blood sugar stable between meals, eat snacks that are naturally high in protein such as unsalted nuts, cheese, plain yogurt, chick peas, or a hard-boiled egg. Bring fresh chopped veggies and high protien snacks to work so you’re less inclined to fall prey to the office sweet tray.
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