The common wisdom goes: move more, eat less. If only it were that simple! The truth is, the food industry has managed to commandeer not only our taste buds, but our brain chemistry and hormones. We blame ourselves for consuming too much sugar. But even those who are conscious of how the hormones and neurotransmitters that fuel sugar cravings work have a hard time harnessing the tools to fight them when so many billions of dollars are funneled into driving this biological disorder. The prospect of giving up sugar entirely can seem daunting, but it's 100 percent possible to learn to cut back and loosen sugar's grip on your every move. Here are some proven tactics to help you break your sugar addiction for good.
First things first, how many grams of sugar per day are actually OK?
"For women, the daily recommended allowance [of sugar] is six teaspoons, and for men, nine teaspoons. Children should have less than six teaspoons per day," says Nicole Avena, PhD, a research neuroscientist, food addiction expert, and author of What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler. There are roughly four grams of sugar per teaspoon, meaning women and children should get no more than 25 grams of added sugar each day (those under 2 should get no added sugar) and men should get no more than 36 grams per day. "It's important to note that sugar provides no nutritional value," Avena adds. "It's simply empty calories, devoid of vitamins, minerals, protein, or fiber."
So how much is the average American actually getting? "The American Heart Association says American adults get, on average, 77 grams a day or 60 pounds a year," says Mark Drucker, MD, a doctor specializing in preventative medicine, healthy aging, and natural hormone therapies. "Children are getting more: 81 grams per day or 65 pounds a year, which, while only a modest increase, is much worse since children are smaller."
Sugar substitutes are not get-out-of-jail-free cards
While sugar substitutes can be beneficial and safe, they can also mess with your metabolism and fuel hunger. "Substitutes can help people who are dieting, who suffer from diabetes (because some artificial sweeteners don't cause a sharp spike in blood sugar), and those who are worried about cavities and tooth decay caused by sugar," says Avena. "In these ways, sugar substitutes can be a good choice over white sugar, however, an excessive intake of sugar substitutes can confuse the body's natural response to sugar and can cause blood sugar to be stored in tissues. This can cause hypoglycemia and can increase overall food intake."
Just like with regular white sugar, Avena underlines that it's very important to consume artificial sweeteners in moderation and get most of your calories from whole foods. But how to do this? Read on for expert-approved tactics for eating (and drinking) less sugar.
Get more sleep.
People don't realize it, but not sleeping well can affect your sugar cravings. "Studies have shown that poor sleep leads to more intense cravings for sweets," says Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, co-author of Sugar Shock. "On top of making some dietary changes, it's important to look at your sleep patterns. To help with cravings, aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night."
Know the difference between a craving and hunger.
Oftentimes when we think we're hungry, we're actually just having a craving. What's the difference? Next time you want to reach for that chocolate cake, ask yourself: if the only thing I had to eat right now was an apple, would I eat it? If the answer is "no," then you're probably having a craving and not actually hungry. When you're hungry, what you're willing to eat is flexible, when you're having a craving, it's not. The next time you answer "no" to that question, take 20 minutes before you act on it. Often you'll find that the craving goes away; if it doesn't then allow yourself to mindfully indulge.
"You can also try to replace that craving with a healthy substitute," says Kien Vuu, MD, a performance and longevity doctor and the author of Thrive State. Whenever I experience a craving, I'll either go for a walk or sip on sparkling water. I find that if I don't act on my initial craving and allow some time to pass, my craving will usually dissipate on its own."
When flavored water doesn't do the trick, Cassetty tells her clients that one of the easiest ways to lower your added sugar intake is to swap out your usual dessert for something like Lily's Sweets. "They're botanically sweetened chocolate treats with no added sugar. A sweet like this doesn't count toward your daily added sugar intake." Note, however, even botanically sweetened treats-aka stevia-sweetened ones-should be consumed in moderation, as previously mentioned.
Add some protein to a carb-rich breakfast.
"A study that looked at MRI scans of people eating a high-protein breakfast found reduced activity in the regions of the brain associated with cravings," Cassetty says. Try adding some protein to your breakfast and see if it helps you cut down on sugar later in the day. "You can serve your hot or cold cereal with some Greek yogurt, or have it with a couple of eggs on the side to boost your protein intake. If you're eating a bagel or toast, include some smoked salmon to get the benefits of protein."
Don't think so much about eliminating sugar, and instead reframe it as adding more of the good stuff to your diet. Aim to consistently fill your plate with protein, healthy fat, and high-fiber carbohydrates like non-starchy vegetables. "This way, you'll stay full and not let your body get too hungry, which is when we often reach for quick-acting carbohydrates like sugar," says Rachel Paul, PhD, RD, the founder of CollegeNutritionist.com.
Go for portion control.
Because sugar addiction is biological-not emotional as is so often thought-this might not work for everyone. Many people can't live by "three-bite rules," but that doesn't mean there's any harm in trying. "A good way to do this is to buy higher sugar foods in single serving sizes to help with portion control in the moment," Paul says. If you don't have more than four Oreos at home, you can't eat more than four Oreos.
Cut out sugar in foods that aren't sweet.
If you can't give up your ice cream and chocolate, try to eliminate ketchup and salsa. "Sugar is in many condiments and sauces, and one must be careful not to assume that because it's not a dessert or a sweet food it must not have sugar," says Ilene Ruhoy, MD, PhD, a doctor trained in both pediatric and adult neurology and a gut council member for Jetson. "Sugar is found in many kinds of ketchup, mustards, salsas, marinaras, and other sauces. It can also be found in some meals such as sushi rice and polenta."
In fact, according to Dr. Drucker, manufacturers add sugar to 74 percent of packaged foods! "Sugar is the most popular ingredient added to packaged foods; a breakfast bar made with 'real fruit and whole grains' may contain 15 grams or more of added sugar-sugar is literally hidden everywhere in our food supply. Adults, children, toddlers and even babies are unknowingly conditioned to desire sugar." Making a habit of checking ingredient labels will open your eyes to just how much sugar is added to some of the most unexpected foods.
Drink more water.
There's a reason that Dr. Vuu finds that he can quench some of his longing for sugary foods with water-often people confuse thirst with hunger. "One simple way to manage a sugar addiction is to drink more water," says Cassetty. "It's an excellent replacement for other drinks and it helps with feelings of fullness, which may prevent unintentional snacking on sugary foods. In one study, people who increased their daily water intake decreased their daily sugar intake."
In the same vein, it's worth noting that sweetened drinks, like soda, lemonade and sports drinks, are the number-one source of added sugar in our diets. "One of the best things you can do is to trade your sugary drink for an unsweetened one," says Cassetty. "If you have trouble doing this, you can start by cutting the amount you drink, for instance, by having a soda every other day instead of every day. Then, continue to reduce the amount you drink each week until you've dropped the habit."