14 Tricks to Keep Sugar Grams Low and Still Love Your Food
Sugar has emerged in recent years as an insidious and dangerous threat to our health—at least as much so as fat. 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 someone older than 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.” 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 so because I don’t experience any of the issues 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.
Of course, even “health brand” products can be loaded with sugar, so 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).
Here are 14 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. 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 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.) 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 exclaiming “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 #13 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. The same size serving of one brand’s 80-85% bar may contain more sugar than another. My faves: Endangered Species 88%, Green and Black’s 85%, Guittard Nocturne 91%, Taza 80% and 95% (!) and Grenada 82%.
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 not strictly so, those brands tend not to put sugar in thing that don’t need sugar (or, at least, 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 vegetable soup has 18 grams per can; this 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, 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 25-35 grams of sugar per bitty bar. Flake cereals? For an extra buck or so a box, you can get ones that are not only low-sugar but with whole/multi-grain, organic ingredients. (Feel like an extra buck is too much? Check your cart—got soda? Got candy? Take it out and reduce your costs and your sugar “bill” further.
Bread? Oatmeal? Soup? Ketchup? Salad dressing? Yogurt? 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!
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/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 ginseng soda and chocolate-covered Spanish figs, yeah—you’ll run up your bill. But for whole, fresh, organically-produced foods, and for quality brands of packaged foods (especially if you buy the house organic brands), 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.
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 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.
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, 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 sweetness); mix almond flour, 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 hair 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 breads have 6 g protein per slice!
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! Even natural sugar from whole foods counts toward your total, so choose judiciously and save the higher-sugar varieties for special occasions.
And 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.
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.
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. Nuts and seeds, dark chocolate, low-sugar energy bars, low-glycemic fruits, jerky (for me as a plant-based eater, that means seitan jerky), seedy crackers, small squeeze pouches of superfood smoothies. 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.
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. They will eventually like it (so will you!), and one day they will thank you.