By Vanessa Voltolina
You’ve seen the news, read the headlines and had that particularly health-conscious friend tell you that you eat too much sugar -- all while you’re daydreaming about that delicious venti coffee and whipped cream drink that you plan to enjoy later.
Even if you’re not one of the 65 percent of Americans who are overweight or obese, you still need to watch your sugar intake. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that only six to 10 percent of our daily calories should come from sugar. “That equals 120 to 200 calories and 30 to 50 grams per day for a 2,000 calorie diet, respectively,” says Jenny Champion, a certified diabetes educator in New York City. But research suggests that, in actuality, added sugars make up around 13 percent of the American adult’s total intake. (Holy schnikes, Batman!) It matters, ultimately, because excess sugars convert to fat. That's not only a bummer in the weight-maintenance department; it may also lead to a fatty liver disease (a leading cause of liver transplants) and inflammation, which ups the risk for heart disease.
Experts say that the worst culprits when it comes to added sugar are sugary sodas, juices and energy drinks. “The number-one food source [of added sugars] are grain-based desserts,” says Joan Salge Blake, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of Nutrition & You. (Think: Processed foods, such as cookies, cakes, pies and cupcakes.)
According to Champion, however, there's a less-expected source. “The most popular -- and surprisingly sugar-laden -- food?" she says. "It’s that wolf in sheep’s clothing [known as] the fruit smoothie. If you buy one of these treats at a smoothie stand or milkshake joint, you’ll end up taking in upwards of 50 grams of sugar and maxing out your daily sugar allotment."
Convinced to reduce your sugar intake, at least a little bit? Here’s where to begin:
Good: Substitute At Least One Sweetened Beverage
One of the easiest -- yet most significant -- changes you can make is to “cut out the fruit punch or sweetened soda,” says Keri Gans, nutritionist and author of The Small Change Diet. Start off slow, replacing one sweetened drink per day. “Opt for water flavored with fresh fruit or a hint of fruit juice,” says Gans. “I also think diet soda is OK, as long as you’re only having one per day.”
Once you feel comfortable, keep swapping sweetened drinks until you cut them out completely. After you begin, “you’ll start changing your palate,” says Blake, and those sweetened drinks may begin to actually taste too sweet. Blake also suggests filling ice-cube trays with lemonade or orange juice. After the cubes harden, add them to your glass of still or sparkling water. “I also love those water pitchers with fruit infusions,” says Blake. “Buy one! It makes you feel like you’re at a spa, pampering yourself."
Better: Be Selective Of Your Sweetness
Now that you’ve cut out most, if not all, of your sugary beverages, it’s time to look at your other sources of daily sugar. (We’re guessing that involves bread, cookies and the like.) Instead of grabbing a cupcake to satisfy your craving, “find sweetness elsewhere,” says Gans. “Choose fruit for dessert instead of something grain-based, or replace your midday candy bar with a flavored yogurt.” These little substitutions can not only make a big difference, but choosing an alternative will likely clue you in to just how much added sugar you were actually eating in the first place. (Scary, yes -- but at least you know now, right? Right.)
Make sure you have these sweet alternatives on hand by being more selective in what you buy at the store. Yes, those bags of fruity loops and chocolate-chip cookies are less expensive if you buy in bulk, but they tend to be loaded with added sugar. And once you bring them home, you may feel obligated to eat them (we believe in a “no cookie left behind” policy). “Don’t over-purchase,” says Blake. “Instead of loading up on packaged cookies, buy a gourmet one from a bakery as a treat. In addition to upping the quality -- it’s probably made with better ingredients -- you’ll also feel more satisfied.” Visualize yourself eating a few bites of that gourmet cookie, versus holding a bag of sugary cereal hostage on your couch. The choice seems pretty clear.
Best: Share The Sugary Stuff
OK, so you're drinking water instead of soda and attempting to be more selective with foods that contain sugar. Now, for the pièce de résistance: You can still have your cake and eat it, too. “Enjoy dessert,” says Gans. “Just halve it and share with a friend -- or a few friends.” Sharing will not only mean enjoying a decadent treat, but you won’t do nearly as much damage on the sugar front. Make added sugars special-occasion-only, and you’ll be on the right path to cutting your sugar intake.