Nutrition pros share their top tips for cutting back on sugar the healthy way -- without leaving you craving the sweet stuff.
Eating more fresh foods, drinking more water and getting more exercise -- these are all common goals when it comes to getting healthy. But one of the hardest habits to kick? Eating too much sugar.
Cutting down your sugar intake is a simple way to improve your diet and health overall -- but it's certainly not easy. Consuming too much sugar, especially added sugar, is linked to health risks like heart disease, fatty liver disease, high blood pressure and chronic inflammation. If you think that you're consuming more sugar than you need and want to cut back, doing so is a smart move for your long-term health.
Health authorities like the US Office of Disease Prevention and the World Health Organization recommend that you should get no more than 10% of your daily calories from added sugar each day (that doesn't include naturally occuring sugars, like in fruit). Another way to look at that amount is to limit your sugar intake to no more than 6 teaspoons, or 25 grams total. You'll want to keep track of how much sugar you actually add to your food and drinks, but also what's in prepackaged food or food from restaurants.
That said, if you have a sweet tooth or have never tracked your sugar intake before, it can be hard to cut back. Sugar is a highly addictive food and is lurking in many foods, condiments and drinks, including foods you may think are pretty healthy, like granola bars.
If you're looking for helpful tips to help you curb your sugar intake, below, a health coach and nutrition consultant share their tried-and-true tips that they use themselves and with their clients.
Read more: Sugar vs. artificial sweeteners: Which one you should choose?
If you're ready to quit sugar, a tempting strategy is to resolve to give it up cold turkey. While that may seem like the best approach, it's not likely to last. according to Jayne Williams, a certified nutritional consultant and clinical nutrition graduate student.
"I am never a fan of going 'cold turkey' when it comes to changing routined habits and making lasting change. Sugar is one of the biggest habits we want to dial down, but slowly. The key is to wean yourself over a few days so your body no longer craves it," Williams says. Since sugar can be a quite addictive food, removing it all at once can feel extreme. The idea is slowly reduce it, and then you won't miss it as much.
"When we focus on 'removing' something from our diet we tend to want it even more. Rather than create a mindset where we are feeding the forbidden, I like to draw from the positive and build a mindset around abundance by adding in all the amazing food that provides optimal support," Williams says.
Staying well hydrated is important for your health, and also for keeping sugar cravings at bay. According to Jim Curtis, certified health coach and Head of Brand at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, sometimes dehydration can mimic hunger. "Being dehydrated usually tricks us into thinking we're hungry. More water means you'll be more hydrated and will have less room for snacks, especially those sugary ones that call our names at 2 p.m.," Curtis says.
If you don't love plain water, you can add flavor by infusing it with lemon slices, strawberries, orange slices, or a combo of all three to make a flavorful "spa" water. Plus the fruit will give it sweetness, which will help if you typically drink sweetened beverages.
If you've never paid attention to food labels, now is the time. You may be surprised that most foods, even those you may not expect -- like salad dressing, sauces and soups -- contain added sugar. It's important to read labels on everything you eat and cook with. If one of the first few ingredients is sugar, that's a clue that the food contains more sugar than it should.
This also includes "healthy" foods like protein bars, granola bars and cereals -- these products are often loaded with sugar. Don't let marketing messages about foods being "healthy" or "natural" keep you from checking the label before you buy or eat it.
Exercise makes you feel better overall and boosts endorphins, making you feel happier. If you tend to crave sugar when you're stressed, anxious or sad, it's important to find other ways to cope with emotions other than food. Exercise can help distract you from cravings and helps take your mind away from whatever is making you feel uneasy or sad.
You don't have to exercise for very long -- even 15 to 20 minutes of something that gets your heart rate up can help increase blood flow and oxygen, giving you feel-good benefits that boost your energy and mood.
Emotional eating is common, according to Curtis, because many people adopt poor eating habits when other areas of their lives (like work, love or spirituality) aren't satisfying enough to fill their needs.
"Sugar is often the perfect comfort food because it hits our taste buds and the pleasure centers in our brain immediately, but the effect is short-lived, making us reach for more and more to keep feeling that satisfaction," Curtis explains.
Curtis suggests finding ways, even if they are small, to do more things that make you feel good. That can be giving yourself time to relax more, connect with friends or loved ones, pick up a hobby or pursue a passion project.
"It's simple, really -- do more of what makes you feel good and there will be far less room for things that don't make you feel good, from sugar-laden foods and beverages to toxic relationships. Mending relationships, leading with kindness or removing toxic people [from] your life will help you create a space in which you're surrounded by people who care and look after you," Curtis says.
Thankfully, there are plenty of foods that taste sweet naturally and provide you with a ton of nutrition compared with food with added, processed sugar. When you're cutting back on sugar, don't be afraid to add in more naturally sweet foods like fruit or sweet potatoes. That way you won't feel as deprived since you still have sweeter foods in your diet.
You may still miss your candy, dessert or other sweet treats, but over time you'll find that you enjoy the naturally sweet foods more. When I gave up all added sugar on the Whole30 program, I remember over the course of the 30 days that fruit and other naturally sweet foods tasted like candy. But I wouldn't have said the same thing if I was still eating sugar or candy. Your taste buds can change over time depending on what you eat regularly.
Read more: What are 'superfoods'?