How to Eat Less Sugar

This 5-step plan makes it easy

bowls of granola, whipped cream, and raspberries with spoons Photo: Tina Nurra/Photocuisine

Baking (and eating) sweets became a pandemic habit for many of us. And while it may have been a great quarantine hobby, most people need to examine just how much sugar they’re eating. According to the Department of Agriculture, adults get an average of 68 grams (17 teaspoons) of added sugars every day—those added to foods, not the ones naturally in them. In contrast, the American Heart Association’s upper limit for women is 25 grams (6 teaspoons) a day; for men, it’s 36 grams (9 teaspoons).

More on Healthy Eating

“Added sugars can easily add a lot of calories to your diet,” says Frank Hu, MD, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, often without you realizing it. For instance, if you had a small Strawberry Coolatta from Dunkin’ as an afternoon treat and a bottle of Pure Leaf Lemon iced tea with dinner, you’d be consuming 400 calories—all from added sugars. All that sugar increases your risk of weight gain and obesity. “And obesity in turn is a major risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer,” Hu says.

Even for those who maintain a healthy weight, excess sugar can still lead to serious health conditions. The risks may be especially hazardous for older adults. “Too much sugar in older adults’ diets contributes to all components of frailty [a syndrome that manifests as reduced strength and physical function],” Hu says. A 2020 study published in the journal PLOS Medicine involving 70,000 women over 60 found that those who had more than two sugary drinks a day were 32 percent more likely to become frail than those who didn’t.

How Sugar Affects You

When you eat table sugar—sucrose, which is a combination of glucose and fructose—it causes a quick spike in your blood sugar and in the secretion of insulin to help metabolize it. “If you consume too much sugar, your insulin stays elevated for extended periods of time,” Hu says. That makes insulin less effective in controlling blood sugar, which can lead to diabetes. In addition to table sugar, fructose is in high-fructose corn syrup (used in sodas and other sweetened foods). It’s metabolized in the liver, where it increases fat production and storage. “Too much fat in the liver leads to chronic inflammation [a risk factor for heart disease and some cancers], high cholesterol, insulin resistance, and liver disease,” Hu adds.

The sugars found naturally in fruit and dairy products don’t have the same negative effect and are lower in fructose than sugary processed foods. “In fruit, that sugar is bound up in the fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients,” says Andrea Dunn, a certified diabetes care and education specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Section of Nutrition Therapy. “And because the sugar is digested along with the fiber, it’s absorbed into the body more slowly.” That means you don’t get the same spikes in blood sugar and insulin that you do after eating a food with added sugars.

5 Easy Ways to Cut Back on Sugar

Trying to get down to the recommended level of sugar all at once can feel overwhelming. Follow this plan and you can easily reduce your sugar intake over the course of a few weeks while still indulging your sweet tooth on occasion.

Step 1: Know how much you eat. “Take a look at what treats you have during your average day, and be mindful of how it adds up,” Dunn says. Notice habits you might be able to adjust—such as always grabbing a doughnut when you buy a cup of coffee in the morning, reaching for a sugary pick-me-up in the afternoon, and having dessert every night. Cutting out just one of those each week will help with your overall sugar intake.

Then focus on how sweet your food tastes. “So many foods—even savory ones like bread and salad dressing—contain added sugars, and that’s trained our taste buds to expect that sweetness in nearly everything we eat,” says Rachel Cheatham, PhD, an adjunct assistant professor at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston. As you cut back, “you may start to notice that things like cake taste overly sweet and that foods you never thought of as sweet—like carrots and apples—have a pleasantly sweet taste,” she says. As you become more aware of the sweetness in foods, your preferences will begin to shift.

Step 2: Start reading food labels. Sugar sneaks its way into many otherwise healthy foods. Once you start paying attention you may be surprised to find, say, 5 grams of added sugars in a slice of Dave’s Killer 21-grain bread, 14 grams in a serving of Cascadian Farm Oats & Honey granola, and 11 grams in a 4.5-ounce tub of Noosa vanilla-bean yogurt. Other surprising sources include pasta sauce, salad dressing, marinades, barbecue sauce, ketchup, and snack bars. Choosing the option lowest in added sugars is an easy way to eliminate several grams of sugar a day. You won’t miss it, and that way you can save the sugar you do consume for something where it really matters.

Know too, that added sugars go by many names, but your body responds to them in the same way it does table sugar. “Even if the ingredient comes from a natural source—like honey or agave—it is still ‘added sugar’ because it doesn’t occur naturally in that food,” Dunn says. In addition to honey and agave, these are all added sugars: barley malt, brown rice syrup, cane sugar, coconut sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, and molasses.

Step 3: Check your drinks. Sweetened drinks are the No. 1 source of added sugars in the American diet. But soda isn’t the only culprit. Sweetened iced tea packs a sugary punch: A 16-ounce bottle of Snapple Peach Tea contains 40 grams of added sugars. And don’t forget about the coffee shop. Asking for vanilla-flavored syrup in your latte adds up to 20 grams of sugar to your cup; a Starbucks Grande Frappuccino contains 45 grams. Compare that with 37 grams in a 12-ounce can of cola.

Although trading sweet drinks for water is the healthiest move, it’s not the easiest. “Come up with a swap that’s as close as possible to what you’re replacing,” says Lauri Wright, PhD, chair of the department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. “Find a way to replicate the fizz and the sweetness if you’re trying to give up soda.” She suggests trying sparkling water flavored with mint leaves, citrus, or a splash of fruit juice. For coffee and tea drinks, a spice such as cinnamon or nutmeg will add flavor without sugar.

Step 4: Add your own. If you want to add sweetness to drinks or food, start doing it yourself. “Buying unsweetened tea or coffee allows you to control how much sugar you add,” Wright says. You’re unlikely to spoon in the dozen or more teaspoons of sugar that you’d get in a presweetened drink. The same holds true for foods like cereal, oatmeal, and yogurt. Buy plain versions and mix in your own sugar, honey, or syrup. See if you can gradually reduce it from 2 teaspoons to 1, then down to ½ teaspoon over the course of a few weeks.

And if a bowl of fruit seems like a sad substitute for the rich dessert you’re craving, dress it up a little. Two tablespoons of Reddi-wip contains less than a gram of added sugar but can turn fresh strawberries into something that seems more indulgent.

Step 5: Rethink recipes. When you’re baking, experiment with using less sugar than the recipe calls for. Cutting even 10 percent will eliminate 5 teaspoons for every cup of sugar in the recipe. In some cases you may be able to reduce the sugar by 25 percent. You can also try swaps, like replacing sugar in a muffin recipe with unsweetened applesauce. “Stepping down the level of sweetness (rather than counting every gram of sugar) helps your palate adjust to less sugar and helps you crave sweetness less,” Cheatham says. When you do indulge, do it wisely. “Portion size and frequency matter,” she adds. “If it’s a treat you want to give yourself daily, enjoy just a small amount.”

Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the August 2021 issue of Consumer Reports on Health

Sally Wadyka

Sally Wadyka is a freelance writer who contributes to Consumer Reports, Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, Yoga Journal, and the Food Network on topics such as health, nutrition, and wellness.