So, you’ve heard that sugar is the devil and that merely glancing its way will cause all the bad things to happen to you. Okay, maybe that's a bit dramatic, but still, eating too much sugar is associated with all sorts of health problems.
“[Excess sugar] may contribute to heightened triglyceride levels, tooth decay, type 2 diabetes, and heart problems,” says Amy Gorin, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. Whew! Are you out of breath reading that, yet? Because that’s a lot to take in.
So...how much sugar is okay?
First off, it's important to note that all of this specifically applies to added sugar (cane sugar, honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar), not natural sugar found in dairy and fruit.
The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming less than 10 percent of calories from added sugars, a guideline that Gorin recommends sticking to. (She notes that, for a 2,000-calorie diet, this equals about 13 teaspoons of added sugar.) “This is very doable, especially if you start to use no-added sugar ingredients that are sweet,” she says. More on that in a minute.
Okay, but what happens when you stop eating so much sugar?
Whether cold turkey is your goal—or you’re just drastically cutting your sugar intake—here’s what you might experience (hint: good things ahead!):
1. Cravings may (temporarily) increase.
You’re used to having that after-dinner ice cream or some sour candy after lunch, so without it now, there’s a void. “You may notice that you’re still craving sugary foods at first, but if you give it time, that feeling will subside,” says Gorin. The key is withstanding those first irritable urges—and knowing that there is light on the other side.
2. You won’t ride on the blood sugar rollercoaster.
If you replace the sugar calories with good-for-you, fiber-rich carbs like fruit and increase your intake of satiating protein and healthy fats, the change will help stabilize your blood sugar, says Young. “That’s the biggest effect to cutting back on sugar: with fewer highs and lows in your blood sugar, you may feel less lethargic and more energetic,” says Young. Goodbye, afternoon slump.
3. Your moods may be better.
If you previously dealt with mood swings, stabilizing your blood sugar may help you feel more even-keeled, says Young. And if you previously reached for candy as a mental pick-me-up in the middle of a stress-filled workday, you’re best leaving that habit behind. A 2019 study that looked at carbohydrate consumption and mood found a sugar rush isn’t a mood-booster, but it does make you foggy-headed and sleepy within the hour.
4. Your tastes will adjust.
While it may seem like a downer to belly up to a bowl of raspberries and blueberries instead of a cupcake, over time, your tastes will change and you’ll come to find that the fruit’s natural sugars are quite…delicious. “You’ll be amazed at how you feel satisfied with a serving of fruit for dessert,” says Gorin.
5. In the long-run, your heart will be healthier.
Don’t forget your heart in all of this—no matter your number on the scale. Adults who get 17 to 21 percent of their daily calories from added sugar have a 38 percent increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, compared to those who cap calories from added sugar to 8 percent of total calories, per a study in JAMA Internal Medicine. Whether you gain weight from your cookie habit or stay the same, the authors point out that excess sugar is associated with high blood pressure and increased triglyceride and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, all of which tax your ticker over time.
Speaking of sweets...watch Ariel Winter taste-test better-for-you candy.
How can I cut back so it actually sticks?
Truthfully, you don’t have to eliminate sugar completely or ditch the sweet stuff overnight. “Doing this gradually is the best way. If you’ve been having several sodas a day and it takes you a month to get down to one or zero, it’ll be just as effective,” says Young.
Here's a few quick tips to help you on your way:
- Pull back on adding sugar to your foods. Try sprinkling cinnamon in your coffee for natural sweetness, instead. Gorin also likes to add nutmeg and fresh fruit to oatmeal (rather than brown sugar).
- Make fruit your BFF. When leaving added sugar behind, fruit will really help out with the process. A special sweet hack from Gorin: Cook frozen fruit (blueberries, strawberries, etc.) in a sauce pan with a bit of water, until some of the juices liquify into a delectable “syrup.” Or, go for a bowl of fruit for dessert, instead of cookies.
- Watch out for sneaky sugar. Because sugar hides in many foods that you wouldn’t expect—like bread and pasta sauce—you want to read ingredient labels to make sure that the brands you buy are minimal or no-added-sugar versions. “I doubt you’d even notice the difference in taste,” she says.
When you do it sugar, make it count with something you really love—because, hey, sometimes you've got to treat yourself.
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