We just want to eat whatever we want and always be healthy. Pretty please, with sugar on top! Sugar has something of a mixed reputation in the popular consciousness. It’s thought of as both the greatest culinary invention nature has to offer and a crystalline villain to be avoided at all costs. The truth is, there’s nothing inherently bad about sugar. We’re wired to want it precisely because it’s useful in our biology. It’s all a matter of degrees.

How Much Sugar is Too Much?

Everything from your mind to your metatarsals gets energy by burning glucose. So, it might seem like you should just cut out the middleman and cram as much sugar into your body as possible, right?

Unfortunately, no.

Your body is good at making the glucose it needs by converting other types of foods like carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. But that doesn’t mean all sugar is evil, either. Eating a piece of fruit may introduce a lot of sugar into your system (an orange contains almost as much sugar as a candy bar), but you’re also getting a host of other vitamins, nutrients, and dietary fiber. There’s never been an obesity epidemic driven by people eating too many fresh fruits.

The real trouble is what’s known as “free sugar.” That’s added sugars, like the kinds we put into sugary drinks or baked goods. The CDC recommends that no more than 10% of your daily calories come from free sugar. That’s roughly 200 grams per day—and that amount can disappear through a donut hole real quick.

What Happens When You Reduce Sugar Intake?

Excessive consumption of free sugars has been tied to several non-communicable diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, according to the World Health Organization.

In addition to the direct consequences of excessive sugar consumption, there’s also some concern that eating too much sugar reduces the amount of nutritious food in your diet. Because free sugars increase your overall energy intake, you can get the calories you need without consuming nutritious foods. Over time, that could lead to more serious nutritional deficiencies.

Reducing free sugars in your diet will reduce the risk of many of those diseased listed above and, just as importantly, it may retrain your brain to seek its sweetness fix from nutrient-rich sources like oranges, berries, dates, etc. That’s a win-win for your health.

How to Find and Avoid Free Sugars

You don’t need to go sweeping everything out of your pantry and refrigerator to reduce your sugar intake. A healthy shift isn’t about cutting out sugar entirely but maintaining a balanced diet to ensure you receive all the nutrition you need to support your body and mind. And you can do that with just one or two small changes to your pantry and plate.

  1. Learn to spot sugar on packaging: Sometimes, sugar hides in less than obvious places. If something has syrup (corn syrup, rice syrup, etc) in it, you’re looking at sugar. Likewise, it may be listed as sucrose, fructose, glucose, or any of several other “ose” words.
  2. Start with Breakfast: Instead of sugar cereal, toast and jam, or powdered donuts, opt for something like scrambled eggs or yogurt and berries for a more balanced start that won’t kick off sugar cravings.
  3. Reduce sugary drinks: When it comes to sugar, sweetened drinks are public enemy number one. A single can of soda can have as much as 10 teaspoons or 150 calories worth of sugar. The CDC recommends that no more than 10% of your caloric intake come from free sugar. One sugary drink eats up most of your daily budget in a single go. Try low-sugar or sugar-free alternatives, like iced tea, infused water, or plain water flavored with fresh fruit. 
  4. Rethink snacking: Often the most convenient snacks are the most sugary. Drop those cheap granola bars in the trash and instead stock your pantry with shelf-stable alternatives like dried fruit, unsalted nuts, unbuttered popcorn, freeze dried fruits, or fruit-only pressed snack bars.
  5. Check your canned fruits: While fresh fruit is almost always a good solution for a snack, it might come packaged with a bunch of added sugars. Swap out fruits canned in sugary syrup for those canned in water.
  6. When possible, use fruit in place of sugar: When eating things like breakfast cereal, oatmeal or muesli, or breakfast smoothies, you can replace sugar with equal amounts of fruit. Sliced bananas or unsweetened applesauce are great places to start experimenting.
  7. Reduce sugar in recipes: Most of the time it’s a bad idea to mess with a baking recipe, but sugar is one place you can make some modifications. Try reducing the amount of sugar by one third, or even by half. Depending on the recipe, you may not notice the difference and can always make adjustments to find the right compromise between health and taste.
  8. Less is less: Reducing sugar intake doesn’t mean eliminating all of your favorite treats. Another strategy is to just have one or two cookies for dessert instead of three or four.
  9. Check out the rest of your spices: Sugar might be our favorite resident of the cupboard but it isn’t the only one. Spend time with the rest of your spice cabinet to see what other satisfying flavors you can unlock. 
  10. Explore alternative sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners can be hundreds of times sweeter than sugar with none of the calories, but they also have no nutritional value. While research is ongoing, there is no evidence that artificial sweeteners are dangerous, especially when used sparingly. If you want a more natural solution, honey, maple syrup, applesauce, molasses, and agave are only a few of the many natural sweeteners you can use instead of table sugar.

Above all, remember you’re not cutting sugar to deny yourself. You’re making a shift to give yourself a better quality of fuel that will help you be your healthiest, most vibrant self. This mindset shift is important because it helps you stick to your goals longer. 

Simply shifting your language from “I can’t eat that” to “I am not eating that this month” has been shown to impact the success of sticking to new goals. Give it some practice and you’ll be ready to enjoy all those holiday parties with less regret and more joy.