9 Ways to Quit Sugar for Good

Easy tips to help you cut sugar out of your diet forever.

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You might be surprised to learn that the average person in the United States consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar daily—more than three times the amount suggested by the American Heart Association (AHA). Although it has never been considered a health food, sugar can actually harm your health, setting you up for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

But quitting sugar can be tough. It's hard to avoid because it hides in so many foods, and it provides an almost addictive buzz, thanks to a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine after it enters the body, research neuroscientist Nicole Avena, PhD, told Health. Avena is the author of Why Diets Fail (Because You're Addicted to Sugar) .

Slashing sugar is one food trend worth trying. Find out all about how to quit sugar and what you can to make your commitment stick.

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How Sugar Affects the Body

When you eat sugary, high-carbohydrate foods, your body releases insulin, a hormone produced in the pancreas. Insulin works to stabilize your blood sugar levels.

The surge in the brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin, also known as the "feel-good" chemicals, is what gives you that sugar rush. When blood sugar levels drop, it causes the opposite—a sugar crash, leaving you tired, brain fogged, and irritable, said Brittany Kohn, RD, a New York City nutritionist.

What's more, eating too much of certain types of sugars can lead to major health problems. Sugar has 16 calories per teaspoon. That may not seem like much, but it can quickly pack on hundreds of calories without offering any nutritional value, said Avena. Extra calories raise your risk of obesity, which in turn sets you up for type 2 diabetes.

A 2013 study found that for every 150 calories of added sugar consumed in a population—the equivalent of one can of soda—diabetes prevalence in the population went up 1.1%.

There's also research tying sugar to heart disease. A 2014 study from JAMA: Internal Medicine found that the more added sugar a person took in, the higher their odds of dying of heart disease.

This doesn't mean you should never touch sugar again, but your health will surely benefit if you cut back, especially on certain types of sugars.

Here are nine ways to help you quit the sugar habit.

Learn How to Read Labels

Sugar goes by many different names. Other names for sugar that you may spot on a list of ingredients include maltose, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup (and anything else ending in "ose"), molasses, cane sugar, raw sugar, syrup, honey, corn sweetener, and fruit juice concentrates.

You can also see how much added sugar a food contains by reading the Nutrition Facts label, which contains "added sugars" and "total sugars."

One gram of sugar contains four calories, so if a product has 15 grams of sugar per serving, that’s 60 calories just from the sugar alone, not counting the other ingredients.

Cut Out White Sugar

The main sugar offender to steer clear of is refined white sugar—the kind you spoon into coffee or that's added to baked goods. The bloodstream absorbs this simple sugar quickly, causing surges in blood glucose levels and insulin that can wreak havoc on the body, Avena said.

Refined sugar is also added to countless food products during processing, from ketchup to bread to salad dressing to beef jerky, under one of the names listed above (e.g.,cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup).

While molasses, honey, and maple syrup are not always processed the way refined white sugar is, they have the same harmful effect, said Avena.

Say No to Sugary Drinks

Soda, fruit juice, sports drinks, iced tea—these and other sweetened beverages are sneaky sources of added sugar. One can of cola, for example, racks up nine teaspoons, already a third more than the six teaspoon daily limit suggested by the AHA.

"Sweetened beverages or drinks made from fruit juice are like liquid sugar, and they add lots of calories without satisfying hunger," said Avena, who suggested substituting seltzer for soda, as seltzer has no added sugar and zero calories. As for fruit-flavored beverages and fruit juice, sub in fruit-infused bottled water or water with fresh fruit slices added to it.

Don't Think Artificial Is the Answer

Swapping out sugar in favor of an artificial sweetener like aspartame or saccharin may not be the way to get around the sugar issue.

"Artificial sweeteners provide the sweet taste without calories, so when you consume these products, hunger isn't satisfied, leading you to crave more afterward," said Kohn. A 2013 study in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism found that drinking just one diet soda a day is linked to weight gain and diabetes.

Why do chemical sweeteners boost hunger? It's not clear, but it might have to do with the intensity of the sweetness in these products. Artificial sweeteners are many times sweeter than natural sugar, and that can dull your taste buds to less intensely sweet foods such as fruit, ramping up cravings for high sugar and high calorie foods, Kohn said.

Ditch Treats With Simple Carbs

Pastries, cookies, muffins, white bread and other treats made with refined flour offer little nutrition-wise but are dense with added sugar, messing with blood sugar levels. This sets up a cycle of grabbing a donut or muffin for energy that doesn't last, said Kohn.

Instead, get your carb fix with whole grain varieties. These are converted to sugar during digestion, but because they're the complex kind rather than the simple type, they're absorbed more slowly and provide steady energy.

Suss Out Sugary Restaurant Food

They don't call it sweet and sour pork for nothing. Many types of takeout or eat-in cuisine are smothered in sauces or coatings made with added sugar. Even the crust of takeout pizza is likely to pack hidden sugar, even though you may not taste it, said Avena.

Glazes, condiments, and even pasta sauces are often loaded with sugar, the same sugar that is just as harmful in a prepackaged box of cookies, she adds.

Don't Go Cold Turkey

Because our bodies are so used to sweet stuff, going sugar-free very abruptly can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, anxiety, and mood swings, said Kohn. Ever gone without your usual morning latte or other caffeine fix? That's what sugar withdrawal is like, times 10.

"It's better to ease yourself off it slowly by taking one step at a time, so your body has time to adjust," Kohn said. Another reason to not be in a rush: slower changes tend to last, said Avena, especially when it comes to quitting sugar.

If you're used to adding sweetener to your food and drinks, give yourself time to ease out of the habit, suggested Kohn.

If you typically start your day with two spoonfuls of sugar or honey in your tea or coffee, cut back to one spoonful for a week, and then to zero a week later—or sweeten it with a slice of orange or a little milk. Use the same strategy with sugar you put on cereal or the maple syrup you pour on pancakes. Gradually reducing the amount will make it less noticeable that you're cutting back, and you'll be less craving-crazed for a sugar hit.

Pile on Protein and Healthy Fats

Consuming more healthy fats (nuts, olive oil, avocado, dairy) and lean protein (eggs, turkey, and legumes) is a good strategy when your'e trying to quit sugar. Both keep you feeling satiated and energized, preventing the blood sugar rise and fall that can lead to hard-to-resist sugar cravings—plus eating these foods is healthy overall.

"Have a breakfast with protein and fat as the stars, like eggs and avocado, instead of the traditional starch and sugar combo, like a muffin or sweetened cereal," suggested Kohn.

Know What "Good" Sugars Are

The types of sugar you don't have to ditch are found naturally in foods, such as fructose in fruit and lactose in milk products. These get a pass as long as you consume them in their original food form.

"Fruit, for instance, contains an amount of sugar that is in better proportion with the amount of fiber and other nutrients in it," said Aveda. "These other nutrients mitigate sugar's harmful effect."

To satisfy a sweet tooth without resorting to the refined types, just look through your spice rack. Cinnamon or vanilla extract added to coffee, cereal, or baked goods offer a sweet taste without sugar's side effects, and zero calories too, said Kohn.

Other sweet spices and herbs to add to beverages and meals include chicory, ginger, nutmeg, and cardamom. Citrus zest also adds a fruity, refreshing sweetness.

A Quick Review

The average person in the United States consumes around three times more sugar than is recommended, an amount that has been linked to heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

Because sugar is found in so many foods, i t can be tricky to avoid. Learning how to interpret nutrition labels and using specific strategies can help you reduce your sugar intake and improve your health.

If the rest of your household isn't cutting back on sugar with you, you're likely to see sweet treats and products with added sugar all over your kitchen, inviting temptation.

"Instead, make one drawer or shelf in your kitchen the place where everyone else can stash their treats, so you don't have to see the products every time you open the cabinet or fridge," suggested Avena.

If you're concerned about your sugar consumption or are predisposed to conditions such as diabetes, talk to your healthcare provider about what you can do.

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Heart Association. Added sugars.

  2. Harvard Health Publishing. The sweet danger of sugar.

  3. Basu S, Yoffe P, Hills N, Lustig RH. The relationship of sugar to population-level diabetes prevalence: An econometric analysis of repeated cross-sectional data. PLoS ONE 8(2): e57873. 2013. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057873

  4. Yang Q, Zhang Z, Gregg EW, Flanders WD, Merritt R, Hu FB. Added sugar intake and cardiovascular diseases mortality among US adultsJAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(4):516–524. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13563

  5. Swithers SE. Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements. Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism. Volume 24, Issue 9, 2013. Pages 431-441.

    doi:10.1016/j.tem.2013.05.005.

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