To stay within healthy limits, start retraining your brain not to crave sweetened foods and beverages.
Sad to say, there isn’t much room in a healthy diet for the sweet stuff. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that adult men take in no more than 150 calories per day of added sugar. That isn’t that much—about the equivalent of nine teaspoons of table sugar, or a little more than the amount of sugar in a single 12-ounce can of regular Coke.
But 12 ounces of sweetened beverage appears to be enough to raise your risk of heart disease if you imbibe regularly. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health tracked about 43,000 men for 22 years. Men who drank the most sugar-sweetened beverages daily were 20% more likely to have a heart attack over the study period, compared with men who drank the fewest.
It’s not an isolated finding. “There is mounting evidence from many studies that consumption of sugar sweetened beverages is associated with a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease,” says Eric Rimm, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and one of the researchers on the sugary beverage study.
Cutting back on sweetened beverages seems a no-brainer. That includes a plethora of sugary sodas, fruit juices, iced teas, and energy drinks. But even if you don’t drink much of those types of beverages, you may not be off the hook. Foods with added sugar are also the mark of unhealthy diets.
To dial down the empty carbs without losing all the joy of sugar, gradually reduce foods with added sweeteners—both natural and artificial ones. This can help to rewire your brain not to crave them as much. “The objective is to try to get you accustomed to things that are not so sweet, so that when you do eat something that’s naturally sweet you enjoy it,” says Dr. Helen Delichatsios, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
4 Ways to cut back on sugar
1 Make sugar-sweetened soft drinks an occasional treat that you enjoy weekly, not daily.
2 Drink plain chilled water mixed with lemon or fruit juice.
3 Read food labels and avoid those with a lot of added sugar.
4 Gradually reduce added sweeteners in coffee or tea, especially if you drink several cups a day or more.
Step one: Spot the sweets
As a target for lowering refined carbs in your diet, sugar-sweetened beverages are the low-hanging fruit. “They are pretty easy to pull out of one’s diet,” Rimm says. “There is not much nutritional value related to these beverages.”
Many processed foods also contain sweeteners, and you can find them by perusing food labels. If a sweetener is high on the ingredient list, it is relatively abundant by weight. Manufacturers sometimes use more than one sweetener, which makes them slip lower down on the list.
Common sweeteners added to food include sucrose (white or brown sugar), fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, brown rice syrup, molasses, agave, and evaporated cane juice. Then there are the sugar alcohols, such as xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, lactilol, and isomalt.
These sweeteners aren’t easily digested, and therefore contribute little in the way of calories. But that also means that they cause bloating and gas in some people. These sources all contribute to the estimated 22 to 30 teaspoons of added sugar in the average daily American diet, according to the AHA.
Step two: Retrain your brain
The AHA and American Diabetes Association have endorsed artificial sweeteners as a way to lose weight and control blood sugar. Options include aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda), Sweet One (acesulfame potassium), neotame, stevia (PureVia, Truvia).
There is no real evidence that artificial “chemical” sweeteners are harmful. But using them could undermine your efforts to reduce consumption of sweets. Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than natural sugar, and therefore could fuel cravings for sugary foods and beverages.
Another downside of consuming sweetened foods and beverages is that it could dampen the appeal of healthy, naturally sweetened foods. “At one time, a common dessert was fruit,” Dr. Delichatsios says. “If you compare fruit to a soft drink or a cupcake with frosting, it just doesn’t seem sweet anymore.”
By backing off gradually on added sugars, you may come to appreciate the healthy stuff a little more. Imagine ice-cold seltzer water cut with some whole fruit juice instead of a fizzing bottle of sugar-packed carbonated soda—or one laced with a potent artificial super-sweetener.