One of the most effective ways to eat more healthily is to reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet.
Diets with fewer sources of added sugars are associated with lower rates of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer in adults, Grace Derocha, a registered dietitian, and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Newsweek.
Higher intake of added sugars has also been linked to dental cavities in both children and adults, as well as raising the risk of obesity—sweeter foods are often higher in calories and fat.
“Minimizing added sugars help with lasting energy, healthier skin and better general health,” Derocha said.
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugars to no more than 10 percent of your total daily calorie intake. This works out as 200 calories per day for an individual who consumes 2,000 calories daily.
Unfortunately, research suggests that most Americans consume more added sugar than the recommended daily intake.
Here’s how you can cut down on sugar without necessarily resorting to products marketed as healthy “diet” options—i.e. any food or beverage whose recipe is altered to reduce fat, carbohydrates, and/or sugar.
High sugar foods
According to Derocha, the main and most obvious products that contain high quantities of added sugar include:
- Dessert foods, such as cakes, cookies, pies and cobblers
- Sweetened cereals
- Sweet rolls, pastries, and doughnuts
- Dairy desserts, such as ice cream and frozen yogurt
- Sugar sweetened drinks, such as soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, and juice drinks
Cutting down on foods and drinks such as these can have a significant impact on your sugar intake.
Aisling Pigott, a registered dietician in the UK and a member of the British Dietetic Association, told Newsweek: “Working as a dietitian I try and avoid overly restrictive language but there are foods and drinks that we should consume in small or minimal quantities.”
‘Hidden’ sugar foods
Aside from the aforementioned products, there are other perhaps more surprising culprits that may also contain relatively high levels of added sugar. According to Derocha, these products include:
- Whole-grain cereals and granola
- Instant flavored oatmeal
- Frozen foods
- Granola bars, protein bars and cereal bars
- Pasta sauce
- Dried fruit, canned fruit, applesauce and fruit juices
- Flavored yogurts
- Baby food
- Barbecue sauce, ketchup, salad dressing and other condiments
The best way to see if a product is high in sugar is to check the label and look for any sugar or syrups that have been added.
Derocha said high quantity sugar products have more than 22.5 grams (0.8 ounces) of total sugars per 100 grams. Low quantity sugar products have 5 grams or less of total sugars per 100 grams.
Food manufacturers are required to list added sugars on food labels. But it is important to note that sugars can be listed by several names, including high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar or cane juice, maltose, dextrose, rice syrup, molasses, and caramel, among others.
Priya Tew, a registered dietitian and director of Dietitian UK, told Newsweek you don’t necessarily need to completely avoid high sugar foods, “but be mindful of how many you are eating and think about the portion size as well as what you eat the rest of the day and week.”
Are diet drinks bad for you?
Often, people who are trying to reduce their sugar intake may opt for “diet” products marketed as being healthier options. These products take a variety of forms but they are often altered to reduce fat and/or sugar.
“When this happens it often means that it is processed with other fillers,” Derocha said. “In general, if something is altered to be in low sugar that means that it may have been ultra-processed to include other things to give it a flavor that would be enjoyable with less added sugar. Some of those additions could include, sugar alcohols, sugar substitutes, additives, chemical preservatives, fats, salt and more.”
“Generally, I would recommend to limit the intake of food and drinks that have been altered to be low in sugar or may be labeled as a ‘diet’ product due to the potential ultra-processed nature and additives and chemicals that may be added as fillers.”
In addition, many products marketed as healthy because they are low in fat will actually contain high levels of sugar. In these cases, it may be better to stick to the full-fat options.
“We eat for taste. So if fat is reduced, sugar is often added, and vice-versa,” Pigott said. “I always encourage people to be aware of the downfalls of products heavily sweetened with artificial sweeteners, which can still be energy-dense, and some products (for example, chocolate with sweeteners) can cause stomach issues.”
“Diet products have their place. But if you don’t enjoy a product, or it doesn’t satisfy you—for example low fat products—we may eat twice as much, defeating the purpose.”
Derocha said in general, try to stick mostly to whole foods, which haven’t been processed or refined and are free of additives and other artificial substances, as well as being dense in nutrients.
“I would recommend that people enjoy a variety of food groups to maintain a healthy, balanced and low sugar diet. A variety of food groups to include, lean proteins, heart healthy fats, whole grains, dairy, fruits and vegetables,” she said.
Having regular meals with appropriate carbohydrates and protein can help to curb sugar cravings between meals, according to Pigott. Diets that are low in added sugar but high in protein and fiber may help to promote the experience of fullness and reduce food cravings that can lead to snacking on sweet products.
“Increasing fruit, veg and regulating meal patterns are more likely to reduce intake of ‘free sugars’ than just choosing low sugar products,” Pigott said. “Free sugar is defined as sugar added to products or naturally occurring in juices, honeys and syrups. We do not need to limit fruit, vegetables and milk products, which will contain some [naturally occurring] sugars.”
“Products high in ‘free sugar’ are often energy-dense but do not contain many vitamins and minerals. By reducing intake of these products we can have more nutritionally varied foods and a more energy appropriate intake.”
Derocha said you can try making your own versions of certain foods if you want to enjoy sweet products but still manage your sugar intake. For example:
- Instead of instant flavored oatmeal—make overnight oats or your own oatmeal and use fruit to sweeten it with natural sugars
- Instead of granola bars, protein bars and cereal bars—try making your own energy bites and use dates (natural sugar from fruit) to sweeten them
- Make your own pasta sauce
- Make your own foods rather than frozen foods. When cooking, try to double or triple batch cook certain meals and freeze them for later
- Rather than flavored yogurts—try enjoying a plain Greek yogurt and add your own favorite fruit for natural sweetness
- Try making your own baby foods, BBQ sauce, ketchup, and salad dressings
“Try sweeter foods such as fruit and allow yourself smaller portions of the foods you really enjoy,” Tew said.