If you're committed to kicking your sugar habit this year, I commend you. An excessive sugar intake does more than hold on to unwanted pounds. Research suggests a sugar-laden diet raises the risk of dying from heart disease, contributes to Type 2 diabetes and may even interfere with brain function. It's no wonder the latest U.S. dietary guidelines, released last Thursday, come down hard on the stuff, recommending that added sugar make up less than 10 per cent of daily calories.
Even if you don't drink Coke by the litre or tuck into a bowl of ice cream each night, sugar from everyday foods such as breakfast cereals, yogurt, peanut butter, non-dairy milks and condiments may be stoking your sweet tooth. Eating less added sugar may seem like an impossible task.
The good news: Findings from a study published this month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggest it is possible to rein in your sweet craving. With the right approach – and stick-to-it-iveness – you can de-sugar your diet.
The researchers set out to determine if adopting a low-sugar diet would cause sugary foods to taste more intensely sweet and, if so, whether people would lose their preference for them. Previous research has found that losing weight by restricting calories or by bariatric surgery causes individuals to taste lower-sugar foods as sweeter and like them less.
The small study looked at 36 healthy men and women, between the ages of 21 and 54. Upon enrolment, all reported drinking at least two sugar-sweetened beverages a day.
Participants were divided into two groups. One group was assigned to a low-sugar diet for three months. Dietary changes included replacing high-sugar foods with protein, fat and/or complex carbohydrates and diluting sugary drinks by 50 per cent with water. Use of artificial sweeteners was not allowed.
Participants in the control group were told not to alter their sugar intake during the three-month period. All participants kept detailed food and exercise diaries. Each month they were asked to rate sweetness intensity and pleasantness (e.g. likeability) of vanilla puddings and raspberry beverages that varied in sugar concentration.
After two months of eating a sugar-reduced diet, participants rated both low- and high-sugar puddings as 40 per cent sweeter than did the control group. A similar, but weaker, effect was seen for the raspberry-flavoured drinks.
Even though the low-sugar diet group found sugar-added foods more intensely sweet, they didn't rate them as tasting any less pleasant. It's possible that a longer study period – or more gradual sugar reduction (study participants cut sugar cold turkey) – would reduce participants' preference for sugary foods.
My takeaway from this study: By reducing your sugar intake, over time (and not a long time), it is entirely possible to get used to a less sweet taste. While the findings didn't confirm this, my experience tells me that the longer you stick with it, the more likely you will come to prefer lower-sugar foods.
8 ways to de-sugar your diet
These eight tips will help you reduce added sugars in your diet. Cut back slowly to acclimate your taste buds. Going cold turkey could backfire and trigger sweet cravings.
The nutrition facts box doesn't distinguish between natural sugars (e.g. lactose in milk, fructose in fruit) and added sugars. One cup of skim milk, for example, has 13 grams of sugar but all of it is naturally occurring lactose.
To scope out added sugars – the kind you want to limit – read ingredient lists. Added sugars include corn syrup, glucose-fructose, dextrose, agave, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses and evaporated cane juice. It's not uncommon to find multiple types in one product.
Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight; the higher up on the list you see added sugars, the more sugar in each serving.
For foods that do contain added sugars, compare nutrition labels to choose ones with fewer grams of sugar.
Unflavoured doesn't mean sugar-free. Unflavoured (a.k.a. original) almond beverage, for instance, has eight grams of added sugars (two teaspoons' worth) a cup. One package of Quaker Apples & Cinnamon instant oatmeal has nine grams.
Look for unsweetened non-dairy beverages (e.g. soy, almond, coconut, rice). Choose no-sugar-added peanut butter, applesauce, instant oatmeal and canned fruit.
Switch to plain yogurt
Most single 100-gram tubs of sweetened yogurt pack in two teaspoons' worth (eight grams) of added sugar. And it's not just vanilla yogurt. Fruit-flavoured yogurts are made using a "fruit preparation" that lists sugar as the first ingredient. Choose plain yogurt and sweeten it naturally with fruit. Or, start slowly and blend one part flavoured yogurt with one part plain yogurt.
Cut sugar in recipes
Reduce the amount of sugar by one-quarter, then one-third and finally by one-half in baked goods. Over time, you won't notice the difference.
Coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup and brown-rice syrup may sound more natural than white sugar, but muffins, cookies, granola and snack bars made with them aren't any healthier. These are still added sugars that should be limited.
To enhance taste without adding sugar (or calories), flavour lattes and smoothies with almond or vanilla extract, sprinkle cinnamon or nutmeg over oatmeal and applesauce and add citrus zest to homemade salad dressings.
Lose the sugar bowl
If you add sugar (or honey) to coffee and tea or drizzle maple syrup over oatmeal, cut back gradually. Reduce the amount of sweetener you use by one-half of a teaspoon (or half a packet) each week. When you're used to the new level of sweetness, cut back again.
Avoid artificial sweeteners
Replacing real sugar with fake sugar won't lessen your desire for a sweet taste, it will only continue to fuel it. Plus, their intensely sweet taste can dull your taste buds to the taste of naturally sweet foods like fruit.
Fruit and protein snacks
To keep blood sugar stable between meals, eat a snack of naturally sweet fruit with a source of protein such as nuts, cheese, plain yogurt, even a hard-boiled egg. Bring snacks to work so you're less inclined to fall prey to the office sweet tray.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.