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How to eat less sugar (and not even miss it)

You might be surprised to learn where added sugars hide. Use these smart swaps and shopping tips to lower your sugar intake without giving up your favorite foods.

Stacey Colino By Stacey Colino

There are plenty of good reasons to cut back on sugar. Maybe you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes and you’re trying to keep your blood sugar levels in check. Or maybe you’re doing it for your overall health and well-being.

Whatever the reason, it’s a smart goal. Consuming too much sugar has been linked with a higher risk of health problems such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndrome, says Lona Sandon, PhD. She’s an associate professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

“Sugar does not have any redeeming qualities other than providing calories,” Sandon says. “Regardless of the form of sugar, it lacks essential nutrients and does not promote health.”

The truth is that most of us consume too much of it. On average, American adults eat or drink 17 teaspoons of added sugars per day. That’s 57 pounds of added sugar per year.1

To put this in perspective, the American Heart Association recommends limiting your added sugars to 100 calories (or about 6 teaspoons) per day for women. For men, the limit is 150 calories (or 9 teaspoons) per day.2

The key word here is “added.” These sugars include granulated sugar, syrups and honey that are added to processed or packaged foods. Foods that naturally have sugar aren’t as much of a problem. These include fruits, vegetables and milk. They usually have much less sugar and contain nutrients that help keep blood sugar levels steady. Plus, they have important vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, potassium and folate.3

So how do you cut back on added sugars? The first step probably sounds familiar: Stay away from desserts and sweetened snacks and drinks. (Think: cookies, brownies, candy, pastries, ice cream, fruit drinks and sodas.)4 Step 2: Steer clear of hidden sources of added sugars.

You might be surprised to learn where sugar hides. The only way to know is to make a habit of reading nutrition labels and ingredient lists on packaged foods. But you can’t just look for the word “sugar.” The sweet stuff goes by many other names, including:

  • Honey
  • Molasses
  • Nectar
  • Anything with the word “sweetener” or “syrup”
  • Most words ending in “-ose” (fructose, maltose, dextrose)2,3

Plus, nutrition labels list grams of sugar, not calories or teaspoons. That calls for a little simple math: 4 grams of sugar equals about 1 teaspoon.5 So if you’re aiming for 6 teaspoons max, that’s 24 grams. If 9 teaspoons is your limit, that’s 36 grams per day.

One good rule of thumb: The higher up an added sugar is on the ingredients list, the more added sugar the package contains. Those are the items to avoid.4 To help make your next grocery shopping trip a little easier, here are common added-sugar bombs to watch out for and healthier swaps.


Aetna® D-SNP members get a benefit card with a monthly allowance for approved foods such as dairy products, produce, meat, pantry staples and more. Learn more about D-SNP plans at AetnaMedicare.com/DSNP


Ketchup

It may not taste sweet, but 1 tablespoon of tomato ketchup has 12 calories of added sugars.4 Try putting tomato slices or even fresh salsa on your burger instead, says Sandon.

Flavored yogurt

All yogurts have natural sugar thanks to lactose, which is a natural sugar in milk. But more sugar is often added, especially to yogurts with fruit or toppings.6 In good news, there are low-sugar or no-sugar yogurt options, and some of these also have more protein. Or you can go for plain yogurt, which has no added sugar. Then mix in fresh or frozen fruit for some sweetness.4

Salad dressing

“These can be a sneaky source of added sugar and loaded with sodium too,” Sandon says. “The best option is to make your own oil-and-vinegar dressing.”

Simply mix 1 part vinegar (balsamic, red wine, champagne) with 3 parts olive oil. Then add spices such as basil, oregano, garlic, Italian seasoning or black pepper.

Granola bars

Look for those made with 100 percent whole grain. And choose crunchy instead of soft and chewy, Sandon suggests. The soft and chewy ones often have more added sugar. Also, avoid bars with chocolate, yogurt or nut butter coatings, which also have added sugar.

Instant oatmeal

Skip the packages of instant oatmeal and choose quick-cooking oats instead. They don’t take any longer to cook, Sandon says, and they have one ingredient: oats. Once they’re cooked, you can add raisins, chopped dates, dried cranberries and cinnamon for some natural sweetness.

Nut butters

Peanut butter, almond butter and other nut butters made with just nuts have 1-2 grams of natural sugar. But many brands add more to make them a little sweeter. A tip: Natural nut butters that have the oil on top tend to be lower in added sugars or often have none, Sandon says.

Breakfast cereal

Some cereals are more clearly sugary, such as those that are frosted, honey flavored or have marshmallows. But even seemingly healthy ones such as granola or those with “oat” or “bran” in the name can still pack in 15 grams of added sugar per serving.

Look for cereals that have 5 grams or fewer of added sugar per serving, Sandon advises. “Regular oatmeal and shredded wheat have no or low added sugar. Also, look for bran or whole-grain cereals without added flavorings.” If you want to add sweetness, top your cereal with fresh berries, chopped walnuts or a dash of cinnamon.

The bottom line: You don’t have to give up your favorite foods to cut your added sugars by a lot. You’ll go a long way just by reading labels and making a few smart grocery store swaps.


Aetna® D-SNP members who have diabetes can get help tracking and understanding their blood sugar levels from their care team. Learn more about D-SNP plans at AetnaMedicare.com/DSNP


 

 

1University of California, San Francisco SugarScience. How much is too much? Accessed September 3, 2021.

2American Heart Association. Sugar 101. April 17, 2021. Accessed September 3, 2021.

3University of San Diego School of Medicine. Understanding natural versus added sugars. February 26, 2021. Accessed September 3, 2021.

4The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 Eight Edition: Cut Down on Added Sugars. March 2016. Accessed September 3, 2021.

5Michigan State University. How to convert grams of sugars into teaspoons. December 7, 2020. Accessed September 3, 2021.

6Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. What to look for in yogurt. February 3, 2021. Accessed September 3, 2021.

 

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