Sugar is, well, delicious. And addicting. Let’s face it: It’s hard to tame a sweet tooth when sugar is hidden in almost everything we eat, from bread to ketchup to granola.
While some sugar—the kind that occurs naturally in fruits and dairy products, which also provide important nutrients and fiber—is totally fine, you need to watch out for the sugar that’s added to foods, like cereal and condiments. That added sugar usually equals empty calories, and eating too much of it can increase your risk of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
“Most people know that they’re having added sugars when they have a cookie or ice cream,” says nutritionist Kelly Kennedy, M.S., R.D. “But it’s the hidden forms of added sugars that really make it easy for people to overdo it without even realizing it.” Lucky for us, added sugar will be called out on food labels in the next few years (thanks, FDA!), but for now, you’ll have to check a food’s ingredient list to know if it contains the added stuff. You’ll see it as cane juice, corn syrup, agave, dextrose (and really anything ending in ‘-ose’), among other sneaky aliases.
Your move? Check nutrition labels and limit added sugar as much as possible. Guys should stay below nine teaspoons (or 45 grams) of added sugar a day, while women should stay below six teaspoons (or 30 grams), says Kennedy.
We tapped a few nutritionists for their go-to tips for avoiding sugar overload, so you can get your intake in check.
1. Whip Up Your Own Fruit Spreads
Think twice before smearing your usual jelly on your morning toast or PB&J sandwich. Yes, it’s (hopefully) made from real fruit, but it likely also contains an abundance of added sugars. Your favorite strawberry spread can pack up to 12 grams of sugar in just a single tablespoon—and that’s less than you’d probably use for your sammie.
A simple and delicious hack? Just mash up a quarter of a banana (about four grams of sugar) or a handful of strawberries (seven grams per cup) to use as a spread, says Melissa Rifkin, M.S., R.D., of Confessions of a Dietitian. You’ll cut both calories and sugar, and still satisfy your sweet tooth!
2. Ditch Premade Yogurt Parfaits
Yogurt seems like a healthy snack or breakfast option, but not all yogurts are created equal. Flavored yogurts—especially parfaits—can contain a ton of added syrup and sugar, says Rifkin. Two popular culprits: The Chobani Pumpkin Harvest Crisp Flip, which contains 17 grams of sugar and lists evaporated cane sugar, sugar, brown sugar, and rice syrup as ingredients, and the Fage Honey With Glazed Pecans Crossover, which contains 19 grams of sugar and lists honey and cane sugar as ingredients.
3. Clean Up Your Condiments
Condiments, sauces, and dressings are notorious for being loaded with sugar (which is added to help preserve them), says Rifkin. Two of the biggest offenders out there? Ketchup and barbecue sauce. Two tablespoons of ketchup—a fraction of what we’d dip our fries in—pack ten grams of sugar, while two tablespoons of BBQ contain five.
Take stock of what’s in your fridge and stay away from anything with more than three grams or more of sugar per serving, she says. And, get creative by blending fresh tomatoes and herbs for pasta sauce or using salsa as salad dressing. “You’ll get added flavor and fiber from the veggies in the salsa,” Rifkin says.
4. Make A Few Swaps When Cooking Or Baking
Whenever a recipe calls for sugar—or a sugar-loaded ingredient—chances are there’s a healthy swap you can use instead.
Let’s start with breakfast foods like pancakes, waffles, or cereal, which are notoriously filled with simple carbs and sugar. If you usually add maple syrup or honey to your favorite breakfast treats, swap it for puréed fresh fruit and a few drops of maple syrup extract, suggests Rifkin. You can also turn to your spice cabinet for other flavoring options you can sprinkle on, like vanilla, cinnamon, or nutmeg, suggests the National Institutes of Health.
And when it comes to baking breakfast treats, cookies, and cakes yourself, swap refined sugar for sweet, wholesome alternatives. “When I bake, I used banana to sweeten brownies, cookies, and sweat breads, instead of sugar,” says Rifkin. Swapping a banana in for sugar when you make brownies, for example, can save you about nine grams of sugar per chocolatey square.
5. Nix The Latte
Warning: your morning cup of Joe could have more sugar than a candy bar! (Yep, your average caramel macchiato is loaded with 33 grams of sugar.) And since sugar is hidden in even milks and creamers, go as black as possible, says Kennedy. If black coffee just isn’t your style, stick to just a splash of creamer, plain fat-free milk, or unsweetened almond milk, and try adding spices like cinnamon or nutmeg for a little warm flavor.
6. Switch Up Your Hydration Game
There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a glass of cold lemonade or fizzy fountain soda, but they’re notorious for being loaded with sugar. Just one eight-ounce lemonade can pack as much as 28 grams of sugar.
Nix sweetened bevvies from your routine and keep some flavor by squeezing fresh lemon into your water. You can even add herbs like lavender to really keep your taste buds engaged, says Kennedy. Need something sweeter? Slice your favorite fresh fruit and pop it into your water.
7. Find Lower-Sugar Versions Of Your Favorite Treats
Sometimes you just need a few scoops of Ben and Jerry’s most delicious ice cream creations—but sugar and calories add up quick, with 27 grams of sugar in half a cup of our favorite flavor.
To satisfy a sweet tooth without the sugar rush (or waistline woes), try blending a frozen banana with some peanut butter, matcha, cocoa powder, or fresh fruit to make ‘nice cream,’ suggests Kennedy. (Check out eight of our favorite ‘nice cream’ recipes here.) Or, look for lower-sugar treats at the supermarket, like Halo Top ice cream, which contains just five grams of sugar in half a cup. Halo Top, like many of these other lightened-up treats, is sweetened with stevia and erythritol (a sugar alcohol that’s lower in calories) instead of regular sugar. (You can learn more about all the popular sugars here.)
Keep your sugar in the safe zone with this handy infographic: