There’s no getting around it—eating too much sugar can be really bad for your health.
High consumption of the sweet stuff is associated with type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Recent research published by the AHA even found a connection between drinking sweetened beverages and higher risks of dementia and stroke.
While the AHA recommends that women consume no more than six teaspoons (or 24 grams) of added sugar per day, and men consume no more than nine teaspoons (or 36 grams), the average American takes in a whopping 22 teaspoons of added sugar in a single day.
Considering sugar is hiding in tons of packaged foods and drinks under names like malt, molasses, fruit juice concentrates, corn syrup, and anything ending in “ose,” it’s no wonder we’re taking in so much of the stuff. Take a look at your ingredient labels and you’ll often find added sugar in everything from flavored yogurt to granola to cereal to bread to condiments like sriracha and barbecue sauce.
The best way to slash added sugar is to stick to a diet of whole, fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and meat, says Maggie Moon, M.S., R.D.N., author of The MIND Diet. We know that’s easier said than done, so we asked a few nutrition experts to walk us through a day of sugar-free eating—and it’s much simpler (and tastier) than you might think.
With sugary cereals, instant oatmeal packets, and coffee shop pastries dominating the standard American breakfast, the best way to start the day off added-sugar-free is to whip up something quick at home.
Try this option: Make a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal (you can prep it in bulk for the week), and stir in a spoonful of peanut butter. Then top with strawberries and a sprinkle of hemp hearts. “It’s a hearty breakfast that supplies whole grains, healthy fats, naturally sweet berries, some protein, and heart and brain-healthy omega-3s,” Moon says.
And, if you’re not in the mood for oatmeal, go for yogurt or eggs, which are both high in protein to keep cravings at bay.
Rizzo likes to mix a cup of fruit (like papaya or berries) into a cup of plain Greek yogurt and top it all with a teaspoon of unsweetened shredded coconut for healthy fats. Not only does yogurt pack protein, but it also contains probiotics to improve digestion and keep you regular.
If you’re making eggs, just add some veggies and extra protein (like low-fat cheese, avocado, black beans, or smoked salmon) to the mix, Rizzo says.
When you’re stomach starts growling mid-morning, don’t reach for a sweetened granola bar to hold you over. If you usually go on a coffee run before lunch, have a latte made with just unsweetened almond milk to avoid sipping on added sugars, suggests Moon. And for your mid-morning snack, grab a piece of fruit (like a nectarine) and an ounce of almonds, pistachios, or walnuts. The sweetness of the fruit satisfies any sugar cravings, while the nuts provide protein and heart-healthy fats to fill you up, Moon says.
A green, nutrient-rich salad is a favorite lunch for many nutrition experts. The key is to make your own dressing and choose toppings wisely to avoid added sugar.
Start out with a mixture of romaine, kale, and spinach, and top it with a serving of quality protein, like grilled chicken breast or salmon, recommends Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D. Then add in a serving of avocado (a third of a medium fruit) which adds creaminess and helps your salad fill you up for just about 80 calories. Top your salad with a drizzle of olive oil and your favorite vinegar for a dose of healthy fats and a punch of acidity to tie everything together.
You can even make a satisfying salad without the meat by topping mixed baby greens with quinoa or farro for fiber and edamame for plant-based protein, suggests Moon. From there, add your favorite colorful veggies, like red bell peppers, avocados, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, and more. Then drizzle with olive oil, your favorite vinegar, and a small pinch of salt and pepper. Tons of flavor, zero added sugar.
Afternoon cravings are often the undoing of our sugar-free eating efforts. Trade the trip to the vending machine for a nutritionist-approved snack like air-popped popcorn with a dash of sea salt, suggests Rizzo.
If you need something a little more substantial, munch on a handful of unsalted peanuts and a few raisins. The combo tastes just like peanut butter and jelly, says Rizzo. Or, munch on a cup of steamed edamame or roasted crunchy chickpeas. Both are packed with fiber and sugar, she says.
And if you typically reach for a soda in the afternoon, go for a refreshing naturally-flavored sparkling water instead, says Moon. Just avoid any sparkling beverages that use artificial sweeteners and flavors. (We love LaCroix’s fun flavors.)
A mix of whole-food complex carbohydrates, vegetables, and protein at dinner is all you need at your evening meal.
To keep things simple, you might have a serving of grilled fish (like salmon or halibut) with a side of green vegetables (like green beans or Brussels sprouts) and a serving of either brown rice or beans, says Rizzo.
When you’re in the mood for something heartier, toss whole-wheat pasta with shrimp and sautéed broccoli florets and top with a fresh tomato and white wine sauce, suggests Moon. (Make the sauce yourself, since the canned stuff often packs added sugar.)
If you feel like you need some sweetness at the end of the day (hey, we all do!), it is possible to get your dessert in without added sugar coming along to the party.
Try this: Drizzle a tablespoon of warmed all-natural peanut butter and a teaspoon of sliced almonds over frozen banana slices—it’s a favorite of Elizabeth Ann Shaw, M.S., R.D.N., C.L.T.
Or, top a plain rice cake with a third-cup of plain cottage cheese (mix in cinnamon or vanilla extract for extra flavor) and a teaspoon each of dried blueberries and chopped walnuts, Shaw recommends. This sweet and texture-filled dessert provides protein and heart-healthy fats, she says.
Consider this infographic your sugar-free menu: