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Why we love sugar (and how to eat less of it)

Bread. Yogurt. Protein bars. Barbecue sauce. These disparate foods have one surprising thing in common (besides the fact that they’re popular foods): they tend to have lots of added sugar.

Sugar is all around us, lying in wait in even the foods that aren’t sweet. The reasons for this aren’t complicated. Sugar makes things taste better. It gives us a quick energy boost. You don’t have to have a sweet tooth to enjoy the effect sugar has on our favorite foods and how it makes us feel.

While we might be surprised at just how many foods contain added sugars, it’s no secret that most of us should be eating less of it. But this is easier said than done—and our taste buds aren’t entirely to blame.

Sugar science

One way of looking at the sugar in foods we eat is to distinguish between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars. You’ll often find natural sugars in foods with complex carbohydrates (i.e., the good carbs like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains). Focus on eating whole foods that contain natural sugars, especially since they are often accompanied by vital nutrients like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and protein.

Due to the presence of complex carbohydrates, whole foods with natural sugars are absorbed slowly, providing a steady supply of energy to your cells—something our bodies need to help keep us functioning from one task to the next.

Problems start to happen when we eat too many added sugars. These are sugars that are added to foods by food manufacturers to improve flavor and extend shelf life. Sauces, drinks, bread, cereal, baked goods, candy—these sugars are everywhere, whether you realize it or not. So it’s not hard to become one of the many who is unknowingly consuming too much sugar each day.

Furthermore, our brains are wired to seek out sweet things because sugar triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This same dopamine reward pathway in our brain is activated when we consume some drugs and alcohol. This response is part of why it can be so difficult to stop eating sugar.

Too much sugar over time can lead to metabolic health issues like type 2 diabetes and obesity, as well as heart problems, which is why we’re always being advised to limit our sugar intake.

Sugar economics

Despite the damaging effects of sugar, food companies keep using it in their products because, sadly, it’s good business. If something tastes good, people are more likely to keep buying it.

Society’s craving for sugar is part of why big food companies are so successful—and why our health is failing us, even with everything we know about healthy living.

How to eat less sugar

The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 24 grams (about 6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day, and that men consume no more than 36 grams (about 9 teaspoons). For reference, a 12-ounce can of regular soda has more than 10 teaspoons of added sugar, so it’s pretty common to max out our recommended daily sugar allotment with just one product.

All is not lost, however. Eating less sugar is more doable than you might think. Here are four simple tips to help you cut out the excess sugar in your diet.

1. Read all food labels, even for foods that aren’t sweet. Many packaged foods contain added sugars, which can be listed as any of the following names:

  • Brown sugar

  • Corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup

  • Fruit juice concentrate

  • Honey

  • Malt sugar

  • Invert sugar

  • Molasses

  • Food ingredients ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, sucrose, etc.)

Familiarizing ourselves with which foods we regularly eat that have added sugars can help us make informed choices about which foods to keep eating and which ones to find a healthier substitute for.

2. Drink water instead of soda or juice. One of the top sources of sugar in the typical American diet is drinks, whether it be soda, juice, energy drinks, or smoothies. So if you’re looking for one simple way to reduce your sugar intake, consider replacing your go-to beverages with water. Start slowly if you need to, swapping out one drink a day for water and working your way up to mostly drinking water.

3. Cook at home more. Takeout and pre-packaged foods are convenient, but the convenient option doesn’t always have your health’s best interest in mind. Eating more home-cooked meals ensures you will get more whole foods in your diet, without having to worry about sneaky added sugars you don’t need.

Preparing your own meals also gives you more control over how you flavor your food. Believe it or not, sugar and salt are not your only options. You can use spices and herbs like cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla to add flavor to food without the added sugar. Herbs like basil and oregano can add depth of flavor to savory dishes too.

4. Eat more fruit. Love your sugary snacks and desserts? We feel you. Rather than cutting out these things entirely, focus on eating more fruit. Maybe instead of your afternoon candy bar, eat an apple. Or, instead of finishing off dinner with a bowl of ice cream, try some frozen berries with whipped cream. Cutting out sugar entirely is difficult and probably not sustainable for most people, but using whole fruit as a substitute at times can dramatically reduce the added sugars in your day.

Less is more

Sugar can be hard to resist, but it doesn’t have to control us. A few simple changes can go a long way in reducing unneeded added sugars so we can all live better, healthier lives.

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