Easy Ways to Eat Less Sugar and Still Enjoy Foods You Love

half eaten donut - empty sugar calories

Sugar is a very hot topic these days.  We can all agree that the amount of sugar most of us eat is WAY beyond healthful, and we should aim to reduce that amount.  However, eating less sugar is a very hard task when our bodies are literally addicted to it, and our food supply is purposefully laced with it.  Even foods you don’t think of as sweet, such as crackers or chips are laced with hidden “craveable” sugars.

While eating less sugar requires a little purposeful effort, it doesn’t require you to rigidly give up sweets, desserts or all the foods you love.  It does require you to sleuth out hidden sugars you can painlessly eliminate and make better choices about what treats you do eat.  Employing the simple tips below will go a long way to getting sugar in check, which will do wonders for your health not to mention your waistline.

First, let’s look at some astonishing facts about sugar and its effect on our health:

  • In 1770, when sugar was only for the wealthy, the average American ate just 4 pounds of sugar a year. In 1800, we were consuming 18 pounds of sugar a year. By 1900 that number had risen to 90 pounds per year, and in 2012, the average American consumed 168 pounds of sugar a year.  –from Sugar: the Bitter Truth, KolpInstitute.org
  • From 1980 to 2014 the number of people worldwide with Type 2 Diabetes nearly QUADRUPLED from 108 million people to 422 million people! (World Health Organization)
  • In 2018 the number of Americans with diabetes was 30.3 million, with an additional 84.1 million Americans with prediabetes, a condition of elevated blood sugar and insulin resistance which is damaging to your health. (American Diabetes Association)

Now, let’s talk about some simple ways you can cut back on the amount of sugar you eat without living a “deprived” life.  I’m sure my approach will not be radical enough for some – hey, I’m an avid baker!  However, any reduction in the amount of sugar you eat is an unequivocal win!  So read on for some easy-to-implement ways to tame your sweet tooth and reduce the amount of sugar you eat.

1. Read Food Labels to Eat Less Hidden & Added Sugars

Nutrition labels for granola bars

I know, reading food labels is an oldie, but knowledge really is power. Besides, you and your health are worth the few minutes it takes to make an informed decision about the food you put in your body.

There’s Hidden Danger in Your Food

Reading food labels is imperative because it’s the only way to know if you are consuming “hidden sugars”.  The American food industry knows that sugar is as addictive as cocaine, and over the years they have snuck sugar into practically everything. Hidden sugar isn’t added to just make foods more palatable, it’s added to make you addictively crave them.

For example, crackers or chips which we think of as salty foods actually contain loads of sugar;  canned veggies occasionally have added sugar (WHY?!); and condiments like catsup and salad dressings contain so much sugar they may as well be ice cream toppings.

Naturally Occurring vs. Added Sugars

American food labels now give you a very important piece of data – how much of the sugar in a food is artificially included, or what is called “added sugar”.  Foods like milk, fruits, even some fresh veggies naturally contain sugars.  Those aren’t the kinds of sugar you need to freak out about.

For example, milk contains natural milk sugars, so there is no such thing as zero sugar yogurt.  However, read the labels on a bunch of fruit flavored yogurts and get ready to freak about how much sugar is dumped in there.  Keep in mind a teaspoon of sugar is 4.2 grams, so a yogurt with 22 grams of added sugar has more than 5 teaspoons of sugar in it!

Reading the label helps you choose a better product with less or no sugar, choose to eat less of something, or simply be aware of what you are eating.  When I found out how much sugar is in catsup, I cut waaaaay back on how much I use on my beloved fries.  You know what?  Fries actually taste better with less catsup!  Who knew?

Bonus tip:  If you love fruity yogurt and don’t want to go full-on sugar ninja by only eating plain Greek yogurt, an excellent choice is Icelandic-style yogurt, or Skyr. Even flavored Skyr has low added sugars and an amazingly creamy texture.

2. Reset Your Tastebuds to Prefer Less-Sweet Foods and Drinks

flavored water, a sugar free beverage

Face it, we eat way more sugar than we realize (or care to admit), and much of it is simply because our tastebuds are out of whack.  As I said above, food manufacturers keep upping the amount of sugar in foods to make us more and more addicted to them.  Sadly, we have lost touch with what simple, natural foods taste like when not slathered in sweet sauces or cloaked in hidden sugars.  We have become desensitized to sweetness, so we accept food that is far too sugary.

A few ideas for how to reset your tastebuds for sweetness and subsequently reduce the amount of sugar you eat:

  1. If you sweeten your beverages (even with sugar subs) gradually decrease the amount you use.  You will discover, as your tastebuds resensitize, that you actually prefer your drinks far less sweet, or maybe completely unsweetened!
  2. Try the same technique with sugary condiments such as jams/jellies, catsup, bbq sauces, and sweet salad dressings.  You’ll be surprised how good food tastes when you can taste something besides the sugary condiments!
  3. Treat sodas, even diet, like an occasional treat rather than a regular beverage.  If you can do without them altogether, great!  Unsweetened green or black teas (without artificial flavors, please), water flavored with citrus oils or a wedge of cucumber, or plain ol’ water are all healthful and tasty ways to hydrate.
  4. Stop adding sugar to naturally sweet foods like fruit salads, sweet potatoes and corn.

At first things may taste “weird”.  That uneasy “I want this to taste sweeter!” feeling is your brain letting you know you are addicted to sugar.  Brain want SUGAR!  Just take it slow and your brain will adjust.  Soon enough you will actually prefer your food and drinks less sweet, and you can keep cutting back even more.

Please remember that you are not “faking yourself out” or “depriving yourself” by eating less sugar. Your body doesn’t need or like heaps of sugar, and if you listen to it, it will tell you just that.  Once you reset your tastebuds to prefer less sugar, you will be repelled by foods that are “too sweet” and you literally won’t want to eat them.

3. You Don’t Need “Low Sugar” Recipes to Cook With Less Sugar

Buttery, Sweet Blueberry Coffee Cake

Sure, you can buy cookbooks and magazines full of recipes for low sugar treats.  Unfortunately, many of them contain artificial sugar substitutes or weird stuff like brownies made from black beans (NO!).  I dunno, I always feel like I’m being punished with food like that.

The good news is there are a lot of “traditional” recipes out there that already contain lower amounts of sugar.  Even better news- by following a few simple rules you can adapt any recipe to use less sugar.  There are so many reasons to do your own baking, and this is one of the most important:  you control the ingredients!

Look to the Past for Baking Inspiration

I collect cookbooks and have many vintage books from the 1930’s and 40’s.  Dessert recipes from before the mid-20th century typically contain FAR less sugar than recipes from the 60’s on.

Cooking thru the original Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book (the 1950 edition which is still in print) has been a revelation.  The recipes in this cookbook came out of the rationing days of WWII.  Accordingly they are pretty easy on the amounts of sugar, dairy and fat.  And guess what – they are wonderful!  Many of the cakes and cookies I make now are from this book or other “retro” recipes.  Here is an excellent recipe for Peanut Butter Cookies that are soft, chewy and delicious, and which have much less sugar than many modern recipes I’ve seen. And that Blueberry Crumb Cake pictured above? Same deal – lower sugar than modern versions.

Yes You Can Use Less Sugar Than the Recipe Calls For!

Recently I read a series of articles on baking with less sugar, written by food blogger, PJ Hamel of Flourish. She proves that in most cases you can use less sugar than a recipe calls for with satisfactory results.  If you would like to learn how to tweak your favorite recipes to bake with less sugar, I highly recommend these articles of hers: Reducing Sugar in Your Pies, Reducing Sugar in Your Cakes , and Reducing Sugar in Your Cookies

And speaking of treats, another way to reduce the amount of sugar you consume is to…

4.  Raise Your Standards – Make the Sugar You Do Eat Worth It!

Homemade Peanut Butter Cups

One rule I have that helps me eat less sugar is I rarely eat sweets unless they are homemade or from a local, from-scratch bakery.  It’s not that homemade magically makes sugar “healthy” for you (I wish).  But at least scratch-made treats are not full of frankenfood additives, wonky lab-created sugars, fake flavors, or preservatives.  They are what I call WTC – worth the calories.  Those peanut butter cups, above, that I made for my sweetie were worth every last one!

Even if something is homemade, I always ask myself first “is this worth the calories?” If someone brings homemade oatmeal cookies to small group, I will likely pass as I don’t like oatmeal cookies.  If all the dessert options at a potluck look store-bought, I have NO problem passing them all up.  Baked goods and sweets are infrequent treats.  As such, make sure they are truly delightful and worth the calorie splurge.

Same thing applies for candy – buy yourself high quality versions of your faves and really, really savor them in small amounts.  Which leads to my final tip…

5. Slow the Heck Down!  Savor More to Eat Less Sugar

savor small treats to eat less sugar

This tip doesn’t work just with sweets to slash the amount of sugar you eat.  It works for anything you eat.  We can eat astonishingly fast, shoveling down far more food than we need before our body can signal “stop!”  However, when we eat slowly, truly savoring the flavor, aroma and texture of the food, we will be amazed at how little of something it takes to satisfy us.

Again, you’re not depriving yourself of pleasure or enjoyment, just useless, needless calorie consumption!

Let’s use chocolates for an example.  Sometimes my husband brings me a fancy box of European chocolates from one of his business trips abroad.  They are pricey, but a box will last me WEEKS.  How?  I take one piece and nibble it.  I let the chocolate and the filling melt in my mouth, really tasting it and enjoying both the flavor and texture.  One piece can take several minutes to eat, and in that time my desire for something sweet or something chocolatey has been completely satisfied.  I don’t want any more than one piece.

Contrast that with mindlessly pounding down handfulls of M&M’s, barely stopping to chew them.  I promise you will get far more pleasure from one piece of “the good stuff” you savor than half a bag of anything you inhale without thinking.

This “trick” works with any treat (okay, it’s not really a trick, we should be eating all our food slowly and mindfully).  If you love ice cream, buy a premium brand or head to your local “homemade” frozen custard stand.  I know it’s way more expensive, but we shouldn’t be eating mountains of it anyway.  A tiny scoop of Haagen-Daz savored bit by bit beats a bucket of Blue Bunny any day.

Final Thoughts

I hope I’ve given you some easy ways you can tame the sugar monster and eat less sugar.  Your body will thank you for it in so many ways.  If you love anyone who is trying to lose weight, eat less sugar, or is battling diabetes, I’m sure they would thank you sharing this article with them!


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