This article was last updated on Aug. 16, 2021.
Sugar is the star in some of life’s most memorable moments, showing up in our birthday cakes, Super Bowl party treats, Valentine’s Day candies and even the champagne (or sparkling cider) toast that kicks off the new year.
While it’s generally fine to savor something sweet for special occasions, many of us consume far more sugar than we should on a daily basis.
Over time, excess sugar triggers weight gain, spikes in blood sugar and a host of other health issues. It’s impossible to completely detox from sugar, of course. Found naturally in healthy fruits, vegetables and dairy, sugar helps to power our bodies through each new day. But, the problems start when we consume too much — especially in the form of added sugars.
Your recommended daily sugar intake
The average American consumes nearly 66 pounds of added sugar per year. That’s nearly 20 teaspoons per person, per day, and far more than recommended.
The American Heart Association guidelines External Site suggest:
- No more than six teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar per day for women
- No more than nine teaspoons (38 grams) of added sugar per day for men
- No more than three to six teaspoons (12 to 25 grams) of added sugar per day for children, depending on ages and nutritional needs.
Here’s how that plays out in real life. A 12-ounce soda might contain up to 11 teaspoons of added sugar. That amount is nearly double the daily recommended allowance for women and children. It’s also about as much sugar as you’ll find in one orange, 16 strawberries and 2 plums, combined. Those fruits contain beneficial nutrients and fiber. Soda, by contrast, is made up of empty calories.
How to cut back on how much sugar you're eating
Because sugar hides in so many unexpected places, most of us consume more than we realize.
Doing a sugar detox can have major health benefits, so consider transitioning toward a more sugar-free lifestyle. Some individuals do best by eliminating all added and natural sugars for three or four days. That means no baked goods or sugary drinks, but also no fruit, dairy or starchy vegetables such as corn, peas and beets.
Expect some grogginess, headaches and sleepiness in those first few days, as your body adjusts. Then, as the sugar cravings pass, you can slowly add small portions of naturally sweet foods back into your diet. Continue skipping the processed foods and pastries as much as possible.
Cutting back on sugar takes some effort, but getting started is easier than it might seem. Whether you’re outlining a long-term detox plan or want to quit cold turkey, these steps will help you consume less of the sweet stuff.
Start at the store
Learn to spot sugar on nutrition labels.
Sometimes, it’s clearly listed as “sugar” or “added sugars,” but more than 60 other terms also indicate your food has sweeteners. Look for words such as brown sugar, malt sugar, corn sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, honey or any of several sugar molecules ending in -ose (including fructose, sucrose, glucose, dextrose, lactose or maltose).
Steer clear of processed foods and sweetened items that contain added sugars.
Some typical offenders are energy drinks, sodas, fruit punches, packaged foods, flavored yogurts and fruit canned in syrup.
Don’t forget the sneaky sugars.
Seemingly healthy foods, such as protein bars, pasta sauce, frozen dinners, instant oatmeal and applesauce, can be loaded with sugar. Check the labels before buying ketchup, salad dressing and barbecue sauce, which can also contain added sweeteners. Consider flavorful alternatives like mustard, hot sauce or olive oil, instead.
Pay attention to low-fat foods.
Sometimes, that lost fat is replaced with added sugar.
Think twice before using artificial sweeteners.
Though they might ease the transition away from sugary items, they don’t always help in the long run. Products containing saccharin, sucralose, stevia and other sugar substitutes taste many times sweeter than sugar. Over time, they can desensitize you to sweetness and make the natural sugars in fruits and vegetables seem less appealing. Plus, you might be more tempted to overindulge in sugar-free sodas and packaged products simply because “sugar-free” sounds safe and healthy.
Get healthier at home
Practice portion control.
It'll immediately lower how much sugar you’re eating.
Skip the soda.
Sugary drinks are the single largest source of added sugar in American diets, say some sources, with a single, 12-ounce serving packing up to 46 grams of sugar. Instead, drink plain or sparkling water, unsweetened tea, unsweetened almond milk or black coffee (with no added syrup or sugar, of course). Watch your intake of diet sodas and other drinks that use artificial sweeteners, as well.
Trade sugary foods for fiber, healthy fats and lean proteins.
Whole grains, fish, low-fat meats, nuts and high-fiber vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts contain key nutrients and fill you up more than pastries or potato chips.
Rather than topping your cereal and oatmeal with sugar, add fresh strawberries, slice up a banana or stir in some dried cranberries.
Cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg also enhance flavor without adding extra sugar.
When baking, decrease the amount of sugar you use by one-third or one-half.
Or, half the sugar measurement and substitute an equal amount of unsweetened applesauce.
Consider limiting how much fruit, sweet potatoes, corn, peas and other naturally sweet produce you eat as you move away from sugars.
Add small portions back into the mix once the cravings for sweets subside. Permanently replace white rice, white bread and white flour with whole-wheat versions.
Five benefits of beating your sugar addiction
Consuming less sugar kicks off positive changes over time. Here’s what to expect.
You’ll lose weight.
Because excess sugar gets stored in the body as fat, limiting sugar helps you lose extra pounds.
You’ll improve your overall health.
Slimming down decreases your risk of heart disease, increases your energy, lifts your mood and can help keep cholesterol levels in check.
You’ll look younger.
As you reduce your sugar consumption, your skin will look clearer and more radiant.
You’ll experience fewer cravings.
Research shows that sugar causes cravings similar to those triggered by alcohol or drugs. Eating fewer sweets helps you break the addictive cycle.
You’ll reset your palate.
By eliminating added sugars and artificial sweeteners, you’ll rediscover the natural sweetness of apples, almonds, onions and other healthier foods.
- Heart.org — Tips for Cutting Down on Sugar External Site
- SugarScience.UCSF.edu — Hidden in Plain Sight External Site
- MayoClinic.org — 6 ways to reduce your sugar intake External Site
- EatRight.org — Looking to Reduce Your Family's Intake of Added Sugars? Here's How External Site
- Health.Harvard.edu — Cutting back on added sugar External Site
- MayoClinic.org — Artificial sweeteners: Any effect on blood sugar? External Site