If you know me, you know I enjoy sweets! I’m never going to tell you to overly restrict yourself or give up the foods you love. But Americans eat an average of 19 teaspoons of added sugar per day, whereas the American Heart Association recommends that women and kids have no more than 6 teaspoons per day and men eat no more than 9 teaspoons per day. Added sugars are a driving force behind many long-term conditions, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety. An excessively sugary diet can also undermine your immune system, which, needless to say, is important to consider. So for the most part, sticking within the daily added sugar limits makes good nutritional sense.
What is added sugar?
Added sugar is a sweetener that’s added to something, like the sugar you stir into your coffee or the honey you add to tea. It’s also the sugar that’s added by a manufacturer. There are more than 50 names for added sugar and some of them, like apple juice concentrate, sound healthy. But no matter what form of added sugar you’re eating, when you take in more than the recommended amounts, it can be an issue.
What sugar does to your body
If you’re routinely eating too much sugar, it can be a factor in health problems, including:
High blood pressure
Type 2 diabetes
Is there a difference between maple syrup or honey and other sweeteners?
These sweeteners are less processed, so they do stand out because they contain a high concentration of antioxidants. However, your body processes all sweeteners virtually the same way so it’s important to stay within the healthy added sugar ranges whether you’re choosing a less processed sweetener, like maple syrup, or a more processed form, like table sugar. The amount of added sugar in your overall diet is the most important factor, outweighing the antioxidants in maple syrup and honey.
Can you be addicted to sugar?
You can think of sugar as somewhat addictive in the sense that the more you eat, the more you’ll crave. Sugary foods light up reward pathways in the brain, the same system that drugs act on. When you activate this system with sugary foods, it reinforces your desire for these foods. And it may take increasingly sweeter foods to promote this same effect.
Here’s another problem: Manufacturers sneak added sugars into unexpected foods, like whole grain bread, oat milk, and more. This stimulates the reward system and it gets your taste buds used to sweet foods, so foods like veggies or plain yogurt taste blander.
With a sugar detox diet, you can beat sugar cravings and get your taste buds used to a range of healthy foods. (Read more about the best way to to reduce sugar cravings.)
Who should try a sugar detox diet?
The truth is, most people would benefit from reducing their added sugar intake. So when I talk about a sugar detox diet, I’m really talking about making healthy lifestyle changes that limit your added sugar intake.
How to do a sugar detox
If you like the idea of tackling everything at once, you can certainly do that, but a lot of people find it hard to give up sugar cold turkey, so if you fall into this camp, the best way to do a sugar detox is to approach it like a healthy lifestyle change. Here are some ideas to help you get started.
1. Take a look at the leading sources of added sugar in the diet.
Coffee and tea with sugary add-ins, whether added at home or added in the form of a blended drink or sugary toppings at the coffee shop
If you’re routinely eating anything on this list, start by limiting these foods. (See why sugary drinks are one of the processed foods to avoid.) For example, to kick a soda habit, start by cutting back the amount you drink (say, from daily to every other day) or switch to an unsweetened drink, like sparkling water.
2. Compare labels
You can find a granola bar with as much added sugar as two fun-size candy bars, or you can find one with no added sugar. How can you tell the difference? Read labels! The updated food label shows you the amount of sugar a manufacturer adds in the added sugar line. It’s also a good idea to check the ingredients to make sure that your packaged foods are made from minimally processed ingredients, such as whole grain oats or nuts or dates. (You can get my picks for the healthiest granola bars here.)
3. Minimize added sugars in your everyday foods
Even if you don’t have a sweet tooth and you think you’re avoiding added sugars, take note of the foods you’re eating everyday and read labels to see if sugar is unexpectedly sneaking in your diet. Here are some common, healthy-seeming sources of added sugar:
Plant-based milks, like oat milk or almond milk. Even plain versions can contain about two teaspoons of added sugar.
Oatmeal and other whole grain cereals. (Here are some of my favorite whole grain cereals.)
Flavored yogurt. If it has flavor, it probably contains added sugar. If it has a sidecar or toppings, it could have as much sugar as a scoop of ice cream.
Condiments, like pasta sauce, barbecue sauce, and salad dressings. These vary from no added sugar to loads of added sugar so if you want to beat your sugar cravings, you need to look into this!
Canned or boxed soups. Tomato soup is notoriously high in added sugars!
Bread. I’ve seen a very popular whole grain bread with more than a teaspoon of added sugar per slice, adding up to 2 ½ teaspoons per sandwich.
Snack foods. If you’re eating sweeter snack foods, consider switching to lower sugar snacks. (Here are some lower sugar snacks to try.)
4. Make foods seem sweeter naturally
There are lots of ways to go about this! For instance, roasting veggies brings out their natural sweetness. Fruit and and 100% fruit juice can also lend sweetness to foods without any added sugar. For example, make a salad dressing that uses 100% orange juice, which can brighten up your greens without added sugar. Using mashed bananas in pancakes and baked goods is another healthy lifestyle change that helps you manage added sugars while also providing more nutrition in your diet. I also like using ingredients, like vanilla extract, cinnamon, cardamom, and unsweetened coconut chips in numerous foods. These types of flavor additions remind you of other sweet foods, so you get a sweet vibe without eating any sugar.