It’s not easy, but it’s worth the struggle.
By now, you know that sugar is bad for you. Eating too much of it ups your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. The problem is that the standard American diet is chock-full of the sweet stuff, so cutting back is a pretty big feat (I know, I’ve tried, and kind of failed).
While avoiding sugar completely is impossible and not a good health move—fruits are healthy for so many reasons and happen to also contain sugar—cutting back on added sugars (that is, sugar that isn’t naturally occurring in your food) is always a good idea. (And no, that doesn’t mean replacing them with fake sugars either. They’re not totally risk-free.) But it’s hard to know where to begin.
To help you figure out a game plan, SELF spoke with Partha Nandi, M.D., an internist and the creator and host of the medical television show, Ask Dr. Nandi. Here are his nine best tips for finally changing your relationship with sugar and learning how to live with less of it.
1. Eat more often.
Letting yourself get ravenously hungry increases the chances you’ll reach for quick energy, low-quality foods instead of choosing your meals and snacks wisely. “When you don’t eat regularly, you get these cravings, and it’s easy to fill yourself with empty calories,” Nandi says. “You may get busy and forget about meals and skip them, but when you do that is when you fall prey to eating stuff that’s terrible for you.” He suggests eating five smaller meals a day, or three meals and ahealthy snack in between each.
2. Drink more water.
Another way to curb hunger and reduce cravings for sweets is to stay hydrated. Sometimes we mistake thirst for hunger, so sipping on H2Oall day long will give your body a better understanding of when it actually needs fuel.
3. Eat fresh instead of processed foods.
Processed foods are notorious for having added sugar (and sodium, but that’s another story). “Avoid the box as much as you can,” says Nandi. Instead of eating a packaged snack, reach for something like cut up apple slices and yogurt. The more whole foods you can eat, and the more meal prepping you can do at home, the easier it will be to avoid processed stuff and still eat enough to feel satiated.
4. Read labels.
When you do buy packaged foods, read the labels. Check the ingredients list to see if sugar is listed as an ingredient—that means it’s added. While naturally occurring sugar and added sugar are both sugar at the end of the day, the reason we eat way more than we should is because it’s added to so many things unnecessarily (for instance: peanut butter and whole-grain bread).
5. Spice things up.
Spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and turmeric can give food a new and different flavor that can replace the sweetness you’re used to. Nandi suggests adding cinnamon to coffee in place of sugar.
6. Get enough sleep.
Being tired—which most of us are—puts your body in a vulnerable position. “You’re tired and think you can beat that fatigue by eating simple carbs, because you get energy that’s immediate,” Nandi says. “But that’s short-lived and you then crash and feel more fatigued.” It’s a vicious cycle that leaves you craving even more sugar. This constant spike and drop in blood sugar and insulin is also what, over the years, can throw your natural insulin production out of whack and lead to things like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
7. Cut back slowly.
Drastically reducing your sugar intake all of a sudden can be a bit shocking to your body (and taste buds). “You need to reset your appetite and brain,” Nandi says. “It’s easier for your body and more realistic if you do it gradually over a period of time.” Psychologically, weaning yourself off sugar slowly will make it easier to stop relying on it as a crutch. For example, use half as much sugar in your coffee each week until you can cut it out completely without even noticing.
8. Avoid low- and nonfat foods.
It’s a known fact that when removing fat, many food manufacturers add sugar to keep the product flavorful. “So you’re just defeating the purpose,” Nandi says. “You think you’re getting no fat, but when you take in those simple sugars, your body converts it to fat.” Instead, eat healthy fats in small amounts so you don’t feel deprived of those flavorful, filling foods.
9. Eat these healthy snacks instead.
You know what you’re not supposed to eat…so what can you eat? Of course fresh fruits and veggies are good healthy snacks. But when you’re feeling a little produce fatigue, Nandi suggests eating things like hard-boiled eggs, avocado, and nuts instead. For even more ideas, check out these snack ideas with zero added sugar. The key is to get plenty of protein and some healthy fats. Over time, your sweet tooth will calm down a bit and you won’t expect sugar in every meal.