It's time to call sugar out for what it is: A heartbreaker, a big-tummy maker, and a health-food faker. We're not talking about the sugar that comes in fruit (because a lot of Americans aren't getting enough servings of the healthy food, as it is), but the refined stuff, such as high-fructose corn syrup, that sneaks into everything from ketchup to coffee creamers.
To help you quit the white stuff, we rounded up 18 experts to share their favorite sugar-ditching tips.
1. Avoid double agents, says Tasneem Bhatia, MD, former FDA commissioner and author of What Doctors Eat.
If you think your oatmeal and yogurt are health foods, time to turn the package over. "Flavored instant oatmeal is often a vehicle for sugar, with about three teaspoons of added sugar in each little packet," warns Dr. Bhatia.
Yogurt is another sneaky sugar food. "The sugar-filled stuff is candy in disguise," she says. Yogurt does have naturally occurring dairy sugar and, if sweetened with fruit, the fruit has sugar too, but these aren't the culprits. "Fruit and flavored yogurts often contain added sugar in the form of sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup."
2. Love your liver, advises Frances Murchison, HHC, AADP, author of Heal Your Whole Body.
Your liver does more than filter out your body's toxins--it also plays a vital role for your sugar cravings. "A healthy liver plays a key role in regulating blood sugar levels," says Murchison. "High blood sugar levels can leave you hungry, unable to concentrate, confused, emotionally volatile--and absolutely craving sugar."
Clean up your liver with these 34 foods so that your detoxifying organ can do its job keeping your blood sugar stable.
3. Feed your good gut bacteria, suggests Elizabeth Lipski, PhD, CCN, CHN, author of Digestion Connection.
Your gut bacteria play a surprising role in setting off food cravings, so keep your gut bacteria happy with the right foods. "Honey is a good prebiotic food," says Lipski. "Other foods with probiotics include asparagus, bananas, eggplant, garlic, kefir, sugar maple, and yogurt." (Just watch out for secret sugars.)
4. Eat more chocolate as a way to stay satisfied, says Will Clower, PhD, author of Eat Chocolate, Lose Weight.
Chocolate is a great tool for taming your sweet tooth. "Teach your tastes to like the healthier options--like dark chocolate," says Clower. "In neuroscience, this is called 'gustatory habituation.'" He likens it to making the switch from whole milk to skim--at first skim tastes like water, but after a while, you wonder how you ever drank milk that now tastes like cream.
Chocolate is a great way to train your brain to prefer less-sweet foods because there's a wide variety of chocolate sold, from milk chocolate to upwards of 85 percent dark. "As your preference moves toward darker chocolate, your tastes will be sculpted so that you won't even want your former faves."
5. Eat fat, says JJ Virgin, CNS, CHFS, author of JJ Virgin's Sugar Impact Diet to help break the sugar cycle.
Indulging your sugar cravings will only set you up for more failure later. Virgin explains that high-sugar foods cause blood-sugar spikes, leading to insulin imbalances. Follow this down the rabbit hole and you go into a nasty downward cycle of cravings, spikes, and more sugar.
Instead, satisfy your cravings with healthy fats. "Fat doesn't raise your insulin levels," says Virgin. "Insulin doesn't acknowledge fat, and that's just the way you want it." She recommends having two to three servings of healthy fats, like avocado, ghee, or olive oil, at every meal.
6. Labels 101: Know the difference between marketing and nutrition, Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, professor at New York University and author of Eat Drink Vote advises.
"The food industry spends billions of dollars a year to encourage people to buy their products, but foods marketed as 'healthy' particularly encourage sales and, therefore, greater calorie intake," says Nestle. She explains that research shows that people will eat more of a food if they perceive it to be healthy. Eating too much of even healthy foods is a problem, but often these 'healthy' foods are anything but. For instance, the flavor that you lose from taking the fat out of yogurt to make it "low fat" is often replaced with, you guessed it, sugar.
7. Labels 201: Do a quick scan of ingredient labels when making food purchases, says Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, author of The Hunger Fix.
If you have trouble deciphering the nutrition label, remember this quick tip: -ose is gross. "If you find high-fructose corn syrup, then that container should be gone," says Dr. Peeke. "Anything with sugar, rice syrup, corn syrup, or an -ose (fructose, sucrose) as one of the first three ingredients. Gone."
8. Labels 301: Get more in-depth on ingredient labels, suggests Robert Lustig, MD, professor at the University of California-San Fransisco and host of the PBS special Sweet Revenge: Turning the Tables on Processed Food.
"There are two reasons that people don't know how to read a label," says Dr. Lustig. "First, there are 56 names for sugar, and the food industry uses all of them. What they'll often do is use different kinds of sugar specifically to lower the amount of any given one so that it goes further down the ingredient list." It's a sneaky trick that manufacturers use so that "sugar" isn't the first thing people see. "You can have different sugars for ingredient number five, six, seven, eight and nine; but if you add them up, it's number one."
"The second problem is that they list total sugars, not added sugar." Dr. Lustig explains this using yogurt: A plain yogurt will have about 7 grams of naturally occurring lactose. "It's the fructose that matters, and that's what's in the added sugar," he says. A fruit-flavored yogurt will have 19 grams of sugar, meaning it has 12 grams of added sugar. "It's like eating a bowl of plain yogurt plus a bowl of Cap'n Crunch."
The Food and Drug Administration is currently working to add a line on food labels for added sugar, so Dr. Lustig also recommends that you write your representative to support the new food labeling.
9. Figure out why you're eating it, says Anne Alexander, author of The Sugar Smart Diet and creator of the Get Sugar Smart online course.
"You're supposed to enjoy a chocolate chip cookie," explains Alexander. "But if an out-of-control sweet tooth threatens your health, it's likely that you overeat sweet foods for reasons other than pleasure. Two of the most common are stress relief and emotional comfort." She points out that understanding why you're turning to sugar can help you find healthier alternatives, such as exercise or support from friends.
10. Love yourself more than sugar is what Talia Fuhrman, author of Love Your Body, stresses.
It's OK to forgive yourself for sugar slip-ups, but remember that, for next time, you can be your own best friend. "Self-oriented compassion is a key part of loving ourselves, inside and out," says Fuhrman. "You may fight yourself on the urge to dive into an entire cheesecake and then feel guilty or shameful because you didn't have the discipline to stop yourself from eating the whole thing--but the truth is, you can love yourself more than you love that quick hit of sugar."
She points out that self-destructive binges often stem from low self-esteem, so focusing on loving yourself can be easier than focusing on avoiding sugar.
11. Change your mindset, notes Michele Promaulayko, editor-in-chief of Yahoo! Health and author of 20 Pounds Younger.
If deprivation diets haven't worked for you in the past (and do they really work for anyone?), change "never" into "sometimes." "Just because it's called devil's food cake doesn't mean it's evil," says Promaulayko. "Labeling foods as "sometimes" for indulgences and "always" for the good stuff will keep you on task better than quitting cold turkey."
12. Recognize if it's sugar addiction, Kathleen DesMaisons, PhD, author of The Sugar Addict's Total Recovery Program and founder of Radiant Recovery, advises.
"Craving is always withdrawal," says DesMaisons. She explains that when you eat sugar, your body comes to expect it, and when you don't get it, you crave it. This kind of addiction can't be overcome by willpower alone. "It's not willpower. Most people think, 'Oh it's just that I'm weak willed,' but they don't realize that willpower doesn't work because of the biochemistry. It's actually the same brain chemistry as going off of heroin," she says. By recognizing sugar addiction, you can then approach getting it out of your diet with self-compassion and forgiveness.
13. Boost your serotonin, says Natasha Turner, MD, naturopathic doctor and author of The Supercharged Hormone Diet.
A hormonal imbalance in serotonin may be to blame for your sugar cravings. "Serotonin exerts powerful influence over mood, emotions, memory, cravings (especially for carbohydrates), self-esteem, pain tolerance, sleep habits, appetite, digestion, and body temperature regulation," explains Dr. Turner. "When we're feeling down or depressed, we naturally crave more sugars to stimulate the production of serotonin." She says that chronic stress and multitasking overload are the main causes of serotonin depletion.
Dr. Turner recommends eating more chia seeds. "This wondrous little grain also contains high amounts of tryptophan, the amino acid precursor of serotonin and melatonin," she says.
14. Reward yourself with exercise, David A. Kessler, MD, author of The End of Overeating suggests.
Exercise doesn't need a reward. Exercise is the reward. "A substantial body of science tells us that exercise engages the same neural regions as other mood-enhancing rewards and produces similar chemical responses, says Dr. Kessler.
15. Stop drinking liquid sugar, notes Ellen Gustafson, cofounder of FEED and Food Tank and author of We the Eaters.
"For both adults and children, the largest source of added sugar in our diets is sweetened beverages, especially soda," says Gustafson. "In fact, almost half of the added sugar we now consume comes from sweetened soda and energy, sports, and fruit drinks." She points out that while the American Heart Association recommends people have no more than 6 to 9 teaspoons of sugar per day, a 12-ounce soda has 10 teaspoons.
16. Ditch fruit juice is the recommendation of Harley Pasternak, MSc, author of 5 Pounds.
You see "fruit" so you think it's healthy, but really, it's just an overhyped source of sugar. "Containing neither protein, fat, nor fiber, fruit juice is calorically dense, provides no satiety, and receives 100 percent of its calories from sugar," says Pasternak. Opt for tea, coffee, or water--drinks that are all naturally zero calories.
That said, fruit itself isn't off the table. "Just compare a cup of unsweetened apple juice with a medium-sized apple," says Pasternak. "The former contains 114 calories and zero fiber; the latter has only about 72 calories but boasts 3.5 grams of fiber."
17. Use subs smartly, Dave Asprey, founder of The Bulletproof Executive and author of The Bulletproof Diet, cautions.
There's a big difference between safe sweeteners and sugar substitutes that make your sugar cravings worse. "Xylitol, a sugar alcohol, is found in many fruits and vegetables," says Asprey. "Women who use xylitol have less osteoporosis, and xylitol is well known to inhibit cavities, tooth decay, and even sinus infections."
What not to use? Aspartame, sucralose, or acesulfame potassium, as these alternatives have been linked to health issues, including cancer and gut bacteria disruptions.
18. Address your body's needs, Paddy Spence, CEO of Zevia, says.
Spence takes a divide and conquer approach to handling sugar cravings. "The craving for sweet can be a craving for sweet, but it can also be a craving for caloric intake," he says. Figure out what you're body is really asking for by eating something savory, healthy, and full of protein, such as nuts. If you're still craving something sweet, he suggests using a safe replacement like stevia.
19. Don't get too hungry, warns Jorge Cruise, author of Inches Off! Your Tummy.
"Most people make poor eating decisions when they are missing meals," says Cruise. The good news is that this means you can eat more--well, more frequently that is. "Keep your cravings at bay with a healthy snack between regular full meals." He likes deli meat and cheese roll-ups, or just munching on just about any kind of veggie under the sun.