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Curious about how to eat less sugar, yet still live a sweet life? Check out my guide for Ways to Eat Less Sugar (without noticing anything’s missing). Then I’ll show how to put these tricks to use in my best low-sugar recipes.
Oh, sugar sugar. It’s a a key ingredient in so many of my favorite desserts (I’m looking at you, Puppy Chow and Sugar Cookie Cheesecake Bars). As much as I love sugar and will never give it up completely, it’s also something that I try to keep tabs on and enjoy in moderation.
The average American adult consumes 77 grams of sugar per day, the American Heart Association (AHA) reports. That’s three times as much as the recommended amount, and tallies up to about ⅜ cup of sugar per day. While you might think kids sip and snack on less sugar, that’s actually incorrect; the typical American kid consumes 81 grams per day.
Not to be a bummer, but this sugar isn’t just adding to our calorie intake for the day, it’s also drastically impacting our health and longevity over time. A high-sugar diet can contribute to higher blood pressure, chronic inflammation, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, heart disease, and more, according to Harvard Health.
Table of Contents
6 Ways to Eat Less Sugar
With all that in mind, today I’m sharing my top tips for how to eat less sugar, along with my best low-sugar recipes that show these tactics at work. I promise you won’t feel like you’re sacrificing a thing!
1. Watch for added sugars.
Not all sugars are created equal. The AHA confirms that added sugars are what’s most important to monitor, since they don’t add any nutritional value but do add substantial calories to recipes. We eat about 270 calories from added sugars alone, per estimates from the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans. That works out to about 13% of total daily calories coming from a source that doesn’t deliver any vitamins, minerals, fiber, or other wellness-boosting features.
There are also natural sugars, which are part of dairy products (lactose) and fruit (fructose); any items made with milk or fruit will contain some natural sugars. There’s certainly no need to track or limit those natural sources of fuel (unless you’re allergic, of course).
Since so many medical experts have deemed the supplemental sugars as the most important thing to keep an eye on, you’ll now notice an “added sugars” listing on the nutrition facts panel.
Take a peek at those grams, or if you’re scanning the ingredient list on a product, watch out for these alternative names for sugar:
- Brown sugar
- Fruit juice concentrate
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Malt sugar
2. Steer clear of sugary drinks.
The leading source of added sugars in the average American’s diet? Sugar-spiked drinks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If you’re aiming to eat less sugar, start by replacing one serving of soda, sports drink, or juice with unsweetened sparkling water or your favorite combo from my infused water recipe round-up below. Since these alternatives are free of added sugars but still offer a pop of flavor, the transition should be a bit easier than if you jumped straight from Pepsi to plain ol’ H2O.
As soon as one serving per day feels easy, continue replacing one more serving with flavored, unsweetened water until you’ve reached your personal sweet spot of beverage ratios. (Psst…I’ve found that when my family and I are each sipping several glasses daily, an infused water pitcher can come in handy!)
3. Make your own dressings and condiments.
Many food manufacturers pack their products with added sugars to contribute to shelf life and/or flavor. The next time you see a bottle of ketchup or salad dressing at the supermarket, flip it around. Chances are high that the recipe developers have sneaked in at least a few grams of added sugars.
You can control the sweetness level and the quality of ingredients by making your own dressings, sauces, compotes, and garnishes from scratch. Each of the following has far fewer added sugars than its store-bought competition:
4. Try flavor-boosters that seem sweet.
Adding sugar isn’t the only way to please your your sweet tooth. With enticing aromas and complex flavors, a handful of other ingredients, including warm baking spices and certain extracts, can trigger similar sensations in your recipes.
Try vanilla extract in Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, cinnamon in Pumpkin Muffins, and almond extract in Angel Food Cake. Or jazz up plan yogurt or oatmeal with any or all of the above instead of (or in replacement of a portion of the) brown sugar, regular sugar, honey, or maple syrup you might normally use.
5. Focus on fresh fruit.
As I mentioned earlier, when sharing tips about how to eat less sugar, very few health pros worry about natural sugars. (And as a cook and eater, I certainly don’t!)
While it’s not going to exactly replicate the experience of a handful of candy or slice of cake, incorporating more whole fruit, frozen fruit, and fruit purees is a tasty way to cure your cravings. Try a smoothie bowl for breakfast, pack a snack of tortilla chips and fruit salsa to ward of the mid-afternoon hangries, and pair your lunch or dinner with a generous scoop of fruit salad.
6. Eat more whole food, homemade recipes.
One of the quickest and easiest ways to eat less sugar? Cook your own meals! According to a study of more than 9,000 American adults published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, compared to those who whipped up a homemade dinner zero to one time per week, those who DIY-ed dinner six to seven times per week at about 150 fewer calories and 16 less grams of sugar per day.
You’ll score an even larger boost if those meals are made with whole food ingredients. Unlike ultra-processed foods or restaurant meals, if you focus on cooking a recipe that’s based around meat, seafood, beans, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, you’ll be whipping up a dish that contains few, if any, added sugars.
The AHA recommends that those who identify as men aim to consume 9 teaspoons/36 grams/150 calories or fewer of added sugar per day. Women should shoot for 6 teaspoons/25 grams/100 calories.
All of the following recipes have less than 5 grams of sugar per serving total (natural and added!), which should leave plenty of wiggle room for the rest of your day.
Meggan Hill is the Executive Chef and CEO of Culinary Hill, a popular digital publication in the food space. She loves to combine her Midwestern food memories with her culinary school education to create her own delicious take on modern family fare. Millions of readers visit Culinary Hill each month for meticulously-tested recipes as well as skills and tricks for ingredient prep, cooking ahead, menu planning, and entertaining. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the iCUE Culinary Arts program at College of the Canyons.