5 Surprising Habits That Can Help You Cut Back on Sugar
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You know the phrase "everything in moderation"? That applies to sugar as well. Completely kicking it out of your life frequently leads to failure; however, the context in which you're eating it matters, says Ashley Gearhardt, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, who also helped develop the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a test that pinpoints whether you exhibit addictive eating behavior. People frequently want high-sugar foods (like cookies or ice cream) when they're lonely or sad, at night and alone. However, take a step back: "Those are not the times to have a moderate scoop of ice cream," she says, as it can spiral into a binge. Instead, introduce treat foods during positive times when it's easier to moderate your intake, like after you've had a full meal in the company of loved ones.
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The goal of most food companies is to make their products hyperpalatable so that you eat more of them. To do that, they add sugar, salt and fat. The catch? If they take out something—like fat to make a low-fat food—they balance that equation by adding in more sugar to improve the taste, says Laura Schmidt, PhD, professor of health policy at the School of Medicine at University of California, San Francisco. And you can also assume that other "healthy" labels, like "gluten-free," might have the same problem. Research in 2018 in the journal Pediatrics, which looked at gluten-free foods marketed to children, found that 88 percent of these products contain less fat and sodium compared to conventional fare, but 79 percent were packed with sugar. The lesson? Read the nutrition label to know exactly what you're getting.
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If you're hooked on sugar, you have a pattern of favorite foods. Maybe that's a flavored coffee drink, a store-bought smoothie or a sweet snack at the same time each day. Facing the music about just how much sugar is in that treat can help you quit, Schmidt says. She recommends looking on the package (or looking up the nutritional info online) and finding the amount of sugar in the product. Dividing that number by four will give you the number of teaspoons of the sweet stuff. Then, measure out that amount of sugar into a glass. "Look at it long and hard. Ask yourself, 'Would I eat this right now?'" she says. The answer? Probably not.
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When University of California, San Francisco, decided to stop selling soda as part of their Healthy Beverage Initiative, there was a huge improvement in the health of those on campus. "Within 10 months, people dramatically reduced their consumption. Among the positive changes was a reduction in waist circumference," says Schmidt, who's also a scientist behind UCSF's Sugar Science site. The idea was sparked, in part, by how alcoholics are effectively counseled to cut back on alcohol: They get it out of their environment and grow a supportive group of people in their social circle. Clear sources of sugar from your home so that the sweet stuff isn't visible (in order to prevent triggering a craving), and ask your family or close friends whether they'd like to make this a collective goal. "Having a group of people in your life who are committed to doing this for their health and longevity will help you stay on track," she says.
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When you reduce sugar from your diet, be prepared for intense cravings—and the resulting irritability and moodiness. Gearhardt says that sugar withdrawal is similar to drug withdrawal: Things are worse in the first week, and then it slowly gets better. A new study from Gearhardt and her colleagues, published in the journal Appetite, found that when people cut back on highly processed foods, symptoms of withdrawal were most intense between days two and five and then began to level off. Choose to start cutting back during a week when there's relatively little stress, you can get enough sleep, and you're maintaining a regular schedule (not when traveling, for instance). In order to stay on track, plan how you'll keep stress low during this period (for example, yoga, meditation, exercise or scheduling activities with friends that don't involve food) and set yourself up for success by planning meals and having nutritious foods on hand.