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Ask the Diet Doctor: Cutting Back on Sugar

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Ask the Diet Doctor: Cutting Back on Sugar

Q: I want to cut back on my sugar consumption. Should I go cold turkey or ease into it? Where do I begin?

A: I’m glad to hear that you are making efforts to cut down on your sugar consumption. Added sugar makes up 16 percent of the total calories in the average American diet—that’s 320 calories for someone on a 2,000-calorie plan! Removing this many calories can make a huge impact if you are trying to lose weight. For some people, cutting out added sugar is the only diet change they need to drop significant pounds.

But eliminating sugar is hard because it’s addictive. Some research shows that high intakes of the sweet stuff can mimic the effects of opiates. I’m not saying that your midafternoon cola fix is giving you the same high as popping oxycodone, but they both stimulate similar areas of the brain, leading to feelings of pleasure.

The best way to cut back depends on your personality. Some people do really well going cold turkey while others need to be weaned off. Consider what has been most successful for you in the past when trying to break habits and use that same strategy.

However you decide to attack this goal, the first two things to focus on are grain-based desserts and sweetened drinks.

Cakes, cookies, pies, and the like account for 13 percent of the added sugar in the U.S diet and are the No. 1 source of calories and trans fats. Most people aren’t having dessert multiple times a day, so weaning off your post-dinner sweets should be an easier place to start. Don’t panic if you love your brownies—I’m not asking you to give it all up. Just save it for your splurge meals and—most importantly, enjoy it. Then get back on your reduced-sugar plan. This way you can enjoy the benefits of improved health, blood sugar control, and weight loss while also being able to savor a slice of German chocolate cake with coconut frosting every so often.

As for liquid calories, hone in on soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks, which make up 36 percent of the added sugar and 4 percent of the total amount of calories that Americans consume daily. (Scary!) No ifs, ands, or buts: Cola doesn’t have any place in your diet. Energy and sports drinks, however, can be used during or after exercise as a vehicle for fueling and refueling your workouts, but that is it. You’re just going to have to find something else to drink. Water, seltzer, and hot or iced green or herbal tea are my top recommendations. Cutting these sugar-sweetened beverages out of your diet (or corralling them to your workouts) is a top priority.

Then, when you’re ready for the next step, you need to become an expert at reading food labels because that is the only way to identify added sugar. If any of the following ingredients—all defined as “added sugar” by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—are one of the first three listed, stop buying and eating that product.

  • white sugar
  • brown sugar
  • raw sugar
  • high fructose corn syrup
  • corn syrup
  • corn syrup solids
  • malt syrup
  • maple syrup
  • pancake syrup
  • fructose sweetener
  • liquid fructose
  • honey
  • molasses
  • anhydrous dextrose
  • crystal dextrose
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