American life is sweet all right—so sweet that each year the average diet includes 77 pounds of sugar, nearly twice what’s recommended by health organizations. By now, you probably know that eating too much of it is not very good for you.
There is no way to sugarcoat it: If you’re expecting, a sweet tsunami can raise your risk of gestational diabetes, cause weight gain beyond what’s considered desirable, and lead to sputtering energy levels. (Sugar gives you quick energy—but not quality energy.) Long term it might even elevate your chances of heart disease, certain cancers and spending more time in the dentist’s chair. And noshing on high amounts of sugar during pregnancy and while breastfeeding may also set the stage for a child with a raging sweet tooth.
Because research shows that sugar can have addictive qualities, cutting back can be a pretty big feat, but it’s oh-so worth the struggle. While steering clear of sugar completely is virtually impossible—and unnecessary— it’s still possible to significantly cut back on your intake of added sugars (that is, sugar that isn’t naturally occurring) without saying sayonara to all your favorite foods. Here’s a game plan to help you get started.
Read the fine print
The average supermarket is a sugar bomb. According to an investigation in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, roughly 75 percent of packaged foods on store shelves contains added sweeteners in one form or another. For years food manufacturers have snuck sugar into foods you might not expect, such as breads, vanilla yogurt, nut butters, deli meats, salad dressing and tomato sauce. So, even if you’re not eating sleeves of Oreo cookies you still might be taking in more sugar than you realize.
In July 2018, the FDA will require most food packages to have a Nutrition Facts label that contains a separate line showing how much sugar has been added to the food or drink. (Manufacturers that make less than $10 million in annual food sales have an extra year to comply.) This will make it easier to spot how much sugar occurs naturally (such as lactose in yogurt) versus what has been pumped into the product.
Until then, you can weed out some of the sweet stuff from your diet by examining ingredient lists and looking for options that are free of sweeteners or have them placed far down the list. Ingredients are listed in order of how much exists in the product, so if a sweetener is near the top, that’s a red flag. And buy foods like almond milk and applesauce labeled “no added sugar” or “unsweetened” more often.
Know the lingo
Your body doesn’t really care much if you’re eating sugar from much maligned high- fructose corn syrup or less demonized sources like honey, coconut sugar and evaporated cane juice.
Case in point: A recent study in The Journal of Nutrition found that when people ate the same amount (about 2 tablespoons) of honey, sucrose (i.e., white sugar) or high-fructose corn syrup every day for two weeks, they experienced the same health concerns, including a rise in blood triglycerides and markers of inflammation, both risk factors for heart woes. That’s why it’s vital to recognize the many euphemisms for sugar that saturate ingredient lists, and then do your best to limit your intake. These double agents can include maltodextrin, fruit juice concentrate, brown rice syrup, barley malt, dextrose and maltose (basically any word ending in -ose).
If you’re all about embracing your inner Martha Stewart by rustling up batches of muffins and cakes, that is a big step toward healthier eating. Just keep in mind that many recipes call for more sugar than is necessary. So, unless a recipe is written specifically to be lower in sugar, try experimenting by reducing the amount of sweetener called for by 1⁄4 to 1⁄3. This shouldn’t change the final result in most recipes.
Try this as a way to recalibrate your taste buds to enjoying less saccharine baked goods. Including natural sources of sweetness like berries, mashed banana and dried fruit can slash the need for large amounts of added sugar, too.
To quell a sweet tooth with fewer reper- cussions, look to embrace foods that are naturally sweet more often. Sugars in vegetables like beets or sweet potatoes and fruit such as apples don’t count as added sugars, and research is bereft of any data linking naturally occurring sugars with unwanted weight gain and health concerns. That’s because the sugar they contain is bundled with other key nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber.
So, buy plain versions of items like yogurt and oatmeal, and sweeten the pot naturally with edibles such as berries. Unsweetened dried fruit, including apricots and figs, can be a nutrient-filled sweet option, but they are more concentrated in sugar than their fresh counterparts, so keep tabs on your intake.
Eat cake for breakfast
Here’s research that is almost too good to be true: The results of a study from Israel’s Tel Aviv University revealed that participants who added a decadent treat—cookies, cake or chocolate—to their already well-balanced breakfasts (which included sources of protein and quality carbohydrates) experienced fewer cravings and better body weight control than those who went without.
Adding dessert to your oatmeal or scrambled eggs can help curb cravings for sugary treats throughout the day by providing a lasting serotonin surge and suppressing production of the hunger hormone ghrelin.
Also, the body’s metabolism is often at its most active earlier in the day, so you’re in a better position to burn off the extra calories from a breakfast treat than if you ate the same item later in the day. If you just can’t get through a day without satisfying your sweet tooth, consider adding a small snack, such as a piece of dark chocolate or scoop of ice cream, to your morning repast, and see if that helps you sidestep late-night cookie jar raids.
Embrace other tastes
Sugar is but one of the five main tastes, with the others being salty, sour, bitter and umami. (Some say fat should be considered the sixth.) To reboot your taste buds, gradually increase your intake of unsweetened sour (such as plain yogurt or tart cherries), bitter (like arugula and radicchio) and savory umami (think Parmesan and mushrooms) foods. Soon you’ll no longer need to spike your morning coffee with the white stuff. As a payoff, you’ll net more nutrients while making it easier to wean yourself off sugar.
Spice is nice
Spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and curry can give food a pop of exciting flavor that could replace the sweetness you might be used to. Instead of dousing plain oatmeal with brown sugar or maple syrup, try sweetening it with a generous sprinkle of cinnamon or cloves and even a dash or two of vanilla extract. As a bonus, many spices harbor health-hiking compounds. Citrus zest can also punch up the flavor worry-free.
Avoid liquid candy
Be it soda, coffee, sports drinks, some smoothies or the kombucha from your local health food shop, a large percentage of the sugar in the average American diet comes in liquid form. This is particularly concerning because liquid calories do little to satisfy appetites.
To keep hydrated, opt for unsweetened drink options like green tea (not the ultra-sweet bottled stuff), sparkling water, black coffee, plain coconut water and good old-fashioned H2O. Lacking the fiber found in whole foods, fruit juices are best enjoyed in small quantities.
Walk it off
The next time you have visions of bonbons dancing in your head, lace up your running shoes. Working up a sweat may help you stamp out some of the sugar from your diet. An Australian study found that when people exercised for a mere 15 minutes their urge for sugary snacks dropped by 23 percent.
Exercise releases feel-good endorphins much like sugary foods can. And consider working out with your friends more often. A 2014 study by Norwegian scientists found that subjects with stronger social ties tended to drink fewer sugary beverages. Feelings of loneliness could bring on increased sugar cravings.
Being tired—which, let’s face it, most expectant mamas are—can put your body in a vulnerable position for cravings. A study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who slept fewer than five-and-a-half hours ate an average of 385 more calories per day than people who got more shuteye. And those calories were more likely to hail from fatty, sugary processed grub.
Inadequate sleep can mess with your hunger hormones, leading to brownie temptations. So, take measures like turning off the electronics at least an hour before hitting the sack to assure a more restful sleep and help make sugar less of a nutritional Achilles’ heel.