15 easy ways to lower the added sugar in your diet

A registered dietitian shares tips and tricks for identifying sneaky sugars in your food and drinks — and consuming less of them.
15 ways to lower the added sugar in your diet
The goal isn’t to eliminate dessert from your life, but to bring your added sugar intake into a healthier range.Jenny Chang-Rodriguez / TODAY / Getty Images

Most Americans consume between 19 and 25 teaspoons of added sugars daily. The added sugars mainly comes from these items:

  • Sweetened drinks (including coffee and tea with sugary add-ins)
  • Desserts and sweet snacks
  • Candy
  • Sugar you add to foods (like oatmeal and pancakes)
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Bars (like granola bars)

The health impacts of this sugar surplus are considerable. A sugar-laden diet puts you at a higher risk for problems, including heart disease, memory concerns (like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia), type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and it makes it harder to maintain a healthy weight. It also leads to cavities. Sodas and other acidic sweetened drinks, in particular, can damage tooth enamel.

Because of the health impact of added sugars, the American Heart Association’s recommendation is to limit added sugars to under 6 teaspoons per day for women and kids and 9 teaspoons for men. Not quite there yet? Here are 15 smart strategies for cutting down on added sugars from the leading dietary sources.

Sweetened Beverages

Across all age groups in the U.S., sweet drinks, which include soda, sports drinks and fruity drinks (not including 100% fruit juice), make up about 37% of our daily sugar totals. Drinking sugar on a regular basis can be harmful to your health. It’s linked with a higher risk of weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and a form of liver disease. If you’re going to make one change, this is the place to cut back.

Here are some ways to do that:

  • Have diet soda instead of regular soda. This is a reasonable step if you’re currently drinking regular soft drinks, but understand that there may be unintended consequences with a diet soda habit, too. It’s possible that they increase cravings, and some studies suggest they may increase insulin resistance and lead to a higher rate of heart disease and stroke.
  • Drink unsweetened seltzer water. These sparkling waters come in a variety of flavors, like cucumber, vanilla and just about any fruity flavor you’d like.
  • Add a splash of juice. If you’re not ready to give up sweetness, spruce your sparkling water up with a little 100% juice, such as OJ or pomegranate juice — or a spritz of citrus.
  • Skip the sports drinks (unless you need them). These drinks are made with sugar to help speed up hydration and replenish your body’s carbohydrate stores, which get depleted when you participate in super-intense workouts. The trouble is that regular active folks who work out for an hour or less don’t typically need these drinks — and they aren’t designed for ordinary thirst-quenching. Water is a better choice for most people.

Coffee and tea drinks

Many people are surprised to learn just how sweet coffee and tea concoctions can be. For instance, a medium Frozen Pumpkin Swirl from Dunkin’ has over 32 teaspoons of added sugars, which is way above the daily limit.

Here’s how you can dial down the sugar in coffee drinks:

  • Stick with traditional brews. Plain coffee and tea, along with traditional lattes, flat whites and cappuccinos are unsweetened drinks. Once you get into flavored versions — with extras like pumps of syrup, whipped toppings and sugary drizzles — your drink crosses the line to dessert.
  • Watch out for added sugars in plant-based milk. The ones used in coffee shops are often sweetened. For instance, at Starbucks, a grande coconut milk latte has 10 grams (or 2 1/2 teaspoons) of added sugar; the oat milk version has 22 grams (or 5 1/2 teaspoons); an almond milk latte has 8 1/2 grams (or 2 1/4 teaspoons) whereas the standard latte made with dairy milk has none.
  • Use flavor boosters. Cinnamon, vanilla extract, cardamom, nutmeg and unsweetened coconut or almond milk enhance the sweetness of coffee and tea drinks without sugar.

Desserts and sweet snacks

The goal isn’t to eliminate dessert from your life, but to bring your added sugar intake into a healthier range. That might mean eating dessert a little less often, making some healthier sweet swaps, and of course, managing the added sugars that are creeping into your diet in other areas.

Here are some ideas related to treats:

  • Have dark chocolate. It tends to have less sugar than other desserts and it has potential health benefits. In one small study, people who ate dark chocolate reported fewer cravings for sweet, salty or fatty foods. Dark chocolate is also rich in antioxidants — compounds that help offset the cellular damage that contributes to the development of many diseases.
  • Enjoy fruit. Fruit contains natural sugars and it’s the type of sweetness our bodies were designed to enjoy. You can doctor up plain fruit so it resembles dessert by sprinkling cinnamon onto banana slices, broiling a grapefruit or sauteing a chopped apple sprinkled with pie spices, for example. Adding some nuts or seeds or a spoonful of yogurt can make it feel even more special.
  • Be mindful with sweets. If you think about it, there are some desserts you love and some you can live without. Pause and think about where a treat falls on this spectrum and consider skipping those that aren’t that enjoyable. And when you decide to have something sweet, be present, eat it from a plate or bowl and take your time to enjoy it.

Breakfast cereals

According to a survey conducted on behalf of a shopping rewards app, 45% of respondents favor sugar cereal. The best-selling sugary cereals typically have between 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 teaspoons of added sugars.

Here’s how to have less:

  • Make a mix. Make a 50:50 mix of your go-to cereal and a whole grain, unsweetened variety. This hack will cut your added sugar intake in half.
  • Swap for a lower sugar cereal. There are plenty of whole grain cereal options that keep added sugars in a healthier range. Shop for one that has 6 grams of added sugar or less, which translates to 1 1/2 teaspoons.
  • Add fruit. This tip does double duty: It boosts sweetness and it adds fiber, vitamins and minerals to your breakfast.

Bars

There are a dizzying array of bars on the market, and in some cases, they’re no better than candy — at least in terms of how much sugar they contain.

Here are some pointers for buying better bars:

  • Check labels for added sugars. Updated nutrition labels make it easy to distinguish sugars that come from natural sources, like dates or raisins, from those that are added. For bars, stay under 7 grams of added sugar (1 3/4 teaspoon). Keep in mind that lower is better.
  • Watch out for bars marketed to kids. These bars are often smaller so even when the sugar looks reasonable, they can have more sugar per bite.