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5 Ways to start reducing refined sugar in your diet - today.

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

What is refined sugar? Understanding the difference between natural sugar and refined sugar can be daunting. And do you really have to cut ALL sugar out of your diet for ever and ever? Read on to help separate fact from fad.





In simplest terms, sugar is a carbohydrate that our bodies use for energy. Simple, or natural sugar, occurs naturally in many whole, fresh foods such as fruit, vegetables and milk. Refined sugar is a processed sugar made from sugar cane or sugar beets that is added to processed foods to improve and enhance flavor, texture and even shelf-life.









DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH SUGAR YOU’RE ACTUALLY GETTING?




Often times we are consuming much more sugar than we’re actually aware of. Even fresh, healthy foods can contain relatively "high" levels of sugar. Fruits typically contain a combination of natural sugars but they also contain fiber and nutrients that make them essential to a healthy, balanced diet.





What we want to be wary of are foods that contain refined or added sugars (not naturally occurring) and that have low nutrient values. Added sugars often lurk in places you wouldn’t expect to find them like bottled salad dressings, jarred pasta sauces, and many frozen, boxed, or pre-packaged meals. Making sure to read the nutrition labels on these and any packaged, canned, or jarred foods can help you start to identify and flush out the excess sugar in your diet.


Nutrition labels show sugar content in grams per serving though which often doesn’t translate into a tangible amount for many people. You may be able to calculate the total grams of sugar you are getting every day, but it won’t be helpful if you’re not able to convert that number into a useful measurement that gives you a clear perspective on how much you’re consuming.



Here’s an easy conversion to keep in mind: 1 tsp of sugar is equal to approximately 4 grams. So, if a serving of your favorite cereal has 8 grams of sugar in every half cup serving, then you’re consuming 2 tsp. of sugar with every half cup serving you eat!




 

Let’s take a quick peek at the sugar content of some popular foods and drinks. Each of the following are the equivalent of 1 serving:


1 – 12 oz. can of Coke = 39 grams of sugar (9.75 tsp.)


1 Frosted Strawberry Pop Tart = 15 grams of sugar (3.75 tsp.)


2 Tbsp. Ken’s Steak House Lite Country French Dressing = 10 grams of sugar (2.5 tsp.)


1 McDonald’s McGriddles Breakfast Sandwich = 16 grams of sugar (4 tsp.)


1 Venti (large) Starbucks White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino with whipped cream = 73.8 grams of sugar (18.45 tsp – that’s a little more than 1/3 cup of sugar in one drink!!)



While every single one of these items can be part of a healthy lifestyle - if consumed in moderation - it can be very easy to consume a lot of excess sugar in your daily diet if you don't know what to look for.


 

NOW THAT YOU KNOW - WHERE DO YOU START??


So, what can we do to reduce the refined and added sugars in our daily diets? Surprisingly, it’s not as difficult as you might think!


By following these 5 easy steps, you’ll be able to cut down on the amount of refined sugar you’re consuming daily (and I don’t think you’ll miss it!):



1) Cut Sugar-Sweetened Beverages out of your diet – pronto!!


Sugar-sweetened beverages include sodas, sweetened teas or coffees, energy drinks, fruit-flavored juices, flavored waters, and non-alcoholic wines and beers. These drinks are loaded with refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrups, and sweetened syrups. Eliminating these from your diet (especially if you drink them daily) will significantly lower your sugar consumption. If you find this difficult to do, try first cutting down by one sugar-sweetened beverage per day for the first week, then by two per day the following week, and so on, until you’ve successfully eliminated them.


2) Avoid processed and pre-packaged foods


Processed foods such as fast foods are notoriously high in energy density and low in nutrient density – which means that they contain high calorie counts and levels of fat, sodium, and sugar that make them very palatable to most people. It also means though that they are low in the nutrients and healthy stuff that your body needs from the foods that you eat. Pre-packaged foods also contain hidden sugars that can cause spikes in blood-sugar.


Instead, opt for whole, fresh foods that you prepare yourself. When you are preparing your own foods, you control what goes into them and it allows you to make healthier choices. And let’s face it – once you start making and preparing your own foods, you’re pretty quickly going to realize how much better they taste (and how much better you feel)!


3) Experiment with your own recipes and cut back sugar where you can


There are many ways to experiment with less sugar in recipes and still create beautiful, delicious comfort foods and baked goods. Don't be afraid to cut back on the amount of sugar that the recipe calls for or try a new preparation method. Try scaling back the amount of sugar in your recipes by just one Tbsp. at a time until you find a level that you are comfortable with. Through trial and error find what works, and what doesn’t; what you like and don’t like. It might not work for every recipe, but I guarantee you will find some that do….and you may like them better once you’ve whittled the sugar content down.



These little beauties are Sugar Free Oatmeal Thumbprints. They are made from my own recipe and contain no added sugar. I used apple puree in the cookie, then filled them with a homemade, sugar free apple filling, a peanut butter drizzle and chopped peanuts over the top.





4) Use other natural sweeteners in place of sugar in recipes


There are many natural sweeteners that you can use in place of refined sugar in your recipes, you just have to find the ones you like best. Some of my favorites are honey and molasses, but you can also use maple syrup, agave nectar, and coconut sugar. You’ll want to make sure though that if you are substituting a liquid sweetener for refined sugar, that you find a good conversion chart to guide you on how much to use. You should also be aware that you’ll likely need to cut back the quantity of another liquid in the recipe when using a liquid sweetener. This is a good place to experiment until you achieve a flavor and texture that is appealing to you.


Some helpful tips:

-When using honey, substitute approximately ½ cup of honey for every 1 cup of sugar. When baking, you’ll also want to reduce other liquids in the recipe by about 2 Tbsp.


-When using molasses, substitute approximately 1 to 1 1/3 cups of molasses for every 1 cup of sugar. When baking, you’ll also want to reduce other liquids in the recipe by 4-5 Tbsp. and add about ½ tsp. baking soda to your dry ingredients to help balance out the acidity/bitterness of the molasses.


-When using maple syrup, substitute approximately ¾ cup of syrup for every 1 cup of sugar. When baking, you’ll also want to reduce other liquids in the recipe by 2-3 Tbsp.


You could also try substituting light or dark brown sugar in place of white sugar. You’ll want to reduce the overall sugar content in the recipe by ¼ to ½ cup and add 1 extra tsp. of vanilla extract to help balance it out.


5) Use homemade fruit purees in place of sugar in recipes


This is my absolute favorite way to create beautiful, refined sugar free, baked goods! If you’ve never made your own fruit puree, it is easier than you can imagine. Some favorites are apple, pear, and banana, but I use dates sometimes too. See below to learn how easy it is to make your own fruit purees!

 

Apple or Pear Puree

(Honeycrisp Apples and either Anjou or Bartlett Pears work best) – Wash and peel fruit (usually do 2-3 medium sized apples or pears at a time). Remove the core and dice. Place diced fruit in a sauté pan over medium low heat and add a pinch of salt and enough water to cover the bottom of the pan and partially submerge the fruit. Simmer until all water has evaporated and fruit is soft. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature, then pulse in a food processor until smooth. Voila! Instant fruit puree with zero added sugar!! This will keep fresh for several days in an airtight container in the refrigerator.


Banana Puree

Peel two to three ripe bananas (that have 30-40% of the peel covered with brown spots) and either smash with a fork or pulse in a food processor until smooth. You’ll want to mix these into your recipes immediately so they don’t oxidize (turn brown). You can also add a few drops of lemon juice to them or mix 1-2 tsp. of Greek yogurt with them to prevent them from turning brown.


Date Paste

Pulse about 1 cup of pitted Medjool dates with ¼ cup water until smooth. It’s that easy! This will keep fresh for several days in an airtight container in the refrigerator also!




Helpful hint – if you’re unsure about trying your hand at making your own fruit purees, experiment first with unsweetened applesauce from the grocery store. Make sure you buy the no sugar added variety though!!

 

Removing as much refined sugar as possible from your diet can have a very positive impact on our overall health. Remember to keep an open mind and stay open to trying new things. You can make the journey fun and hopefully, you'll adopt some new, healthier ideas about food along the way! Just remember to follow the facts and avoid the fads. You’ll also want to consult with your doctor before making any changes to your diet to make sure that what you’re planning is a healthy option for you.




WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SHOW?

Interested in finding out a little bit more about the ways that a diet high in refined sugar can impact your health? Below are a few facts on some potential health issues that sugar may contribute to and links to additional resources on these topics.


Refined sugar seems to be one of the hottest topics out there today when it comes to nutrition. Most of us know and understand the implications that refined sugars and carbohydrates have on body weight. There is newly emerging scientific information though that suggests weight gain and the incidence of overweight and obesity are not the only risk factors involved when consuming a diet high in sugar.


There also seems to be a causal link between consistently consuming excess sugar and an increased risk for developing hypertension and cardiovascular disease. This is particularly alarming as many people tend to think of cardiovascular disease as only being related to excess fats in the diet and they don’t readily see the connection to sugar.


Research also shows an association between dental carries, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes in adults and children who regularly consume sugar sweetened beverages (SSB). Increased consumption of SSB over the years correlates to and parallels increased disease rates during similar time periods. This is in part because many people don’t realize that SSB can contribute significant calories to their daily intake but contain little to no nutrient value. Making them part of your regular diet can also create an almost addictive type of behavior as your brain releases dopamine (a neurotransmitter that is associated with a reward/pleasure response) to the sugar that is being consumed.

Bleich, S. N., and Vercammen, K. A. (2018). The negative impact of sugar-sweetened beverages on children's health: An update of the literature. BMC Obesity, 5:6.doi:10.1186/s40608-017-0178-9.


DiNicolantonio, J. J., Lucan, S. C., and O'Keefe, J. H. (2015). The evidence for saturated far and for sugar related to coronary heart disease. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 58, 464-472.doi:10.1016/j.pcad.2015.11.006.


Fuhrman, J. (2018). The hidden dangers of fast and processed food - Analytic review. Arizona and Nutritional Research Foundation, 375-379.doi:10.1177/1559827618766483.

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