Cut the Sweet Stuff: How to Reduce Added Sugars in Your Diet

What Are Added Sugars and Why Do They Matter? Added sugars refer to any sugars or caloric sweeteners that are added to foods or beverages during processing, preparation, or at the table. This includes white sugar, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, and maple syrup among others (1).

Unlike naturally occurring sugars found in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, added sugars provide empty calories without any nutritional benefits. Consuming too many added sugars can lead to weight gain, increased risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and other health problems (2).

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10% of daily calories, which equates to around 12 teaspoons or 50 grams for a 2,000 calorie diet (3). However, the average American consumes a whopping 17 teaspoons or 68 grams of added sugars per day, often without realizing it (4).

Reading Labels: How to Spot Added Sugars

Identifying added sugars on an ingredient list can be tricky business. Food manufacturers use dozens of different names for sweeteners, including barley malt, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, sucrose, fruit juice concentrates, agave, and more (5).

Thankfully, checking the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods can help uncover sources of added sugars. Look for the percent Daily Value (%DV) for added sugars, where 5% or less is considered low and 20% or more is high. You can also scan the ingredients and look for sugar-related words ending in “ose” like maltose, dextrose, and sucrose (6).

Surprising Sources of Added Sugars

Many foods that don’t even taste sweet are loaded with added sugars. Here are some of the top culprits to watch out for:

  • Breakfast cereals – especially those marketed to kids. A 1 cup serving can contain up to 12 grams. Go for low sugar cereals like plain oats or shredded wheat (7).
  • Yogurt – Flavored yogurts can have up to 30 grams of added sugars in one little container. Opt for plain yogurt with fresh fruit.
  • Granola and cereal bars – That “health halo” is deceptive with some bars packing 14 grams per serving. Check labels and portions.
  • Condiments and sauces – Barbecue sauce, ketchup, salad dressings, and teriyaki sauce are common sources. Make your own or read labels.
  • Beverages – Sodas and fruit drinks are obvious sugar-bombs. But even sweetened coffees, teas, sports drinks, and flavored milks can contain added sweeteners.
  • Bread – Sweet doughs, honey wheat, and cinnamon swirl breads can average 5 grams of added sugar per slice. Check the ingredients.
  • Snack foods – Sweetened nut mixes, dried fruit, protein bars, and crackers often have sugar additions. Compare brands and choose wisely.

Simple Swaps to Slash the Sweet Stuff

Small changes to your eating habits can add up to big reductions in added sugar over time. Here are some easy food swaps to try:

  • Instead of soda, drink sparkling water with a splash of 100% fruit juice or add lemon, lime, oranges, or cucumber.
  • Trade your mocha latte for plain coffee with a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg.
  • Satisfy your sweet tooth with fresh fruit instead of candy or chocolate. Berries, bananas, mangos, pineapple, and apples make delicious treats.
  • Pick plain Greek yogurt and mix in your own fresh fruit, nuts, seeds, or a drizzle of honey.
  • Choose tomato-based sauces and salsas over sweeter BBQ and teriyaki sauces.
  • Look for low sodium sauces or make your own oil and vinegar dressing over bottled versions.
  • Swap sugary cereals for oatmeal, muesli or shredded wheat cereals with fruit on top.
  • Bake your own healthier muffins, granola bars, and breads using natural fruit sweeteners.

Should You Use Low-Calorie Sweeteners?

While limiting added sugars is important, you don’t necessarily need to eliminate sweets altogether. Low and zero calorie sweeteners like stevia, monk fruit, erythritol, and sucralose allow you to sweeten foods and drinks without calories or glycemic impact (8).

Research on the safety and efficacy of non-nutritive sweeteners is mixed. While they may be helpful for weight loss in the short term, long term benefits are less clear (9). Moderation is key, as animal studies suggest very high doses could have unintended effects (10).

For best results, retrain your tastebuds to crave less sweetness over time. Use low calorie sweeteners judiciously to transition from sugary foods to more natural, less processed whole foods.

The Takeaway: Small Shifts Make a Big Difference

Transitioning to a low added sugar diet takes patience, diligence at the grocery store, and some new cooking techniques. But you don’t have to eliminate sweets completely. Focus on incremental changes over time like reading labels, making smart swaps, and eating more whole foods.

Even cutting out just one sugary soda or limiting sweetened coffees to once a day can have a big impact. Small steps lead to sustainable change. With a little planning and effort, you’ll soon discover the natural sweetness in whole foods. Your tastebuds and your waistline will thank you.


  1. FDA. Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label.
  2. Stanhope KL. Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversy. Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci. 2016;53(1):52-67. doi:10.3109/10408363.2015.1084990
  3. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. Table 12.
  4. Ervin RB, Ogden CL. Consumption of added sugars among U.S. adults, 2005–2010. NCHS data brief, no 122. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2013.
  5. FDA. Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label.
  6. AHA. Added Sugars.
  7. Ebbeling CB, Feldman HA, Chomitz VR, et al. A randomized trial of sugar-sweetened beverages and adolescent body weight. N Engl J Med. 2012;367(15):1407-1416. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1203388
  8. Fitch C, Keim KS; Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Position of the academy of nutrition and dietetics: Use of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(5):739-758. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2012.03.009
  9. Rogers PJ, Hogenkamp PS, de Graaf C, et al. Does low-energy sweetener consumption affect energy intake and body weight? A systematic review, including meta-analyses, of the evidence from human and animal studies. Int J Obes (Lond). 2016;40(3):381-394. doi:10.1038/ijo.2015.177
  10. Swithers SE. Not-so-healthy sugar substitutes?. Curr Opin Behav Sci. 2016;9:106-110. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.02.020



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