Our parents warned us that eating sugary foods would rot our teeth. It turns out that dental problems are just one of the many ways that sugar can seriously damage our health. Other risks include…

Cardiovascular disease: Consuming two or more servings of sugar-­sweetened beverages per day increases risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by more than 30%, according to a 2021 meta-analysis of earlier studies by an international team of researchers.

Cancer: Men who have the highest sugar intake also have the highest rates of prostate cancer, according to a 2018 study by researchers at UCLA.

Cognitive decline: Adults with above-average sugar intake tend to score lower than average on cognitive-impairment tests, according to several studies, including a 2022 paper by Australian researchers.

Depression: Consuming as little as one sugar-sweetened beverage per day increases risk for a major depressive disorder, according to a 2020 study by Spanish and Dutch researchers.

US guidelines suggest that sugar should be no more than 10% of our total daily calories. For a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, that would be 200 calories—about 12 teaspoons. The average American consumes more than 17 ­teaspoons of added sugar.

And all of this is in addition to the big sugar dangers that most people already know about—increased risk for type 2 diabetes and obesity.

What makes sugar particularly dangerous is that it’s not only a major health risk, explains Nicole Avena, PhD, assistant professor of neuroscience at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Sugar is more addictive than tobacco or cocaine…and is found in most foods sold in stores—even foods that we don’t associate with sweetness, such as mayonnaise and ­English muffins. Imagine how hard it would be for addicts to quit cocaine if it was baked inside most foods.

Quitting sugar takes a smart strategy. Here, Dr. Avena explains how to succeed at quitting sugar…

Gradually reduce sugar. People who try to completely stop consuming sugar usually fail. Sugar is in so many foods that quitting abruptly requires life changes, and it’s difficult to make changes like this stick. Once these attempts fail, people often conclude that they’re not capable of change. Best: A slow, steady strategy is more likely to succeed. Also, you don’t have to abandon sugar entirely to reap benefits—simply cutting back offers significant upside. The American Heart Association and World Health Organization both agree that clinical benefits to cutting sugar to half of the US recommended daily intake—which is 10% of total intake per day—can result in improved health outcomes. That means consuming around six teaspoons per day or less.

Give up sugary beverages. The one most effective way to cut back on sugar is to change what you drink. More than half of the average American adult’s added-sugar consumption comes from beverages. The calories in beverages are far less satiating than those in food, so making this change is unlikely to leave you feeling hungry. Keep in mind—soda and fruit juice aren’t the only sugar-loaded drinks. Energy drinks and ­flavored waters often are high in added sugar, and many people load up coffee with sugar or sugary creamers. Replacing these drinks with water—either flat or carbonated—and/or unsweetened tea or coffee can make a big difference in sugar intake even if you change nothing else. Three things worth noting about making this beverage shift…

Low- and zero-calorie sodas are not a long-term solution—but they can help you transition away from ­sugary sodas. Also, diet sodas might contain little or no sugar, but the artificial sweeteners that they do contain trigger the same feel-good dopamine response in the brain as sugar, so consuming them regularly will keep you addicted to sweet foods and drinks. This is true of natural sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit as well.

Gradually reduce the amount of sugar you add to your coffee. If you typically use a sugar-laden creamer, switch to a dairy product that doesn’t have added sugar rather than drinking your coffee black.

Drink in moderation. You don’t have to give up alcoholic ­beverages entirely. As long as you drink in moderation, alcohol doesn’t necessarily add up to a lot of sugar. But avoid drinks that contain sugary mixers, such as pina coladas, ­margaritas and mojitos. Helpful: Combining tequila, fresh lime juice and soda water can replicate the flavor of a margarita with significantly less sugar.

Break the breakfast sugar habit. Breakfast cereals and pastries are loaded with sugar. But many seemingly healthful breakfast options contain surprising amounts of sugar as well, including some yogurts and bran muffins. Skipping breakfast is not an ideal solution—that will leave you hungry and more likely to snack. Instead, consume breakfast foods that are both low in added sugar and high in protein and healthy fats—they will help you feel full and reduce the snacking urge. Great options: Eggs, oatmeal or plain yogurt—plain yogurts tend to contain much less sugar than flavored ones. More suggestions…

Use fruit or berries to add sweetness to oatmeal or plain yogurt. They contain natural sugar but also sufficient fiber to mitigate sugar’s negative effects. Wondering why adding fruit to plain yogurt is okay but eating fruit-flavored yogurts isn’t? The flavoring in most flavored yogurts is ­heavily processed and low in fiber.

If you don’t have time to cook eggs in the morning, make hardboiled eggs in advance. They typically last five days in the fridge peeled or a week unpeeled.

Have healthful snacks at the ready. Around one-third of the added sugar and almost one-quarter of the calories in the average American’s diet come from snacks, according to a 2023 study by The Ohio State University researchers. The challenge in cutting back on snacks is that snacking generally is unplanned—we feel hungry, so we grab something that’s quick and easy to eat. Rather than try to stop yourself from snacking, keep a healthful snack close at hand so that it’s always your most convenient option. High-protein snacks such as nuts or string cheese are ideal because they’re easy to eat and make us feel full. Fruit is the obvious option if you prefer sweet snacks—as noted above, the fiber in fruit means it’s good for us despite its natural sugar. Note: If fruit doesn’t taste sweet to you initially, that’s probably because your body has become accustomed to the extreme sweetness of artificially sweetened foods and beverages. Fruit will start to taste sweeter as you dial back the amount of added-sugar foods and drinks you consume.

Eliminate hidden added sugar that isn’t bringing you pleasure. Before putting your selections into your grocery cart, take a moment to check how much added sugar they contain—food companies are required to disclose this on nutrition labels. Compare these figures to the added sugar amounts in competing products on the shelf. You might discover that you can cut back on your added-sugar consumption by switching from one brand to another. Do this even with food products as innocuous as condiments—there’s a surprising amount of sugar in ketchup, for example. Rule of thumb: Brands with less sugar tend to be slightly pricier and/or less heavily advertised.

If you discover every product available in a particular food category has a surprising amount of added sugar, consider whether this food brings you enough enjoyment to make it worth consuming at all. When looking at added sugar on a food label, look for foods that show a daily value (DV) of less than 5% for a low-added-sugar option. In general, DVs that are at or above 20% are considered high in added sugar and should be consumed only on occasion and not in excess.

Drop dessert. Try replacing the typical sugary desserts with a fruit, nut and cheese plate.

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