How to Make Healthy Lower-Sugar Swaps
Not only do sweet treats light up our tastebuds, but they fire up our brains as well. Research suggests that sugar releases opioids and dopamine — the chemicals in your brain that lead to feelings of reward and pleasure — to such a degree that they may even have an addictive quality.
Does that mean you need to go cold turkey? Fortunately not. You don’t need to cut sweetness from your life altogether. By being strategic in what you choose for everything from baking to drinking to dressings, you can significantly reduce added sugar, and the potential health drawbacks that can come with sugar overload.
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Natural vs. Added Sugar
One important distinction before going into the best sugar swap-outs is to differentiate the type of sugar you need to reduce. Natural sugar, like that found in fruits, dairy, and even grains and vegetables, isn’t the same as added sugar — the stuff that manufacturers put into products to sweeten them up.
“Sugars that are naturally occurring in whole food aren’t the type we should worry about, since those foods also contain beneficial nutrients like protein, fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and phytochemicals,” says dietitian Michelle Abbey, R.D.N., of The Nature Nutritionist. “It’s the refined and added sugars that add calories and can affect health in detrimental ways.”
Some people, particularly those on low-carb eating plans, tend to watch their natural sugars as well — for example, with low-carb fruits.
Whether you’re tracking those macros or not, reducing added sugars can help in a number ways, from controlling weight to potentially avoiding chronic health issues.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some ways to curb your added sugar intake, without feeling like you’re missing an old friend.
Baking and Cooking Swaps
Making treats into lower-sugar options is sweet indeed with these three switches:
- Use unsweetened applesauce in place of sugar in a recipe, suggests dietitian and certified diabetes educator Jana Mowrer, R.D., of HealthWins Coaching and Consulting. You might need to reduce the amount of oil used since the texture will be “wetter” with the applesauce — but you’ll get all the sweetness without the sugar hit.
- Or sub bananas or dates in for sugar next time you bake, similar to the applesauce trick. Abbey says, “Keep in mind that these are still desserts, with calories that add up, but certainly a better alternative to many options you’ll find in the bakery case.”
- Try zero-calorie sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit extract, recommends nutritionist Lisa Richards, author of The Candida Diet. These can be especially good if you’re trying to keep carbs low, she says, since they add sweetness without upping the carbohydrates the way natural alternatives like honey or maple syrup might.
Aiming for an energy boost between meals? Try these choices instead of heading for the vending machine:
- Sometimes when you’re craving something sweet, you really just need an energy boost, not necessarily that sugary flavor. If that’s the case, have nuts and seeds instead of candy, recommends dietitian Randy Evans, R.D., consultant for Fresh n’ Lean. He says, “Foods that have a combination of protein and healthy fats give you longer lasting energy and make you feel full for longer, too.”
- Go for plain Greek yogurt over sweetened yogurt, Evans says. Yogurt can be a fantastic source of protein, he says, but many brands add quite a bit of sugar. Check the ingredients on the label to make sure there are no added sugars.
- Find dried fruit without sugar added. Mowrer says, “Fruits like mangoes, raisins, and prunes are great to add into trail mix for a sweet taste without added sugar.”
Soft Drinks and Cocktail Swaps
Soft drinks can be a major source of added sugar, so give these a shot instead:
- Want a sweet cocktail with lower sugar content? Go for soda water instead of tonic, recommends dietitian Amanda Kostro Miller, R.D., L.D.N. at Smart Healthy Living. You can still get that sweet taste by making a slight pivot in your mixology. For example, instead of a gin and tonic, go for a gin rickey: “Tonic water has tons of sugar,” Miller says, “so the switch to soda water is a much lower-sugar choice.”
- Play around with water enhancers, suggests clinical dietitian Kristian Morey, RD, LDN, at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, especially if you’re trying to break the soda habit. Her favorites are SweetLeaf Water Drops, True Citrus, or Stur, just a sampling of options made from stevia, she says, and they come in different flavors as well.
- Eat oranges instead of drinking orange juice, says Evans. Even though the juice technically contains natural sugar — if you’re getting 100 percent juice, that is — he says a small glass can have the sugar of up to eight oranges, which few people could eat in one sitting.
Dressing and Sauce Swaps
You could be getting much more added sugar than you think through dressings and sauces. Keep the flavor and ditch the sugar with these:
- Opt for full-fat dressings instead of low-fat or nonfat dressings, suggests dietitian Alena Kharlamenko, RD, of Alena Menko Nutrition & Wellness. She says, “Low-fat dressings and sauces often compensate for flavor loss by adding sugar.”
- Make your own rather than buying it, Morey says. Her favorite combo is olive oil and a good vinegar — in a 3:1 ratio — with a little salt, pepper, powdered mustard, lemon zest, and herbs like dill, basil, or rosemary. Give it that sweet kick with a bit of stevia or monk fruit drops.
- Consider making your own sauces, too. Look online for low-sugar or better yet, sugar-free options when it comes to tasty options like cranberry sauce or buffalo chicken dip.
Tea and Coffee Swaps
If you like your tea and coffee sweetened, you don’t need to change the taste. You just have to find a lower-sugar strategy:
- Try vanilla or cinnamon extract instead of table sugar. Just a drop or two will be enough to add quite a bit of flavor, says Morey. Plus, you can use this same trick to in foods like oatmeal and yogurt, she adds.
- Ask for sugar-free flavoring, Morey adds. Often, these are so sweet you can get away with fewer “pumps” than you might have normally. For example, Morey herself indulges in a pumpkin spice latte that she’s knocked down to a single pump, and says it still tastes delicious.
- Add spices instead of sweeteners. Much like the extracts, adding options like powdered cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg can add more flavor without the sugar, says Morey.