Most of us can relate to craving a sweet treat or soda to get through the day. These foods contain added sugars. An occasional treat is okay, but too much sugar can negatively impact our health.

In this blog, we offer some information and tips from UC Davis Health registered dietitians to reduce added sugars in your daily eating.

What are added sugars?

Added sugars are sugars, syrups, or nectars added to foods and beverages in the following ways:

  • used in food processing or preparation (such as sodas, cookies, cakes, and pastries)
  • added personally (examples: adding sugar to coffee or ordering a boba drink with a 100% sweetness level)

How much added sugar is okay to have?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10% of total calories daily. In a 2000-calorie meal plan, this is no more than 200 calories or 12 teaspoons of sugar.

For some background, the average American eats about 270 calories of added sugars daily, which equals about 17 teaspoons.

Read more: How much sugar is too much?

What are the top ways Americans consume added sugar?

1. Sugar-sweetened beverages, which include:

  • Soft drinks
  • Fruit drinks
  • Sports and energy drinks
  • Sweetened coffees and teas

Get the facts on sugar-sweetened beverages and consumption

Read more: Is fruit juice bad for you and your children?

2. Desserts and sweet snacks, which include:

  • Cookies
  • Brownies
  • Cakes
  • Ice cream
  • Cakes
  • Pies
  • Donuts
  • Pastries

Why should I be concerned about too much added sugar?

Eating or drinking too much added sugar contributes to excessive calories with no vital nutrients. This can make it harder to maintain healthy eating habits.

Excessive calories are associated with health problems like weight gain, obesity, prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Therefore, we should be mindful of added sugars and aim to limit these foods and beverages in our diet.

4 tips to reduce added sugars in your eating habits

Our dietitians have four tips to help you decrease added sugars in your meals. Even a slight change is one step closer to a healthier meal pattern.

1. Find smart substitutions.

Replace soda and juice with healthier options like low-fat milk, carbonated water, or unsweetened iced tea. Water with some added flavoring from sliced lemons, cucumbers or mint is a great option, too.

Eat fruit for dessert instead of cake or cookies. Add some Greek yogurt for a creamy texture and more protein.

Read more: Why it's important for you to drink water and stay hydrated

2. Replace food triggers with healthier options.

Get moving with physical activities like walking or biking with family instead of going out for ice cream.

You can also replace a bowl of sugary snacks with fresh fruit, such as bananas, oranges or apples, at the table. These are easy to grab and snack on when you're on the go.

3. Be the food label expert.

On the nutrition label for food that comes in a package, review the section labeled "added sugars." This shows the total amount of added sugars per serving. Look to buy food and beverages with zero or little added sugars.

On the ingredients list, added sugars may be listed by several different names, including:

  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Glucose
  • Sucrose
  • Maltose
  • Honey
  • Molasses
  • Corn syrup
  • Malt syrup
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Sugar/cane sugar
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Corn sweetener

If the added sugar ingredient is higher on the list, there is a higher amount of added sugar in the food item. Try to limit your intake of these foods.

Learn more: How to understand and use the nutrition facts label

4. Limit sweets and save them for a real treat.

It's okay to treat yourself to a sweet item every so often. For example, treat yourself to an ice cream on a Saturday night. Think of it as a real treat for sticking to a healthier diet throughout the week.

You can also look to reduce the size of your soda or order a boba drink with a 50% sweetness level.

Bottom line: Stick to well-balanced eating habits

To summarize, you should aim for a well-balanced meal plan while eating fewer items with added sugar. If you have any nutrition questions or concerns, you can check with a registered dietitian to help you develop specific nutrition goals that help you keep a healthy lifestyle.

Learn how UC Davis Health patients can get a referral to a registered dietitian

This blog was written by UC Davis Health dietetic intern Megan Taketa and reviewed by a UC Davis Health registered dietitian.