Use this four-step process to cut down on your sugar consumption.

We won’t sugar-coat it: The white stuff contributes to weight gain and chronic disease. According to Dr. Jennifer Stagg, “Higher levels of refined sugar intake have been consistently shown to increase the risk of most chronic diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s. Simply put, sugar ages you prematurely. If you want to stay healthier for longer, low refined sugar intake is part of the equation.”

While nutritionists and doctors praise whole grains (such as farro and barley), they agree that refined varieties (like white flour and regular pasta) and sugars should be limited. Even “good” sugars (as in fruit and 100 percent whole-wheat bread) should be consumed in moderation. After all, carbohydrates turn into sugar after digestion, and too many can lead to weight gain.

Unfortunately, white flour and sugar underpin the standard American diet, with its breakfast breads and sugary coffee drinks in the morning; sandwiches at lunch; and pizza or pasta at dinner. Although cutting down on sugar might seem like an insurmountable challenge, we’ve gathered strategies from experts to ensure your success. After all, what could be sweeter than improved health?

Four-step sugar detox process

Step 1: Clean out your pantry

“The most important and helpful way to break a sugar addiction is to stop buying sweets and junk food,” says Rebecca Lee, RN, of Remedies for Me. “If you don’t have snacks at home, you won’t be eating snacks at home.”

When deciding what to nix, read labels. Keep in mind:

  • Avoid products with sugar listed in the first three ingredients.
  • Educate yourself about sugar synonyms. Sugar isn’t always easy to spot on a label, since it goes by many names, including brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, malt sugar, molasses, syrup and raw sugar, as well as those ‘ose’ words: dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose and maltose. They’re all sugar molecules.
  • Be careful with products labeled “no added sugar,” says Catherine Metzgar, PhD, RD, at Virta Health, since “even natural sugars can spike your blood sugar.” For example, a 12-ounce smoothie from a popular juice chain contains 29 grams of sugar. “That’s nearly six teaspoons of sugar, and your body doesn’t care that it’s natural,” she says. Dried fruit also tends to be high in sugar.
  • Be wary of products labeled “sugar-free,” says Metzgar. She points out that “sugar substitutes, such as maltitol, can still raise blood sugar.”
  • Finally, leave products labeled “fat-free” on the shelf, says Kate Hutcheson of Kate Hutcheson Health. “These tend to be loaded with sugar to make up for the lack of taste without the fat.”
  • Don’t forget that sodas, juices and mixed drinks tend to have a lot of calories.

Once you read the labels of packaged products, you’ll probably notice lots of sugar hiding in dressings, protein bars, granolas, smoothies, sauces, juices, peanut butters, crackers, yogurts and cereals. For instance, “just one tablespoon of conventional barbecue sauce has about six grams of sugar,” says Metzgar.

Step 2: Stock your home with healthier substitutes

If you keep the following items on hand, you’ll be prepared when cravings strike.

  • Water, tea and coffee: “Sometimes, when we crave sugar, we are actually dehydrated,” says Sharla Mandere, CHHC, at Radiant Sunrise Holistic Wellness. “So, I tell clients to chug a glass of water, and wait five to 10 minutes. The cravings usually subside.” Other healthful drink choices include coffee, tea or seltzer. For a hit of flavor, Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FAND, Associate Clinical Professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, recommends freezing juice and adding the cubes to a glass of water. “The more it melts, the sweeter it gets.” With flavored seltzer, you get the taste and carbonation without the sugar.
  • Fruits and veggies: Opt for naturally sweet fresh pineapple, bell pepper and kiwi. To up the sweetness of fruit, try grilling or freezing. That said, Dr. Stagg advises two servings of fruit per day, since “too much of a good thing can result in too many calories and not provide any additional benefits.”
  • Avocadoes, nuts and nut butter: “Often when we’re craving sugar, our hormones are out of whack and our insulin is spiking,” says Hutcheson. “Eating healthy fat, such as avocado or coconut oil or nuts and seeds, helps balance our insulin levels and keeps us satiated for longer.”
  • Dark chocolate: Dessert with nutritional benefits? Try low-sugar, one-ounce dark chocolate squares. Cocoa powder and dark chocolate are the least processed and contain the highest levels of flavonoids, which are antioxidants that may help reduce the risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases.
  • Plain, unsweetened yogurt (especially Greek or Skyr): Creamy and high in protein, yogurt is satiating and an ideal vehicle for fresh fruit, nut and seed toppings.
  • Herbs and spices: To jazz up healthier foods, Mandere recommends cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mint, while Wendy Kaplan, MS, RDN, CDN at Mondays at Racine Cancer Care Foundation suggests chili powder.
  • Chromium: Consider stocking up on this supplement, which Hutcheson says can help “curb sugar cravings.”

Step 3: Start cutting sugar gradually

Cutting sugar out entirely can be difficult. Try starting with just one small change each day, like swapping out a can of soda with a piece of fruit. Once you are successful in making that change, go after another.

If that sounds too rapid, try winnowing out a different item each week. Stagg advises eliminating sweetened beverages and all sweeteners from coffee and tea drinks during the first week, desserts in week two, packaged foods with sweeteners in week three and all products with flour in week four.

“To eliminate sweeteners from tea and coffee, every few days, reduce the amount you add by a quarter until you are off it,” she advises. She also recommends first switching to a lower-sugar brand of flavored yogurt, and then later to plain yogurt (and adding fruit to it). For desserts, she counsels cutting the portion size in half and pairing it with a small serving of nuts.

Slowly, your palate should adjust. “Once people cut the added refined sugars from their diet, their taste for sweetness tends to change,” says Stagg. “Foods with natural sugars, like berries, begin to taste sweeter than they ever did before, and can be a very satisfying and healthy substitute.”

Step 4: Try these strategies to stay the course

  • Allow yourself the occasional indulgence: According to Adina Pearson, RD, at the Walla Walla Clinic, “Part of health is enjoyment and pleasure. So, don’t get too rigid with sugar avoidance—many people end up binge-eating enjoyable foods they work too hard to eliminate.”
  • Take a break: “Stress is a major reason people crave sugar,” says Mandere. “But, usually, they figure out quickly that they are actually just craving a break. So, instead of grabbing the midday snack bar, they can go outside and take a walk … Or, read a book, take a bath, meditate or lie down for a nap. “Make sure you are getting enough sleep because lack of it makes cravings worse,” says Stagg.
  • Pair up: “Have an accountability partner,” advises Lee. “You can encourage each other to make smarter choices. It’s hard to break longtime habits on your own.”

What a few experts have to say about the sugar in fruit.

Photo credit: Duka82, Thinkstock