Your Leave-Sugar-Behind Plan

Yes, it is possible to end this sweet affair and not get hurt.

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The first step? Tweak your meals so you even out that blood sugar roller coaster. (This part is fun: You want to incorporate more satisfying, indulgent-feeling protein and fat.) Then, gradually retrain your taste buds to want less sugar; you might come to find your old favorites too sweet. Even under the most stringent guidelines, you'll still get some.

"The goal isn't to never eat sugar but to be smart about the choices you're making," says Leslie Bonci, RD, owner of Active Eating Advice. Follow these steps (for about two weeks each) to reach a healthy 6 teaspoons a day. By the end of the process, your palate will protest your old sugary ways. A drizzle of honey and a perfectly ripe strawberry? Wow.

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Step 1: Control Cravings With Delicious Food

Fat plus protein: That's the magic formula at every meal to take down your sugar drive, says Kirkpatrick. Fat is rich and helps you feel full, and protein can even out blood sugar, so you won't find yourself on the prowl for cookies an hour after lunch.

This isn't the time to pare back to plain grilled chicken breast over lettuce.

"A meal like meatballs beats that strategy because it has satisfying fat," says Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.

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So would almond — crusted chicken or shrimp salad with a bit of mayo. Next, round out your plate with dark leafy greens, tofu, legumes, or nuts. All are high in magnesium; when your levels of this mineral are low, your cravings intensify. The result of these changes? No deprivation, no crazy blood sugar ups and downs.

Over the next two weeks, gradually teach your body to get used to less-sweet drinks. Not only are sugary beverages the leading source of added sugars in our diets, but they don't add to your feelings of satisfaction, so you're less likely to miss them. Some easy how-tos:

If you love sweetened coffee or coffee drinks Have your joe with frothed whole milk (the perfect mix of fat and protein). Add cinnamon or vanilla to give it a sweet taste. Not quite enough? See if you can cut your usual amount of sugar in half, then try to cut it in half again.

If sugary beverages are your thing Make your own sweet drink out of half fruit juice and half seltzer. Every day, use a little less juice and a little more seltzer. Try mixing bubbles and flavors in different combinations. Some of Kirkpatrick's clients skip the fizz and spice iced tea with ginger or cinnamon.

Step 2: Eat Better Snacks

Prepare a nice lineup of munchies and have at least two a day — this takes care of hunger so you can forget about the junky stuff. The protein-plus-fat rule still applies, and it's important now to avoid refined flours (like crackers and pretzels). Your body handles those like it does added sugar, breaking them down quickly and dumping a load of glucose into the blood at once.

"When you cut out fast-acting carbs, the part of your brain involved with cravings and addiction calms down," says Harvard nutrition professor David Ludwig, who's also the author of Always Hungry?

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Smart (and sweet) snack options:

  • Mixed nuts with a few semisweet chocolate chips
  • Plain yogurt with cinnamon, pecans, and berries
  • Roasted chickpeas

Still thinking about snickerdoodles? Go for half of what you used to have, but take twice as long to eat them. The day after, cut your portion in half again.

"We're aiming for progress, not perfection," Kirkpatrick says.

Step 3: Keep Sneaky Sugars in Check

Over the next two weeks, become a grocery store detective. Once you learn to spot hidden sugars in the supermarket, you'll save plenty without sacrificing taste. For example, pour unsweetened soy milk on your cereal instead of the sweetened kind, then top it with ripe fruit. Or experiment with flavored olive oils and vinegars on salads instead of grabbing the sugary fat-free bottled balsamic. And how sweet do you need your whole-grain bread to be? Aim for less than 2 grams of sugar per slice.

Just don't sweat the small stuff. "Some people say, 'I'm only going to buy low-sugar jam,' but if you're just using a little bit, it's not necessary," says Bonci. Decide what you love, and budget it into your daily totals. "No one gets a chronic illness or gains 30 pounds from having a little bit of sugar," says Kirkpatrick.

As you follow this plan over time, you'll be surprised by how many subtly sweet flavors you can detect in produce (sugar snap peas and sweet corn got their names for a reason), as well as nuts, dairy, and yes, that worth-every-gram chocolate chip cookie. You'll slow down to enjoy it and be able to stop at one. Congratulations: You're the boss of sugar now.

Week One SOS: What To Do When Your Brain Hollers for Sugar

Don't give in! Here's what to do instead:

1. Chew some sugar-free gum.

In one study, people who chomped it three times in the afternoon reported fewer sweets cravings (and higher energy). Just try not to reach for gum all the time — it's a "break glass in case of emergency" type of thing, because artificial sweeteners won't pacify your hankering in the long run.

2. Take a walk.

A 15-minute stroll has been found to dim the desire for sugar.

Labels 101: How Much Added Sugar Is In There?

Figuring out the amount of added sugar in a food isn't so easy. You can't simply look at the Nutrition Facts panel under "sugars," because that entry includes those naturally found in a food as well as the added ones you want to steer clear of.

To clue in, use a little guesswork plus common sense. Start by looking at the number of grams of sugar on that panel. Then check the ingredients list. "If you see a form of sugar in the first four ingredients, especially in items like crackers or salad dressings that aren't technically sweet, this is a clue that it's high in added sugar and you should consider something else," says Bonci.

Take a can of tomato soup with a label listing 20 grams of sugar. You know tomatoes have natural sugar, which explains away some of those grams. Next, check the ingredients — a few have high-fructose corn syrup as ingredient number two. If so, look for another can that contains less.

Your body processes all forms of sugar the exact same way. Check labels for any of these.

Where's the Added Sugar?

Snacks can surprise you! Flip over a package of dried cranberries and you'll see that sugar is the second ingredient. Reach for the same amount of raisins and you still get quite a bit of natural sugar, but no extra is tossed in. Whole fruit brings a sweet flavor to salads and snacks but delivers much less of a sugar burdento your body.

  • ¼ cup dried cranberries (7 teaspoons of sugar)
  • ¼ cup raisins (5 teaspoons of sugar)
  • ¼ cup grapes (about 1 teaspoon of sugar)

Sugar By Any Other Name... Is Still Sugar

Watch out for these sneaky names:

  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Fructose
  • Raw sugar
  • Molasses
  • Dextrose
  • Glucose
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Malt sugar
  • Lactose
  • Maltose
  • Sucrose
  • Any kind of "syrup"

This story originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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