Cut Killer Sugar Without Even Noticing It

Painless swaps to shred fat and boost energy.

Cut Killer Sugar Without Even Noticing It: Painless Swaps to Shred Fat and Boost Energy

What’s the number one thing that contributes to that soft ring of belly fat you try to crunch, diet, and wish away?

If you’re saying “fat, duh,” you’re like most people, but the real culprit isn’t fat. It’s sugar.

After decades of good-intentioned but incorrect information from the media, medical professionals, and diet gurus, the world is waking up to a stark reality: sugar – both processed and in carbohydrates – is the single worst thing we over-consume day to day.

According to University of California San Francisco, “the average American consumes 19.5 teaspoons (of sugar) every day. That translates into about 66 pounds of added sugar consumed each year, per person.”

Think about it: 19+ teaspoons of sugar a day. That doesn’t just sound unhealthy, it’s downright disgusting. Thanks, Mary Poppins.

Notice, however, UCSF is talking about “added sugar.” More on that later.

The Scientist Who Cried Sugar

The sea change in how the public thinks about sugar arguably started with a single Youtube video in 2009.

Dr. Robert Lustig stood in a lecture hall at UCSF and, in 90 minutes, systematically dismantled the myths, misinformation, and folklore surrounding the obesity epidemic in America and the widespread belief that fat in food is to blame.

He then sounded the alarm about the toxic levels of sugar added to just about every processed food and sweet drink on the market. Dr. Lustig was uniquely qualified to do this, being a neuroendocrinologist and professor of pediatrics who heads up UCSF’s Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health (WATCH) Program.

Nearly ten years on and 7 million views later Dr. Lustig’s lecture is still shocking, informative, and – you’ve been warned – incredibly dense.

It Can’t Be That Bad, Right?

Actually – it is. But it’s important to note that when we talk about sugar being toxic we’re not talking about all sugar.

Sugar is naturally present in fruit, milks, and plenty of other foods. The sugar to watch out for is added sugar, most often fructose, that is present in just about anything packaged or processed.

As registered dietician Courtney Ferreira put it to me: “Anything that’s sold in a package likely has sugar added to it.”

But she added, “Sugar is not always bad. What is bad is that we tend to eat it in excess.”

Trader Joes Popcorn with Herbs & Sprices

A delicious low carb, zero sugar swap for chips. 140 cal per serving, 70 cal, 0g sugar, 16g carbs, 3g protein

So what happens when you consume excess sugar? It’s not pretty.

“Excess sugar leads to spikes and falls in our blood sugar levels, which in turn leads to cravings, fat storage, and potentially to chronic diseases,” says Ferreira.

Excessive sugar consumption is now seen by experts to be the leading culprit in the global epidemic of atherosclerosis, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Sugar has been linked to cancer cell production.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse: the stuff is physically addictive in much the same way as alcohol. As Dr. Lustig puts it:

In animal studies, fructose causes the four criteria of addiction: bingeing, withdrawal, craving, and sensitization to other addictive substances…. In humans, fructose lights up the reward center in your brain called the nucleus accumbens on MRI; but after repeated exposure, the reward center lights up less and less, so you need more and more to achieve the same effect.

Convinced yet?

lemon la croix water

La Croix sparkling water with natural essence oils from fruit – zero calories, zero sugar, zero anything. An easy swap for soda and healthier than the alternative sweeteners diet sodas use.

Sugar’s Clever Disguises

Added sugar – or processed sugar – is definitely the worst offender. But sugar is present in a lot of foods we don’t normally think of as sweet.

Carbohydrates include many types of sugar and are the primary nutrient in foods like pasta, cereal, bread, and chips. Even though it’s not packaged in a can of soda, consuming too many carbs leads to the same ills.

“When you eat carbs, be it chips or pasta,” says Ferreira, “once it’s digested and broken down it’s all entering your bloodstream as glucose. So maybe you didn’t have dessert, but if you had a big bowl of pasta and nothing else for dinner that’s a ton of sugar and not as balanced as it should be.”

Growing awareness the sugar/carb connection has boosted the popularity of high-fat, adequate-protein, ultra-low carb regimens like the ketogenic diet. Originally developed to treat epilepsy, what we know about the ketogenic diet shows promising benefits for everything from obesity to aging.  

Trader Joes oven-baked cheese bites - moon cheese

This delicious snack is a great swap for chips, crackers, or fries and is literally just cheese baked until crispy, which means 170 cal, 12 g fat, <1 g carbs, 0g sugar, 15g protein

Does Your Diet Look Like This?

To illustrate just how easy it is to over-do carbs, consider this scenario Ferreira outlined:

You grab a quick bagel and coffee for breakfast. For lunch, you have a healthy turkey sandwich and multigrain chips. Then pasta for dinner.

If you’re like me, this describes many, many days in my life. Not good, says Ferreira. “When you’re having too much carbs and not enough fat and protein it leads to high blood sugar, which creates a blood sugar roller coaster, a crash, and eventually insulin resistance, the precursor to diabetes.”

Also, that bagel? “A bagel contains as many carbs as four pieces of bread,” she says.

Alas, Everything Seed, it appears we must part.

genoa provolone citterio salami pronti

Salami and cheese, a meaty and satisfying snack you can take with you. It's surprisingly satiating. 320 cal, 26g fat, 0g carbs, 0g sugar, 21g protein

What’s the “Right” Amount?

According to the World Health Organization no more than 10% of your calories – and ideally less than 5% – should come from added sugar or from natural sugars in honey, syrups and fruit juice. For a 2,000-calorie diet, 5% is about 25 grams.

If that doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s not. But remember, natural sugar is basically OK.

The trick is figuring out what sugar in a particular food is naturally-occurring versus added.

Coming in 2018: Added Sugar on the Label

The challenge with trimming sugar, says Ferreira, is knowing “what’s natural and what’s not?”

“The good news is, coming in 2018 there will be a row added to food labels that spells out ‘added sugar.’”

Your goal? As little added sweetener as possible.

And achieving that goal doesn’t have to mean going without sweetness.

How To Cut Sugar Without Giving Up Sweets

Nature is a genius.

Whenever nature comes up with a tasty, succulent fruit packed with sugar, it encases the sweet stuff in a ton of healthy fiber. Fiber helps the body absorb less of the sugar in fruit, and so less of it is earmarked for fat it and doesn’t cause the same crash-and-crave cycle as added sugar.

This is good news for anyone trying to trim sugar from their diet. Because let’s be honest – no one is going to go without sweet foods. The trick is to make smart, easy swaps that maximize fiber and enjoyment.

“If You Love…” Smart Swaps

Check out these suggestions for smart, easy swaps to cut sugar and satisfy your cravings:

Sugary ViceSmart Swap
SodaFlavored, sweetener-free sparkling water, like La Croix
Fast food burgersTrader Joe’s salami & cheese

Low-sugar beef jerky (find a quality brand here)

Grilled chicken nuggets, like Tyson brand

ChipsMooncheese, or Trader Joes' equivalent shown above

Low-fat, low-cal popcorn, like Smart Pop, or Trader Joe's Herbs & Spices shown above

Carrot spears or other crunchy veggies

Package BreadMake your own no-sugar-added bread
PastaSpaghetti Squash
PizzaCauliflower crust pizza, available frozen or at restaurants
Fruit-on-the-bottom yoghurtPlain Fage or Choboni greek yoghurt with fresh fruit
All things granolaNuts & dried fruit (bulk is cheaper!)
Candy70+% Dark chocolate

When swapping beware the “health halo.” It’s when sugary packaged foods might seem better, but are actually full of sugar. These include granola and granola bars, as well as fruit-on-the-bottom yoghurt.

Instead, consider ditching granola and doing directly to the source of healthy protein and fats: nuts. Add your own raisins and dried fruit for sweetness. As it turns out, people who eat nuts every day live longer, healthier lives.

If you crave candy on the reg, expand your portfolio of fresh fruit. In-season cherries, apples, clementines, plums, many others are intensely sweet and super satisfying. Many fruits also contain the healthy phenol compounds.

Another healthier option for dessert sweets is simple dark chocolate, like 70+% cocoa. Yes, it has some added sugar, but a 1-ounce bar of dark chocolate with 70 to 85 percent cocoa contains just 6.8 grams of sugar. And it comes with antioxidant and caffeine benefits, too.

Do It For the Children. Your Children.

If you’re on the fence about trimming your sugar consumption, keep this in mind:

“What you do in your 20s and 30s has a huge impact on your health down the road,” says Ferreira.

“Years of not eating the right things has a big cumulative effect, and because sugar is around all the time it’s a good place to focus your attention.”

The good news is, with some smart swaps you don’t have to live a less-sweet life. But your heart, brain, and waistline will benefit for years to come.

Have you cut down on sugar? Share your tips below!

Stillman Brown is a writer and TV producer who has created prime time content for National Geographic, Discovery, Travel Channel and many others. His interests span science & the natural world, personal growth, and food. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.


  • Reply September 11, 2017

    Vincent Adultman

    I can confirm that the Keto diet totally worked for me. I started January 1st and went from 210 to 160 by late May (I’m 6’1 btw so 160 is my ideal weight). Unfortunately I just ended up with a skinny fat build so I’ve spent the last few months easing up on my diet a little and focusing more on weight lifting. Definitely agree with cutting out sugar (and excess carbs) though, that chart will come in handy fine-tuning my diet.

  • Reply September 11, 2017


    Nice swap list! I’ll add that Orville’s SmartPop 100 calories packs are also great options since they’ll be available at larger stories like Wal-Mart and Kroger. Kinda surprised you added Chobani yogurt on the swap list. Aside from the plain flavor, that stuff has a ton of sugar in it.

    • Reply September 12, 2017

      Stillman Brown

      Only plain greek yoghurt! Never the fruit-on-the-bottom/side! I’m a recovering added-sugar yoghurt guy myself, so that one hurts but ya gotta do it

  • Reply September 11, 2017


    i would point out you don’t necessarily need to give up a cheeseburger – lots of places will make them bunless – or just do it yourself, and wrap in lettuce.

    also, stevia and coconut sugar are good swaps for sugar

    • Reply September 12, 2017

      Stillman Brown

      Thanks Toro, you’re absolutely right.

      Nice tip re: baked peppers & cheese!

  • Reply September 11, 2017


    Excellent write up! Keto is awesome and theres a friendly helpful community on reddit too. Very easy to lose weight cutting out most sugars and you’ll gain a ton of energy.

  • Reply September 11, 2017


    I’m surprised you didn’t list Swerve as a perfect substitute for sugar. We use Swerve in keto baked goods along with almond flour or in heavy whipped cream/sour cream on strawberries e.g. Tastes pretty much like real sugar as opposed to Stevia, monk fruit sweetener etc.
    Those trader joes cheese crackers the bomb, totally agree btw.

    For anyone looking into Keto, the first 4-5 days are the hardest part. Once your body has adapted, it’s the easiest thing in the world and you become so much more conscientious of ingredients. My fiancé and I have been eating a keto diet since April 1. We are now both in the best shape of our lives, energetic, no more crashing on the couch after work, and shed weight with only a moderate increase in exercise. As mentioned above, I have never felt better before (coming from a guy who used to eat probably around 400g of carbs a day, mostly in bread or tortillas).

    • Reply September 12, 2017

      Stillman Brown

      Thanks for sharing Matt. I’ve made small, incremental cuts in sugar and I really notice the difference. I’m not sure I’ll go full Keto soon but that’s kind of the reason we wanted to write this – you can get a big qualitative difference with modest changes.

  • Reply September 14, 2017

    Andrew McMaster

    Another alternative for chips is fried pork rinds (chicharrones). I’m partial to the spicy options.

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