Sweet and Lowdown

How to Watch Out for Hidden Sugar and Replace With Leaner Substitutes

Things like ketchup have about 16 calories of added sugar per tablespoon, and it can add up. In Yes You Can: The Achievable Diet, Diana Le Dean searches for the silent killers and suggests alternatives.

George Doyle/Getty

In her new book, “Yes You Can: The Achievable Diet,” Diana Le Dean talks about her method for losing weight and staying fit while still eating what you love. In this chapter, called “Sugar’s Stealthy Assault,” she talks about hidden sugars you should probably avoid but creep up on you despite your best efforts.

As you probably know, addiction to sugar is a leading cause of obesity and a host of other health problems. Sugar detox begins by simply not adding sugar to your already well-sugared foods.

But you should also seek out and cut back on the hidden sugars. Take time to read the small print on the packages you inspect at the market. Bring your glasses if you need them: that small print should alert you to what the contents can do to your body. A tablespoon of ketchup, for example, contains about a teaspoon of sugar, or about 16 calories of added sugar. That doesn’t sound like much, but it all adds up. A tablespoon of ketchup at lunch, another at dinner, along with the sugar that laces the prepared French dressing on your salad and the sugar that probably resides in the cream of mushroom soup, easily add gram after gram of undetected sugar to your diet. Added sugars (added by someone else, that is!) are often a primary culprit behind gradual weight gain and the frustration of uninformed dieters.

Another task is trickier, because you’ll be aiming at major addiction enablers. You must cut back on food with lots of sugar and highly processed carbohydrates. Cakes, candy, ice cream, and soft drinks, all the foods you’ve known and loved all your life, must give up their leading roles. They can still have cameos, but if you’re serious about weight loss they can no longer be a daily presence.

Some of these cutbacks can be achieved through more substitution and incremental steps. Diet soft drinks, for instance, taste sweet but have no calories. You’re not eliminating your desire for a soft drink by switching to a diet option, but at least you’re not getting the calorie equivalent of a liquid candy bar with each can. Instead of fake fruit juices sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, go for real juice cut 50-50 with sparkling mineral water or plain, cold water.

Cut back—but, again, don’t eliminate—your portions of sweet foods. To make up for the missing sweetness, substitute some fresh fruit for the rest of the portion.

Fruit is a great way to cut back on sugary foods. Imagine eating an entire box of soft, chewy chocolate cookies. All too easy, right? Now imagine eating an apple with some honey or cream. The sweetness of the apple is very satisfying, while the crunchiness gives your mouth a workout that tells your brain that you’re eating real food. The fiber in the apple fills you up and also keeps the apple’s natural sugar (fructose) from entering your bloodstream too quickly. You get a slow release of sugar that gives you steady energy, not highs and lows, and keeps you from feeling hungry again half an hour later. And of course, the apple is naturally full of nutrients, such as fiber and vitamin C, which you won’t find in a box of cookies.

The calorie savings from cutting back on sugary foods are major. And don’t underestimate the benefits of cutting down gradually. Let’s say you routinely made an afternoon snack of six chocolate cookies: bad news, but nothing exceptional. Each of those chocolate cookies has about a hundred calories, about the same as a large apple. If you cut down to two cookies and add an apple, you halve this snack’s calories, add some beneficial nutrients, and help your sugar detox move along. Never forget to acknowledge any accomplishment, any change in your old ways, even if it still includes a few too many sugar calories.

As your body and brain adjust to eating fewer sugary foods, keep your blood sugar on an even keel by having small, frequent snacks of high-quality carbs. Anything made with real whole grains (not refined white flour that’s colored brown: watch out!) is helpful. So are fruits and veggies, especially if they’re crunchy. If you can add a bit of protein and fat to your snack, so much the better. Good snack examples: a small handful of whole-wheat crackers with a small piece of cheese, a slice of whole-wheat toast spread with some goat cheese and a sprinkle of sunflower seeds, apple slices with some peanut butter, or low-fat plain yogurt with some fresh berries. The high-quality carbs satisfy your sugar cravings, while the protein and fat slow the release of sugar into your bloodstream and keep you from feeling hungry again too quickly.

I strongly advise investing in some healthy alternative sweeteners that give you sugar’s sweet flavor without the calories. One choice is stevia, a South American herb that’s sold in the form of a powder. Gram for gram, it’s much, much sweeter that table sugar, so you need to use only a tiny amount that has virtually no calories to get the same sweetness as a spoonful of sugar.

Another choice is agave nectar, made from a type of cactus that grows in Mexico (yes, tequila fans, that cactus). By the gram, it’s actually higher in calories than table sugar, but because it’s very sweet you need only a small amount to get the sweet taste.

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (NutraSweet) and saccharine are more widely used. They have no calories and just add sweetness to soft drinks and other foods. Use them if you must, but these are pure chemicals, and I strongly advise you aim for a diet that doesn’t include them. Now, it’s certainly better to drink a diet soda than one full of high fructose corn syrup if you want to save the calories, but artificially sweetened beverages don’t combat the underlying problem of sweetness addiction, because they taste just as sweet as any other beverage. Again, as an imperfect, incremental measure you can lean on these beverages as alternatives. But I wouldn’t want you to get used to them.

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Step by step, you need to detox from this junk. Think fast: Is it the buzz of the bubble in the soft drink that turns you on? Then try sparkling mineral water. No, don’t give me attitude; just try it! You will barely notice a difference.

This article has been adapted from Yes You Can: The Achievable Diet by Diana Le Dean. Copyright 2013 by Diana Le Dean.