Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Sugar: It’s everywhere, added to all kinds of packaged foods, hiding behind aliases on labels. Even if you’re trying to avoid it, sugar is tricky and totally sneaky. One of the places that can be most challenging? Our daily beverage of choice. Whether it’s coffee or tea that you prefer, if you’re accustomed to sipping these bevvies with added sweeteners and sugar, that can be a tough habit to break. And if you drink multiple cups a day, all of that sweetness really adds up.
“Too much sugar in coffee or tea can be an issue, as you might not realize how much sugar you’re consuming,” says Kristen Carli, MS, RD, owner of Camelback Nutrition & Wellness in Scottsdale, Arizona. So, how can you curtail your sugars and sweeteners without making your coffee or tea taste less-than-great? Carli recommends a three-step process to reduce the sugar in your beverage of choice.
Step 1: Assess your habits
Before you begin trying to reduce, take an honest, judgment-free look at where you are. After all, it’s important to know just how much sugar you’re used to adding to your morning mug of tea or midday coffee.
“I would first assess your baseline,” Carli says. “Do you include a sugar-filled creamer, add liquid sugar, granulated sugar, etc.? How much sugar is your starting point?” The point is not to shame yourself, but just to understand where you are so you can go from there, and celebrate your wins along the way.
Step 2: Gradually reduce your sweetener use
If you like your beverage very sweet, trying to cut all sweeteners at once might be daunting. So, try a no-pressure approach instead.
“Maybe the first week, you consume your coffee with just the sugary creamer and leave out the other forms of sugar,” Carli suggests. “Then, after a few weeks of this, try reducing the amount of the sugary creamer you use.”
Step 3: Keep experimenting
You don’t have to get to zero sweetness if that will kill your enjoyment of your morning coffee or your afternoon tea. Rather, just reduce how much sugar you’re using as much as you can. Any reduction in sugar is a win, so give yourself a virtual high five for that. And keep looking for ways to reduce more – for example, you can try a lighter or darker roast if you drink coffee or different flavors of tea.
Changing the type of creamer you add can make a difference, too. “Foods that contain natural sugar, like the lactose in milk and cream, can help things taste sweeter without any added sugar,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN. So if you’re currently drinking black coffee with sugar added, stirring in a light splash of milk or cream might help you reduce the sugar.
But there’s one thing you definitely shouldn’t do: Replace sugar with artificial sweeteners. Subbing in an artificial sweetener will keep your palate primed for sweetness – and it just might even exacerbate the problem. “Splenda is 600 times sweeter than sugar. And even a natural sugar alternative, stevia, is 200 times sweeter than sugar,” Carli warns. “I’ve had patients try to make the switch from stevia to sugar and found that sugar was not sweet enough. This is why I recommend you stick to real sugar, but just be mindful of your intake.”
Speaking of mindfulness, if you’re someone who has better luck making or breaking habits cold turkey, research indicates that being mindful while breaking your sweetened beverage habit can make a real difference. So, instead of gulping your cup on the go, give yourself a few minutes to really focus on your beverage. Appreciate the aroma, the way the steam looks as it rises out of the cup, the different flavor notes you pick up when you sip. Not only can this increase your enjoyment, but it also may help you stop spooning in the sweet stuff.