Finding alternatives to sugar and eating fewer sweets is one of the best things you can do for your health.

3 Ways Sugar Harms Your Health, and 5 Simple Fixes

The U.S.D.A. recently released new dietary guidelines and among the key recommendations was one that many people overlooked: Cut back on sugar. As a general rule, the government says you should aim to get less than 10 percent of your total daily calories from added sugar.

But that’s still too much, say many experts, pointing to recent studies linking sugar consumption to a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. And this month a headline-making study found that high sugar consumption raises the risk that heart disease will be fatal. The study followed participants over 15 years and found that those who took in 25 percent or more of their daily calories as sugar died of heart disease at twice the rate as those who kept their sugar intake below ten percent of their overall calories.

Another recent study found that sugar intake was linked with a higher incidence of breast cancer, particularly breast cancer that metastasized, or spread, to the lungs.

And since sugar calories are completely empty calories, with no nutrients in them whatsoever, sugar consumption is directly linked with weight gain.

Why Is Sugar So Bad for You?

In order to understand what is so bad about sugar, it’s necessary to understand what it’s made of, and how your body uses it. Before sugar enters the bloodstream from the digestive tract, it’s broken down into two simple sugars, glucose and fructose. These are sent to the liver for processing.

When we eat a small amount of natural sugar, such as in an apple, our bodies process it just fine. But when we eat a lot of sugar at once, that excess sugar is turned into glycogen and stored in the liver until we need it. And when we eat enough sugar to overwhelm the liver’s storage capacity, it’s forced it to turn it into fat.

People most at risk for this scenario are those who are sedentary and eat a Western, high-carb, high-calorie diet. If you’re healthy and active, your tolerance for sugar is somewhat higher.

5 Painless Ways to Cut Down on Sugar

  1. Eat fruit raw. Fruit in its natural state is good for us, but most canned fruits contain added sugar. And cooking fruit concentrates the sugars, making the fruit in pies, jams and other fruit-based products much less healthy.
  2. Say goodbye to soda – and juice. Almost 50 percent of our sugar intake comes from sugar-sweetened drinks. Not just coca cola and other soft drinks, which are easy targets, but sweetened iced teas, fruit-based drinks, and even fruit juice itself. (Unfortunately, even fruit juice packs a wallop in fructose, which our bodies process into fat.) Opt for water, sparking water, or unsweetened teas and milk alternatives
  3. Go back to the source. Processed foods (those that are prepared, pre-cooked, or packaged) almost universally contain excess sugar. When you eat foods closer to the source, buying fresh vegetables, whole grains, dairy products and meat and cooking them yourself, you avoid all the extra sugars hiding in sauces and flavorings.
  4. Purchase unflavored and sweeten yourself. Plain yogurt sweetened with a spoonful of honey is much healthier than flavored varieties, and the same goes for a long list of foods such as oatmeal, wheat-based cereals, tea, and beverages.
  5. Cut deserts in half and save the rest for later. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to satisfy a sweet tooth with a smaller portion, if you know you can look forward to eating the rest at another sitting. The thing is, when that time comes, you’re subsituting the saved dessert for the snack you would have eaten. And onwards. You can cut your dessert consumption in half all day long by practicing this trick.

Melanie Haiken writes about health, wellness and fitness for national magazines and websites. She specializes in discovering and reporting the latest research on diet, nutrition, fitness, weight loss and other health-related topics. Her award-winning stories have appeared in Fitness, Shape, Health, Forbes, and other respected magazines. She also contributes health stories to numerous Kaiser Permanente newsletters and other publications.