Recipes by Mary Ryan, MS, RD

No matter how sweet it is, sugar spells trouble if you want to lose weight and improve your diet. But although all true sugars pack the same caloric punch (16 calories per teaspoon), some types are healthier than others. Knowing the difference can help you tame your sweet tooth and make better choices, so you can still have your (small piece of) cake and eat it, too.

Too sweet
Sugar comes in many forms, ranging from fruit fructose to white table sugar (sucrose). All caloric sweeteners raise blood glucose and insulin levels in similar ways; but an apple's natural sugar has a very different effect on the body compared with a sugary soda or even 100 percent apple juice. That's because, along with essential vitamins and minerals, whole fruit contains fiber, "which slows sugar absorption, giving the body time to process the sugar without producing a spike in blood glucose," says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, of Annapolis, Maryland.

Hide and seek
To find out how many teaspoons of sugar a product contains per serving, check the nutrition label for sugar grams and divide that number by four. Note, however, that sugar grams listed may include naturally occurring milk (lactose) and fruit (fructose) sugars, which are not counted in USDA guidelines for added sugar consumption.

—C.M.

Then there are added sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup, which manufacturers pump into beverages, sauces, cookies, and other processed foods. These cause the greatest concern among physicians and nutritionists because the average American consumes an incredible amount: 141 pounds, or 13,536 teaspoons, of added sugar per year. A recent study found that even children as young as 2 eat an average of 14 teaspoons of sugar per day—more than three times the amount recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Worse, sugary foods are edging out healthier fare for many tots (Journal of Pediatrics, 2005, vol. 146, no. 1).

"Consuming this much added sugar can be devastating to your health," Teitelbaum says. Sugar-loaded diets are associated with an increased risk for serious health concerns, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, and tooth decay (Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2002, vol. 102, no. 3). Over time, elevated blood sugar also disturbs the immune system by "decreasing the body's ability to gobble up bacteria and viruses," says Dover, New Hampshire–based naturopath Keri Marshall, MS, ND. Added sugar is often hidden in foods, so you may be eating more than you think.

Natural choices
You'll find healthier options at your natural foods store. Xylitol, a sugar alcohol made from fibrous vegetables and fruit, looks and tastes like sucrose but has 40 percent fewer calories and doesn't exert the same effect on blood glucose. A bonus: Xylitol also seems to boost bone density (Gerontology, 2001, vol. 47, no. 6). "The downsides of xylitol are that it costs more than regular sugar, and it causes a laxative effect in some people," making it unsuitable for those with irritable bowel syndrome, says Teitelbaum.

Your grandmother's sweeteners are worth another look, too. Blackstrap molasses, like sucrose, derives from sugar cane but still contains the iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium that have been stripped from sucrose. Unrefined honey and pure maple syrup, which are sweeter than white sugar, also retain trace vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant compounds, and they work well in most recipes, says Mary Ryan, MS, RD, a nutritional counselor in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. When baking, Ryan replaces sugar with dried or puréed whole fruit. "Adding naturally sweet fruit to recipes makes them more nutritious, which is always my goal," she says.

Calorie-conscious consumers often turn to artificial sweeteners, such as saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose (found in Splenda), to satisfy cravings. But these sweeteners may trigger overeating by disrupting the body's ability to regulate caloric intake (International Journal of Obesity, 2004, vol. 28, no. 7). Both Marshall and Teitelbaum recommend the noncaloric herb Stevia rebaudiana as a safe, natural alternative. "Stevia does not appear to have sweeteners' negative effects on blood sugar or insulin that are associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease," Marshall says. Teitelbaum recommends using a filtered liquid form to avoid the bitterness sometimes associated with stevia; look for it and powdered stevia in the supplements section of natural products stores.

Spread some love
Instead of sucrose-laden jellies and jams, look for pure fruit spreads at your natural foods store. Along with fructose, they contain pieces of fruit and pectin, a soluble fiber that helps slow sugar absorption.

Tame the urge
In addition to choosing smart alternatives, you can reduce your sugar cravings and intake with these strategies.

Eat protein at every meal. Lean protein helps to sustain blood glucose levels and prevent sugar urges for up to three hours, Teitelbaum says.

Add chromium to your diet. Taking 200 mcg of chromium with meals—or eating chromium-rich foods, such as broccoli, beans, and chicken—can help control blood glucose and insulin levels, thus preventing low blood sugar, Marshall says.

De-stress. Anxiety exhausts the adrenal glands, resulting in fatigue, low blood pressure, and an inability to maintain blood glucose levels, Teitelbaum says. Stress management and adrenal-boosting supplements, such as vitamin C, can help.

Keep sweets a treat. Savor your chocolate in small doses while filling your body with the healthy food it truly craves. Says Marshall: "It's OK to have a cookie once in a while as long as you are mostly eating fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat protein."

Carlotta Mast satisfies her sugar urges by nibbling on small squares of really expensive dark chocolate. Mary Ryan, MS, RD, runs Beyond Broccoli Nutrition Counseling and Education in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.