Tips and tricks to help you through the 28-Day Sugar-Free Challenge | Star Tribune

The 28-day sugar-free challenge

Every day during the challenge we will be posting tricks, tips and advice from experts to help you along on your sugar-free journey. Want more community support? Join our Facebook group.

Tips and tricks to help you through the 28-Day Sugar-Free Challenge

Every day during the challenge we will be posting tricks, tips and advice from experts to help you along on your sugar-free journey. Want more community support? Join our Facebook group.

Feb. 28: When added sugar creeps back into your life (and, of course, it will), it doesn’t need to bring a feeling of failure with it, said local trainer Leslie Branham. She suggests writing down one or two changes you made during the challenge that worked for you and made you feel good.

“Keep those specific foods on the grocery list, keep making the same thing for breakfast, continue to pack your lunch the night before or keep making a couple of your favorite recipes from the challenge,” she said. Build an arsenal of healthy habits. That way, an occasional indulgence doesn’t mean a total slide back to unhealthy habits.

Whenever you can, substitute a healthier treat or meal for a not-so-great-for-you food that has lots of added sugar. Swap a banana and almonds for that doughnut. Or a couple of soft-boiled eggs for the sugary flavored yogurt.

Dr. Samar Malaeb, an endocrinologist and nutrition expert with University of Minnesota Health, suggests we head into March with two simple goals: focusing on the first meal of the day and trying to avoid sugary drinks. She is also a big proponent of the Mediterranean style of eating.

And if trying to go cold-turkey by not eating any added sugars this month didn’t work for you, that’s OK, too. Your personality may be better suited to trying to make gradual changes instead. Read more about how to move forward here.


Feb. 27: Going without added sugar this month has likely been illuminating, but you may’ve discovered that you don’t want to live in a world without cookies or baked goods forever.

Dr. Donald Hensrud, who runs the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, suggests using unsweetened applesauce in place of sugar in recipes that otherwise have only dry ingredients. (You can usually swap it in a 1:1 ratio.) Hensrud said that using unsweetened applesauce is better than honey or maple syrup because “you have a little bit of fiber, you have water in there, you have other nutrients.”

Applesauce won’t work in every recipe, but the folks at King Arthur Flour have created an excellent online explainer for how to reduce the amount of sugar while baking. Check it out here.


Feb. 26: According to the American Heart Association, the average American consumes 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day. That’s about twice the amount recommended for men and three times the level recommended for women. But how do those teaspoons translate into grams and calories? A good rule of thumb is that a teaspoon of granulated sugar generally equals about 4 grams. So here are the added-sugar limits that the AHA suggests:

For men: No more than 9 teaspoons, which equals 36 grams or 150 calories.

For women: No more than 6 teaspoons, 25 grams or 100 calories.

Remember, we’re talking about added sugars only. Naturally occurring sugars — like those found in fruit or dairy — aren’t included.


Feb. 25: There are many simple ways to add natural, subtle sweetness and a flavor boost to dishes by using fresh fruit. Here’s one great tip from a Star Tribune reader: Instead of syrup on pancakes, add slices of a ripe banana into the batter while it’s cooking, distributing the slices on top before flipping the pancake the first time. “They caramelize beautifully!” wrote Kathy Wallace.

Another way to use fruit:  Add chopped fresh pineapple to a stir fry instead of a sugary sauce.


Feb. 24: Today’s challenge: Get a full night’s sleep (that’s seven to nine hours!) tonight. It just may help you eat more healthfully and avoid added sugars tomorrow. Getting enough sleep likely helps curb our appetite for high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods, researchers have found.

When University of Chicago Medicine sleep researchers managed to get young adults to extend shut-eye for just an additional 1.6 hours a night, the change was linked to a 62 percent drop in cravings for sweet and salty junk food.


Feb. 23: Fooducate is a free app created by Hemi Weingarten, a California man who once struggled to figure out safe and healthy options for his kids to eat. The company more recently added a feature that analyzes ingredient lists so the app can discern between added sugars and those that are naturally occurring.

We talked to Weingarten about glow-in-the-dark food, why deciphering food labels is so tricky and involving kids in making good food choices. Read more here.


Feb. 22: Some dermatologists and nutritionists say a high-sugar diet can contribute to lines and wrinkles in your skin — a phenomenon that’s been dubbed “sugar face.” The theory: The extra sugar in your system attaches itself to elastin and collagen molecules in your skin, causing them to turn brittle.

Even if sugar face is real, it’s not likely the major cause of wrinkles. The biggest causes are environmental factors, genes, and — yep — aging itself. Still, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends a diet high in antioxidants and healthy fats and low in sugars, refined carbohydrates and saturated fats, which may contribute to younger-looking skin.


Feb. 21: One way to know you’re avoiding added sugar? As often as you can, eat real, fresh food that doesn’t come from a box or package, suggests Wolfram Alderson. He’s global education director for Dr. Robert Lustig, the pediatric endocrinologist who popularized the idea that sugar is “toxic.”

“Focus on real foods and whole foods as much as possible. As Dr. Lustig says, if it has a label, it’s a warning label,” Alderson said.


Feb. 20: While we’re working to avoid added sugars this month, our goal in this challenge isn’t to “demonize” a single ingredient. It’s to discover how we’re overconsuming added sugars — largely through sodas as well as processed or packaged foods.

It’s true that sugar has now taken over for fat as the ingredient that everyone loves to hate. But Dr. Samar Malaeb doesn’t recommend thinking about our food that way. “It’s not that one thing is extremely bad and one thing is extremely good,” said Malaeb, an endocrinologist and nutrition expert with University of Minnesota Health. “It’s the general pattern of the diet.”

When fat was the “bad” ingredient, we turned to highly processed, refined sugars and grains to avoid fat — something experts now say was a mistake. So a good goal is not to think of all sugar as “evil,” but to simply be more aware of the added sugar in our diets and find ways to make healthful changes while still enjoying the natural sugars in fruit, vegetables and dairy.


Feb. 19: Here’s what nutritionist Brooke Alpert says will help tamp down sugar cravings: Eat a snack that’s naturally sweet and has fat, protein and fiber. Her suggestion: an apple (fiber plus natural sugars) with almond butter (protein and fat). “It’s not sexy, but all three of those slow the absorption of sugar into your body as you’re eating it,” she said.


Feb. 18: It’s easy to get the day off to a sugary start: Most cereals, flavored yogurts and even granola mixes are full of added sugars. Minneapolis’ Hannah Barnstable wanted to create a different, unsweetened option when she concocted Seven Sundays muesli seven years ago.

Now her cereals are available nationally at Costco as well as in many local stores. Muesli, which has raw oats, nuts and dried fruit, is a healthier, grittier Swiss cousin to granola. As part of the sugar-free challenge, we tried several Seven Sundays varieties that have no added sugar or sweeteners. Our favorite was Cocoa Almond Date. (We ate it right out of the bag, but you can also soak in milk or mix with yogurt and leave in the fridge overnight for a smoother experience.)


Feb. 17: Looking for a taste of sweet? Try bringing out the subtle sweetness in veggies, suggests Wolfram Alderson, the global education director for Dr. Robert Lustig, the pediatric endocrinologist who popularized the idea that sugar is “toxic.”

“When you grill vegetables, you can grill them at a high temperature and crystallize the natural sugars,” he said. “If I’m grilling onions, and they get sweet, I’m still getting the fiber.”


Feb. 16: Aren’t dates sugar bombs? Is stevia OK? We answer your top five frequently asked questions about sugar and your health here.


Feb. 15: Here’s a tip from Twin Cities trainer Leslie Branham: Find a new treat that makes you forget about the sweet stuff. Branham’s latest is half an avocado, drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with Everything but the Bagel sesame seasoning blend from Trader Joe’s. “It is so good," she said. "And that will fill you up. Those are the things that really will help you do this. And if you have them on your shopping list, and have them on hand, you can do it.”


Feb. 14: As far as sugar overconsumption goes, candy is a small part of the problem. Processed food and sugary drinks are the real culprits. For Valentine's Day, read more about the connection between love and sweets (and evolutionary biology) here.


Feb. 13: During the making of his documentary “That Sugar Film,” Damon Gameau conducted an experiment about sugar — on himself. He consumed 40 teaspoons of sugar each day, not by eating doughnuts but through “hidden sugars” in foods such as barbecue sauce. He very quickly gained weight and showed signs of fatty liver. We talked to Gameau (who has since founded the nonprofit That Sugar Movement to promote healthful foods) about how he felt during the making of the 2014 movie and what he eats now.


Feb. 12: Trying to avoid added sugar can teach us a lot — even if we slip up, said local personal trainer Leslie Branham. A challenge, such as our sugar-free month, can create a few healthy habits that stick. That could mean a new breakfast routine or a go-to beverage that isn’t soda. “If you have only two things that you continue on with after, that’s still a success,” Branham said. “Just keep going.”


Feb. 11: Here’s a fun challenge from Dr. Donald Hensrud, who runs the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program: “Fruit seems kind of boring, but it doesn’t have to be. Try to seek out new fruits to try. We tend to eat the same things over and over again,” he said.


Feb. 10: Honey seems wholesome. But is it any better for you than high-fructose corn syrup or other added sugars? The answer: It may be a little bit better for you, but only if you don’t have too much of it — and other sugars. Read more here.


Feb. 9: We talk about having a “sugar habit,” even going so far as to say we are addicted to the sweet stuff. While some scientists argue that sugar has addictive qualities, even comparing it to cocaine, others maintain there’s little evidence to back up that claim. And even those who regard sugar as habit-forming are quick to point out that in moderation it doesn’t pose a problem.

People who quit sugary sodas often report getting headaches, but that may be from the drop in caffeine, not sugar. Eating too much sugar, however, can lead to higher tolerance and cravings, researchers say. Other researchers suggest that it’s not the ingredient itself that’s addictive, but that its impact on our metabolism creates a cycle of sorts that is difficult to stop. After eating a high-sugar food, our blood sugar spikes. Then it drops. This leads us to crave something sugary that will bring it quickly up again.


Feb. 8: Got questions about sugar and how it affects your health? Send them to us. We’ll pick the FAQs and ask our expert, Dr. Samar Malaeb, an endocrinologist and nutrition expert with University of Minnesota Health, to answer them. Please e-mail erica.pearson@startribune.com by the end of the day Monday, Feb.11.


Feb. 7: Doctors’ most common advice for cutting back on sugar? Skip sugary sodas, sports drinks and super-sweet coffee. They deliver sugar’s fructose quickly, without any fiber, which can have a big impact on metabolic health that’s linked to serious diseases, doctors and researchers say.

But don’t reach for diet drinks with artificial sweeteners instead. Research has shown they affect bacteria in the gut. Other research suggests they may simply end up causing people to consume more sugar throughout the day. “One [theory] is that it tricks the brain a little bit, so your brain still craves sweet foods and you may be consuming other foods that are higher in sugar than you normally would,” said Dr. Donald Hensrud, who runs the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program.

What to drink instead? Flavored sparkling or seltzers like La Croix are a great option, or try slicing up strawberries or cucumber and adding them to your own glass of water.


Feb. 6: Dates can satisfy a sweet tooth while still delivering fiber, iron and vitamins. They are tasty on their own, can be found in recipes for sugar-free desserts and are a top ingredient in energy bar brands that don’t contain added sugar, like Larabar and RXBar.


Feb. 5: It doesn’t have to taste sweet to have sugar in it. Crackers, chicken broth, sliced bread — a surprising amount of savory foods have added sugar as a top ingredient. Here are a few that don’t: original recipe Triscuits, Back to Nature harvest whole wheat crackers and Pacific Foods organic chicken culinary stock.


Feb. 4: Sriracha for dessert?  Yes, sugar’s the third ingredient in this condiment, as it is in so many other packaged sauces, from essentially all ketchups and barbecue sauces to oyster sauce and Miracle Whip. You can make your sugar-free versions, but there are also quite a few supermarket condiments that don’t have added sugar, including French’s yellow mustard and Kikkoman soy sauce.


Feb. 3: To successfully avoid added sugars, you will need to to be a label detective at the supermarket. Experts suggest focusing on the list of ingredients, not the nutritional breakdown. Learn more here.


Feb. 2: If you’re trying to avoid eating added sugar, put an extra slice of real tomato on your burger instead of slathering on the ketchup. That’s what Wolfram Alderson does. He’s the global education director for Dr. Robert Lustig, the pediatric endocrinologist who popularized the idea that sugar is “toxic.” Alderson tries to avoid added sugars all the time, not just during a monthlong challenge like ours.


Feb. 1: A not-so-sweet fact:  Americans eat, on average, 57 pounds of added sugar each year. That’s according to Sugarscience.org, a site run by health scientists at the University of California, San Francisco.

This year, we’re trying to keep it under a wheelbarrow-full. Join us for the 28-Day Sugar-Free Challenge. The goal is to avoid added sugar in February, take stock of how much you’re consuming and make healthful changes.