How to Kick the Sugar Habit

Trying to cut down on sugar? Maybe you’ve heard all the health warnings from doctors and government officials, or maybe you’re trying to look better in your swimsuit.

Whatever the reason, you’re on the right track -- Americans are still eating and drinking two or three times the amount of sugar recommended for optimal health. Scientific studies have linked sugar overloads to obesity and health concerns including diabetes, tooth decay, heart disease, stroke, pancreatic cancer and cognitive decline. 

Sugar, which can fuel the brain and temporarily boost energy, occurs naturally in many nutritious fruits, vegetables and dairy products. But it also gets added to a number of foods we may eat every day. The American Heart Association advises women consume no more than 100 calories’ worth of added sugars per day, which comes out to about six teaspoons. But we often get more of the sweet stuff than we realize; manufacturers inject different forms of sweeteners to heighten taste and improve texture in a surprising variety of products.

To gain more control over your own sugar cravings -- and your family’s -- try these health tips from registered dietician Elisa Zied, mother of two and author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips.

Learn Label Language 

Sugar takes many forms, but all of them work in the same way on your body. And even if you skip dessert and take your coffee black, you may still be eating extra sugar in items like pasta sauce, ketchup, salad dressings and frozen dinners without realizing it.

When you shop, check labels closely for things like corn syrup, honey, molasses and nectar, as well as words in the “ose” family:  sucrose, fructose, dextrose, lactose, maltose and glucose. The higher up these words appear on the ingredient list, the higher the sugar content. (Check what’s in your family’s favorite foods at the USDA Database.)

Be Skeptical of “Health” Foods

Don’t assume that products touted as “low-calorie” or “fat-free” are good for you: To make them more palatable, many manufacturers compensate by boosting their sugar content. For instance, one particular brand of “light” whole-wheat bread boasts that it has just 45 calories a slice, but if you look at the ingredient list, you’ll see it contains not only high fructose corn syrup, but also honey, molasses, brown sugar and sucralose -- hardly a dietary bargain! Watch the labels and choose fresh foods as often as possible.

Do Sugar Swaps

When sugar cravings hit, satisfy your sweet tooth with healthier substitutes. For instance, top oatmeal with half a baked apple instead of brown sugar, and freeze banana slices or grapes for a sweet snack.

If you’re baking cookies or cakes for the family, use unsweetened applesauce to replace some of the sugar in the recipe. And when you serve ice cream, spoon a small portion into the bowls and then top them with lots of fresh berries.

Serve Better Beverages

Sweetened beverages -- including fruit drinks -- are the No. 1 source of added sugar in our diets. Just a 12-ounce can of regular soda packs 8 teaspoons of sugar, or 130 calories, while adding no nutrients. Stock your fridge with healthier options, such as water or seltzer with a squeeze of lime, or a blueberry-banana smoothie straight from your blender.

Leave Yourself Some Wiggle Room

It’s okay to indulge in an occasional sweet treat as long as you’re watching your total calories and filling up with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat proteins. “Sometimes it’s okay to have something simply because you want it and it tastes good,” says Zied -- whether that means a glass of low-fat chocolate milk for your kids or an ice pop on a hot summer day for you.

Mediterranean Diet Recipes Your Family Will Love

You’ve probably heard the recent news about a study focusing on the Mediterranean diet, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It basically confirmed what doctors had suspected for years: Eating the foods popular in Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy can help people at high risk of heart disease avoid strokes, heart attacks and even death.

The Mediterranean diet -- often referred to as the “heart-healthy diet" -- is known to reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering levels of LDL cholesterol, or the “bad” cholesterol that’s more likely to build up deposits in your arteries, says Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN, founder and president of Nutritious Life and author of The New You and Improved Diet, notes that . Studies show that a Mediterranean-type diet is advantageous across the board for cardiovascular risk factors, including total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure and blood sugar levels

More than that, “it incorporates the basics of healthy eating, with a focus on small portions of high-quality foods that are fresh, seasonal and local,” says Glassman. The Mediterranean plan is much more than just a diet, she adds; it’s an overall approach to healthy living that emphasizes getting plenty of exercise and enjoying meals with family and friends.

Even if your heart is healthy, you and your family can still benefit from eating the foods typical of Mediterranean cuisine. Among them: olive oil; nuts; oily fish like salmon and mackerel (all rich in omega-3 fatty acids); garlic (which can lower blood pressure); herbs and spices such as cinnamon and rosemary; and legumes like peas and beans (rich in protein and fiber).

These recipes from Glassman will help introduce your family to the benefits of Mediterranean eating. Each makes one serving, so increase the ingredients accordingly for delicious meals that will be popular with everyone.

MEDITERRANEAN SHRIMP PITA

This recipe is a fun meal to make together. Line up the ingredients as you would with tacos, and let everyone fill up their own pita!

Ingredients

•  3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

•  2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

•  1 teaspoon chopped garlic

•  3 jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined (about 3 ounces)

•  1/2 cup baby arugula

•  1 tablespoon chopped oil-packed sun-dried tomato halves (about 2)

•  1/4 teaspoon dried basil

•  1/4 teaspoon dried parsley

•  2 tablespoons hummus

•  1 mini whole wheat pita 

Directions

1. Combine the lemon juice, oil, and garlic in a small bowl. Transfer the mixture to a zipper-lock bag and add the shrimp, tossing to coat. Refrigerate 15 minutes.

2. Coat a nonstick grill pan with olive oil cooking spray. Preheat over medium-high heat. Toss the arugula and tomatoes in a small bowl.

3. Remove the shrimp from the marinade. Sprinkle the basil and parsley on both sides and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

4. Cook 2 minutes per side, or until opaque throughout, flipping halfway through. Let cool 1 to 2 minutes and cut into 1/2″ pieces.

5. Spread the hummus inside the pita. Fill with the arugula-tomato mixture, then add the shrimp.

WHITE BEAN & VEGETABLE SOUP

Ingredients

•  8 ounces low-sodium vegetable broth

•  ½ cup water

•  2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

•  2 tablespoons each chopped carrot, broccoli, and onion

•  ¼ cup mushrooms, sliced

•  ⅓ cup frozen green peas

•  1 tablespoon garlic, chopped

•  ½ teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped

•  Salt and pepper, to taste

•  ½ cup canned white beans, rinsed and drained

•  1 tablespoon walnuts, finely chopped

Directions

1. Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add carrot, broccoli, onion, mushrooms, peas, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until the vegetables release some of their juices, about 3 to 5 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high and continue to cook, stirring often, until most of the liquid has evaporated.

2. Add broth, water and white beans; bring to a boil, stirring often. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables and beans are tender.

3. Remove from heat, add walnuts and serve.

SNACKS & SIDES

  • Mediterranean Mix: 8 chopped olives, 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts, 4 cherry tomatoes, 1/2 teaspoon capers, ¼ cup celery chopped and spread on endive

  • Mediterranean Tomato: 1 large tomato slice with 1 ounce goat cheese, drizzled with fig vinegar

  • Mediterranean Dip: 2 tablespoons hummus with 1 cup red and yellow pepper

Perfect Post-Holiday Brunch Ideas

A family brunch is a great opportunity to relax together after the excitement of opening gifts. Best of all, you don’t have to spend a lot of time to make delicious (and healthy!) mid-morning treats. These two recipes that will have you out of the kitchen and at the table in no time!

FESTIVE ZUCCHINI MUFFINS
Makes 12 muffins

2½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon cinnamon
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup canola oil
1¼ cups sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups grated zucchini (use the large holes on a box grater)

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a standard-size muffin tin with a bit of canola oil, or use muffin cups.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, salt, baking soda, nutmeg and cinnamon. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, canola oil, sugar and vanilla.

3. Add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture and stir until almost incorporated. Add the zucchini and mix until the ingredients are just combined. Do not overmix, or the muffins will be tough.

4. Transfer the batter to the muffin cups and bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the pan for five minutes and then transfer to a cooling rack.


 

Merry Berry Salad
Makes 4 cups

1 pint strawberries (fresh or frozen and thawed), halved or quartered into bite-size pieces
6 oz. raspberries (fresh or frozen and thawed)
½ pint blueberries (fresh or frozen and thawed)
1½ teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons chopped mint or basil (optional)

1. In a large bowl, gently toss together the strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, sugar and mint or basil if desired. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to 2 hours before serving.

Photo: Corbis Images

Quick Dinners Everyone Will Love

It’s hard enough to find nutritious meals that satisfy everyone’s taste buds at suppertime -- and during the holiday season, busy schedules make it an even bigger challenge. Fortunately, a delicious and healthy dinner doesn’t have to take hours or tons of ingredients. These two main-dish recipes take less than an hour from start to finish. Add a side salad or your favorite mixed vegetables, and watch everyone dig in!

Salmon with Mango-Pineapple Salsa

Makes 4 servings

 

4 salmon fillets, about 1-1½ pounds total

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and pepper, to taste

¼ fresh pineapple (or about 1 cup canned), diced

1 fresh mango (or about 1 cup canned), diced

1 tablespoon cilantro, minced

½ jalapeno, minced (or to taste)

2 scallions, finely chopped

Juice of ½ lime, or to taste

           

1.    Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the salmon on the pan, rub with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until just cooked through, 10-15 minutes depending on the thickness of the fish.

2.    For the salsa: In a medium bowl, mix together the pineapple, mango, cilantro, jalapeno, scallions, lime juice, and some additional salt and pepper. Taste and add more lime, salt, and/or pepper if desired.

3.   Place the salmon on a serving platter or individual plates. Top with the salsa.

Peachy Pork Chops

Makes 4 servings

 

1½ teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

4 bone-in pork loin chops, ½-inch thick

Juice of one lime

2-3 tablespoons peach preserves

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro and/or mint

1.    In a small bowl stir together the cumin, salt and pepper. Rub the mixture over both sides of each of the pork chops.

2.    In another small bowl, stir together the lime juice, peach preserves and cilantro or mint. The consistency should be thick enough to glaze the chops, so adjust the amount of peach preserves depending on how much juice your lime gives.

3.    Preheat a sauté pan or oven grill pan to medium-high. Grill the chops for four minutes on each side. Brush the chops with the glaze, flip, and cook for an additional 30 seconds. Brush the chops with glaze again, flip, and cook for 30 more seconds.