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updated: 3/10/2014 7:31 AM

Retrain your taste buds to reduce sugar in your diet

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Q: I'd like to cut down on the amount of sugar in my diet. Any suggestions?

A: Cutting back on sugar will be good for your health. Not only will it help you manage your weight, it will also help keep heart disease and diabetes at bay.

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The easiest and quickest way to cut back is to identify the foods and drinks that contribute the most added sugar to your diet. Then limit or eliminate them altogether. (On my website, AskDoctorK.com, I've put a chart illustrating the top sources of added sugar in the typical American diet.)

Eliminating sweetened beverages is a good first step. That includes sugary sodas, fruit juices, iced teas and energy drinks.

Here are several more ideas:

• Don't go "cold turkey"; give your taste buds time to adapt. If you're in the habit of having two teaspoons of sugar in your coffee or tea, for instance, start by going to one and a half for a week, then down to one. This can help rewire your brain not to crave it as much.

• Use artificial sweeteners if necessary, but be careful. Using artificial sweeteners in carbonated soft drinks or coffee has been one way many people have reduced their sugar load. There is a theoretical reason to use such sweeteners cautiously, however. Artificial sweeteners can be thousands of times sweeter than natural sugar. There is some evidence, at least in some people, that using them can actually fuel cravings for sugary foods and beverages.

I don't think this evidence is very strong. I advise my patients who are used to sugar in their morning coffee, for example, to first try to taper the sugar slowly. Some surprise themselves: They find they like the flavor of good coffee without sugar.

If they feel that they still need something sweet in the coffee, I ask them to experiment to find the smallest dose of sweetener.

• Alter your recipes. Use one-quarter less sugar than your recipe calls for, then one-third less, and so forth -- right up until you notice the difference. Again, some of my patients surprise themselves: Cakes with half the sugar they used to use taste just as good to them.

• Fruit, not juice. Instead of drinking fruit juice, eat a piece of fresh fruit. Many processed, store-bought fruit juices contain lots of sugar.

• Read labels. Many processed and packaged foods contain added sugars. They may appear on nutrition labels as sucrose (white or brown sugar), fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, brown rice syrup, molasses, agave and evaporated cane juice.

• Look for reduced-sugar options. When buying syrups, jellies, marinades and the like, look for product labels that say "reduced sugar" or "no added sugar."

In short, the secret is to retrain your taste buds. Once you do that, it'll be much easier to pass over the cookies, cakes and sodas for healthy, naturally sweetened treats like a ripe peach or a juicy watermelon.

Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com.

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