Savoring Coffee Without Sugar Works Best to Cut Calories, Study Says

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It's not a new idea that one relatively easy way to eliminate calories is to refrain from adding sugar, whenever possible, to foods and drinks we consume. And trimming it from coffee consumption is an obvious place to start. 

But once that choice is made, the next issue is: What's the best way to adapt to a reduced-sugar or sugar-free cup, to ensure that the change will become permanent? Eliminating the sweetener over time, or cutting it out "cold turkey" in one fell swoop?

Researchers from the University of Minnesota decided to look into this matter, and after conducting a modest-size study they were a bit surprised by their findings in which a third approach was most effective: Those who savored the beverage – and made an effort termed "mindfulness," to appreciate its inherent flavor as well as other qualities, like aftertaste – were more likely to stick with unsweetened coffee after six months.

Another result that surprised researchers – and upended their prediction – was that gradually reducing sugar intake over time was the least effective of the three methods used to entice subjects to shake the sugar habit.

“I’m surprised the gradual reduction led to a decrease in liking for sugar-free coffee and was less effective than mindfulness,” said Ruopeng An of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, commenting on the study as an observer in an email to Reuters. “The mindfulness intervention is interesting, and I would encourage more research in this area,” added An, who studies the connection between weight gain and beverage consumption.

The study, conducted by Richie Lenne and Traci Mann, chose to focus only on sugar reduction, and not sugar substitution using artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, sucralose or aspartame.

Participants from a collection of 127 people were randomly assigned to one of the three groups, with those in the savoring section receiving a lesson where, "a coffee professional gave a 10-minute training on five key features to notice in coffee (flavor, acidity, sweetness, mouth-feel, and aftertaste) to help participants become more mindful of various sensory aspects of coffee," according to the study's authors.

Each of the three groups participated for two weeks, and then follow-ups were conducted over the next six months. All three groups were able to stay with sugarless coffee for that half-year period, and decrease their sugar intake, with the mindfulness group expressing the most enjoyment and strongest desire to maintain sugar-free coffee consumption at the conclusion of the testing.

And the study's calorie reduction estimates for the subjects paralleled the three group's results, as well.

"Participants in the mindfulness condition consumed about 53 fewer calories per day in the 6 months after the intervention than they did before the intervention," wrote the authors in their study, titled "Reducing sugar use in coffee while maintaining enjoyment: A randomized controlled trial," published earlier this month in the Journal of Health Psychology," whereas [sudden-stop] participants consumed 36 fewer calories per day, and gradual reduction participants consumed 21 fewer calories per day." 

One tablespoon of sugar contains 48 calories.

A limitation of the study is that subjects were already motivated to reduce their coffee-based sugar intake.  

The "participants were selected partly because they reported on the screening questionnaire that they were willing to reduce the sugar in their coffee for 2 weeks," the authors wrote. "We may not find such encouraging results with a less motivated population, such as individuals who were instructed by other people (such as a physician) to reduce sugar in their diet (although a doctor’s orders or threat of disease may also be motivating)."