Obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes — researchers have reported links between all these diseases and our excessive intake of sugar. And, we do love our sugar.

Obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes — researchers have reported links between all these diseases and our excessive intake of sugar. And, we do love our sugar.

On average, each of us consumes the equivalent of 31 five pound bags of sugar every year. The majority of this sugar comes from sugar-sweetened beverages.

Reducing your added sugar intake can help reduce your risk of these diseases. Following are some tips for helping you cut back on sugar.

Choose whole foods: Instead of packaged foods, choose fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and beans.

Hidden sugar: Sugar is found in many foods that you might not expect. Crackers, peanut butter, yogurt, ketchup, spaghetti sauce, salad dressings, canned vegetables, canned soups and even bread all contain varying amounts of sugar. The only way to know is to read the nutrition label and the ingredient list.

Don't fall for false advertising: Watch for clever marketing tricks that may be hiding added sugar. Sugar comes in lots of different forms. Just because it is "all natural brown rice syrup" doesn't mean it's any better for you or has any fewer calories.

"Sugar free" doesn't mean healthy: Sugar-free products can still contain carbohydrates. If you are diabetic, you need to consider the total carbohydrates in the food. Often when a product is sugar free, it may have more fat and/or artificial ingredients to make up for flavor loss.

"Fat free" often means more sugar: If fat is taken out of a food, more sugar and/or salt is frequently added back to compensate for flavor. Pay attention to the food labels on fat-free products to determine how much sugar has been added.

Sugar by another name: When sugar is added, it may be in the form of dextrose, honey, maple syrup, molasses, sucrose, fructose, sorbitol, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup or a dozen other names for sugar. None are any healthier than the next. Look at the nutrition label to see how much sugar has been added.

Consider the source: Sugar is found naturally in fruit and dairy products, and this isn't what we should worry about. It's the added sugar that we need to limit. The nutrition label does not distinguish between added sugar and sugar from fruit or milk, so you'll need to read the ingredient list to see if sugar has been added.

Break your addiction: We crave sugary foods not only because they taste good but because eating sugar stimulates the pleasure center of the brain. The more you eat, the more you want, and it can become a difficult habit to break. Start by going a day without any sweets, then two days and so on until you no longer crave a sugar fix.

Beware when eating out: Sweet sauces, salad dressings and alcoholic beverages all can be sugar traps when dining out. Keep your portions small to help limit how much sugar you eat.

Ditch the sugar- sweetened beverages: When we drink sugary beverages, those calories are not satisfying and we tend to eat just as many calories. Swapping sweetened drinks for unsweetened is an easy way to cut your sugar intake.

Forget the fake sugar: You can save calories and cut your sugar intake by switching to artificial sweeteners. But that might not be the healthiest choice. Using any sweetener -- natural or artificial -- trains our taste buds to want sweeter and sweeter foods. Using less sugar and artificial sweeteners lets us enjoy foods that are naturally sweet, like fruit.

Breaking the sugar habit can be difficult, but it is an important step for achieving good health. It is especially crucial that we help our children limit their intake of sugar now so they won't develop a sugar addiction that carries over into adulthood.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.