The Benefits of a Low-Sugar Diet, and What Foods to Eat and Avoid

We are constantly told not to consume too much sugar. But not all sugar is bad. Naturally occurring sugars provide fuel for the body in the form of carbohydrates. They are locked inside cells, found in fruits, vegetables and milk, and contain additional nutrients, such as fiber.

The diet bogeyman is a class of sugars known as “free sugars.” These are the processed and refined sugars that are added to food and drink, and also the type of sugar found in honey, syrup, and fruit juice. They are described as free because they are not found in the cells of the food we eat. They are easier to consume without us realizing it and have been linked to poor diet and elevated blood glucose. Health experts recommend that we limit free sugars in our diet.

The government recommends that sugar should not make up more than 5 percent of our daily calorie intake. According to the British Nutrition Foundation, in the UK we consume an average of 9 to 12.5 percent of our calories from free sugars, depending on our age.

What is a low sugar diet?

Government guidelines recommend that adults should eat no more than 30g of sugar per day, which is the equivalent of seven sugar cubes (a can of soft drink can contain around nine teaspoons of free sugar). A low-sugar diet should stay under the 30g limit. The primary goal of a low-sugar diet is to maintain healthy glucose levels in the body.

Aisling Pigott is a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Society. She explains: “From a health perspective, we consider anything less than 30g of free sugar per day to meet public health guidelines around sugar.”

Lucy Diamond, a registered dietitian and clinical director for innovation at NHS weight management provider Oviva, adds: “The aim is to manage and stabilise blood sugar levels, promote overall health and prevent several health problems linked to high sugar consumption, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity.”

What are the benefits of a low sugar diet?

  • A low-sugar diet aids weight loss because excess sugar in the body can be converted into fat.
  • Consumption of added sugars has been linked to a range of life-limiting conditions, including fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
  • A 2010 literature review by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that the risk of tooth decay is lower in people whose intake of free sugars is less than 10 percent of total energy intake.
  • Research shows that reducing sugar intake can protect the body against inflammation.
  • Research shows that cutting down on sugar intake can help improve mood and prevent depression. Tips for eating less sugar.

Tips to eat less sugar

  • Replace sugary drinks with sugar-free varieties or water.
  • Replace sweet snacks with fresh fruit or something savory.
  • Reduce portion sizes of sweets high in sugar.
  • Check labels for foods high in sugar.
  • Limit fruit juices or smoothies to one small glass (150 ml) per day.

Foods You Should and Shouldn’t Eat

The main sources of free sugars in the UK, and therefore the foods to avoid, are:

  • Glazed or refined breakfast cereals such as cornflakes and Sugar Puffs
  • Sugary drinks
  • Fruit juice
  • Cakes
  • Cookies
  • Desserts
  • Sweet spreads such as jam and Nutella
  • Candy and sweets

Foods low in sugar include:

  • Dad
  • Water, tea, coffee
  • Beans and legumes
  • Non-starchy vegetables such as asparagus, avocado, onions, spinach
  • Eggs
  • Cheese
  • Fish, meat
  • Tofu

Eating out on a low sugar diet

Rob Hobson, a registered nutritionist, advises: “Watch out for sauces and marinades, as these are probably the biggest source of added sugar. A lot of Asian food contains sugar to give it a sweet and savoury flavour. Condiments can also contain sugar to balance out the flavours in the recipe. Puddings are also tricky. Fresh fruit is an obvious choice.”

Also avoid sweet chili dishes, dressings such as honey and mustard, and dishes described as “glazed,” “caramelized,” “balsamic,” or indeed “sweet.”

Good choices for low-sugar drinks are red wine, dry white wine, and spirits with soda and lime as a mixer. Stay away from dessert wines, ciders, liqueurs, and cocktails.

Tips to overcome sugar cravings

Hobson recommends:

  • Make sure that every meal contains a source of protein, healthy fats and fiber. This will prevent your blood sugar levels from getting out of balance and you will quickly get cravings for something tasty between meals.
  • Instead of sugar, try spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. They have a sweet taste and taste great on yogurt, smoothies or coffee.
  • Smell the vanilla scent. Some people find this helpful in reducing their sugar cravings.
  • Try low-calorie hot chocolate. These use sweeteners that can give you the kick you want without the added sugar.
  • Get started. The evening is one of the times when most people crave sweets. Go for a walk, do some housework or take a bath with a good book instead of sitting in front of the TV with a packet of Haribo.
  • Try drinking a large glass of water when you feel hungry. Are you really hungry? Dehydration can be confused with hunger.
  • Don’t skip meals. When you get hungry, your blood sugar drops and you crave something sweet.

Pigott adds: “If you use sugar to sweeten meals, consider adding fruit or sweet vegetables, such as carrots or pumpkin. These can be effective ways to add some sweetness without adding free sugar. Also, make sure you appreciate and enjoy your food. Mindless eating can lead to sugar cravings, where we eat a lot on the go and don’t necessarily allow our bodies to appreciate and enjoy food.”

She also recommends eating nuts with chocolate.

“If you’re eating a bar of chocolate, have a handful of nuts with it. That will help you feel full and release the sugar into your bloodstream more slowly, rather than mindlessly eating chocolate all day long,” she says.

Hidden ingredients to look out for

Hobson says, “Read the label and look for phrases like ‘added sugar’ and ingredients like sucrose, glucose, fructose or anything ending in -ose, as well as healthier-sounding alternatives, such as raw sugar, barley malt, maple syrup, coconut nectar, palm sugar, agave nectar, date sugar and brown rice syrup, which are some of sugar’s many forms.”

What Experts Think About the Low-Sugar Diet

According to the NHS, sugars naturally found in milk, fruit and vegetables are not considered free sugars and we don’t need to cut back on them, although they are included in the total sugar content shown on food labels.

Pigott says: “If there is no glucose or a glucose derivative added, then it is likely that sugar is naturally occurring, which is much less harmful to health and often absolutely fine to have.”

“A low-sugar diet is a sustainable approach to healthier eating that can lead to significant long-term health benefits. By making informed choices and prioritizing whole foods, you can reduce your sugar intake and still enjoy a varied and nutritious diet,” says Diamond.

Risks of a low sugar diet

Sugars are the body’s primary source of energy. Experts agree that reducing free sugars is a healthy goal, but reducing sugar in your overall diet can have adverse effects.

Diamond explains: “While there are many benefits, it is important to approach a low-sugar diet with caution. The biggest risk is that you will not get enough carbohydrates and therefore not have a balanced diet if sugars are cut out indiscriminately without adding carbohydrates from whole grains. In fact, we should be including carbohydrates from whole grains in a healthy diet, such as brown rice, corn, whole wheat bread and quinoa.

“The most important thing is to keep your blood sugar levels stable so you don’t get sluggish. For adequate energy levels, diet plans often call for eating every three to four hours. Multiple small meals throughout the day is an ideal schedule, and eating more protein and fiber can help keep you fuller for longer.”

A significant reduction in carbohydrates can lead to energy deficiencies and nutritional imbalances. Therefore, it is advisable to replace foods high in sugar with more nutrient-dense alternatives, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

Additionally, if you replace high-sugar products with low-sugar products, they will likely contain artificial sweeteners. These should be consumed in moderation, as they are often processed and can be unhealthy. For example, some sweeteners known as polyols, such as sorbitol, xylitol, and erythritol, can have a laxative effect if consumed in large amounts.

There is some evidence to suggest that artificial sweeteners can lead to weight gain. A 2005 study from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio found that rather than promoting weight loss, diet soda consumption was a marker for increased weight gain and obesity. People who drank diet soda were more likely to gain weight than those who drank naturally sweetened soda.

It is advisable to consult a health care provider or dietitian to ensure that you are reducing your sugar intake in a balanced and healthy way.

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