For most people, eating a well-balanced diet including foods that contain natural sugars, such as fruit, vegetables and dairy, does not lead to negative health impacts.
Many of these foods contain vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants, which are beneficial to our bodies.
It’s when we consume sugar to excess that it becomes detrimental to health.
And with the popularity and increased availability of processed foods, sugar has been added into a huge variety of foods in sneaky ways.
People with diets high in added sugar are more likely to develop obesity for a number of reasons –
- Sugar can interfere with hormones in your body that regulate hunger and feeling full, leading to increased calorie intake and weight gain.
- Excessive sugar can harm your metabolism, leading to increased insulin and fat storage.
- Sugar has addictive properties. It causes dopamine to be released in the reward centre of the brain - the same response activated by addictive drugs. These properties lead to cravings and can drive overeating, especially when we are feeling stressed.
High sugar intake is also associated with poor oral health and some of the deadliest diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.
Here are eight simple tips a person can use to help cut sugar from their diet:
1. Take it slow
One of the most important things to remember when changing your diet is to make it a gradual process.
Start by eliminating the most obvious sources of sugar. It’s quite easy to avoid baked goods (such as cakes, muffins, and brownies), lollies and sugary drinks.
Try reducing the sugar you add to tea or coffee until you need none at all. Building up to a very low or no-sugar diet can help retrain the palate, so you are less likely to crave the missing sugar.
2. Read product labels
Once you have cut out the most obvious sugar from your diet, turn your attention to reading product labels to help you identify types of sugars to avoid.
Manufacturers sneak sugar into products in many names and forms. There are at least 60 different names for sugar on food labels. The most common ones include:
- cane sugar
- brown sugar
- corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup
- evaporated cane juice
- invert sugar
- coconut sugar
- maple syrup
- agave syrup
- rice syrup
- apple or grape juice concentrate
Be wary of any item on an ingredients list ending with “-ose” - it is also a type of sugar. For example –
Sugar hides in many different supermarket foods so read the labels carefully. Ingredients are listed in order of the percentage they make up in the product. A product that lists sugar as its first ingredient has a far higher percentage of sugar than one that lists sugar last.
3. Avoid simple carbohydrates
Simple carbs include white flour, white pasta, and white rice. Your body quickly breaks down the carbohydrates in these foods into sugar.
You can usually replace simple carbs with whole grain options.
4. Avoid artificial sugars
Artificial sugars are much sweeter than sugar but contain few or no calories.
However, eating artificial sugars can trick the body into thinking it is actually eating sugar. This can intensify your sugar cravings, making it more difficult for you to stick to your goal of minimising or quitting sugar.
It’s best to avoid artificial sugars such as:
You can also look for the chemical names of these sweeteners on ingredients lists, especially in anything marketed as low sugar, low calorie, or diet food.
Chemical names include:
- acesulfame K or acesulfame potassium
5. Swap out the sugary drinks
Sweetened drinks are a significant source of added sugars. These include softdrink, specialty coffee, iced teas, and fruit juices.
Replacing these drinks with unsweetened herbal tea, coffee without sugar, mineral water, or just water will help you stay hydrated without increasing sugar intake.
6. Eat whole foods rather than processed foods
Processed foods are more likely to contain refined ingredients or added sugars so focus on eating whole and complete foods like:
- lean meats, poultry, or tofu
- whole, unprocessed grains, and legumes
- nuts and seeds
You may choose to keep a small amount of dairy in your diet, such as plain yogurt, simple cheeses, and milk.
7. Plan your meals
Sticking to a diet with no plan is difficult. When you feel hungry, it is tempting to reach for a sugary snack if you do not have nutritious meals and healthy alternatives readily available.
8. Spice it up
The palate often misses sugar because it has no other flavours to replace it. However, you can easily add sweet tasting herbs and spices to replace sugar.
Try cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and vanilla. These are delicious additions to coffee, oatmeal, or yogurt.
9. Cut back sugar when baking
For cakes, brownies and muffins, substitute unsweetened applesauce for sugar (use an equal amount). Also consider using extracts like almond, vanilla, orange or lemon instead of sugar.
When baking cookies, cut the sugar called for in your recipe by one-third to one-half. Often you won’t even notice the difference.
Natural Substitutes for Sugar
Most people consume way too much sugar without even realizing it.
Fortunately, there are many ways to sweeten foods without adding sugar to them.
Consider the following alternatives to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Stevia is a natural sweetener extracted from the leaves of a South American shrub.
Stevia is 100% natural, contains zero calories, and has no known adverse health effects. It has been shown to lower blood sugar and blood pressure levels.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol with a sweetness similar to sugar. It is extracted from corn or birch wood and found in many fruits and vegetables.
It contains 40% fewer calories than sugar and is generally safe for people but can be highly toxic to dogs.
Many natural sugar alternatives eg coconut sugar, maple syrup, molasses and honey contain a few more nutrients than regular sugar, but your body still metabolizes them the same way so still consume them in moderation.
Sugar substitutes to avoid
Some alternative sweeteners may cause more harm than good and even be unhealthier than sugar.
Produced by the agave plant. Despite being marketed as a healthy alternative, agave nectar contains even more fructose than sugar and should be avoided.
High fructose corn syrup
This is often used to sweeten processed foods and soft drinks.
It’s very high in fructose which can increase your risk of weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and other serious diseases like cancer.
Keep an eye out for it and avoid it as much as possible.
Health benefits of eliminating/reducing sugar
Reducing sugar intake and eating a healthier diet of whole foods may help you
- lose weight and prevent obesity
- have clearer skin and reduced risk of skin cancer
- have less mood swings
- reduce inflammation in the body
- reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes
- be less susceptible to heart disease
- reduce the risk of some cancers
If going ‘cold turkey’ is too daunting, think about having a sugar-free day each week, then increase it to two sugar-free days each week and so on.
To cut sugar completely out of your diet would require never eating fruit, dairy and some vegetables again – it’s not practical or sensible and could do more harm than good.
As with most things in life, moderation is key. A piece of birthday cake or occasional treat won’t do any harm – it’s excessive consumption of sugar that leads to health problems.
Use these hints and tips to make it easier to reduce the sugar in your life.
After all, you are probably sweet enough!