A Beginner’s Guide to The Sugar-Free Diet
In the recent years, public awareness regarding sugar and its potential harmful effects is increasing, which means that a growing number of people start limiting their sugar consumption, or ditching sugar altogether, in order to concentrate on healthier food choices.
People in the States are now consuming less added sugar than before – 15% less compared to 1999, when the average American was consuming a whopping 111 g of sugar per day (and that’s just added sugar, we’re not even talking about carbs) – but at 94 g a day nowadays, that’s still a huge amount (1).
And, of course, an average value means that some people consume much more than that, while others consume much less (or none).
As more and more studies on the ill effects of sugar get published, many people are re-evaluating their relationship with sugar, refined carbs, or even carbs in general, which is also why low-carb diets are on the rise.
For many, ditching added sugar is already a big change in their eating habits, and even if they decide to not go low-carb, they can benefit from a sugar-free diet in a number of ways.
What is the Sugar-free Diet?
In short, the sugar-free diet is a diet where added sugar is completely eliminated, and sometimes naturally occurring sugars (such as, in fruits and vegetables) are also limited.
There isn’t a clear definition of what the sugar-free diet is (or isn’t) since different people can adapt a different level of strictness.
There are a number of approaches, based on what products and foods you decide to exclude from your diet, and different people might prefer one or another.
As with other forms of dieting, it isn’t a “one size fits all” way of eating, but rather an array of different strategies, that vary from very strict to less strict.
Nevertheless, all sugar-free diets share one thing in common – they exclude foods with added sugar, such as:
- pastries, baked goods, cookies
- chocolate & chocolate sweets
- cereal & some types of oatmeal
- sweetened tea
- fruit juices
- sports drinks
- flavoured yogurt
- frozen yogurt
- smoothies with added sugar
- tomato sauce & ketchup
- salad dressings & condiments
- pre-made and canned soups & frozen meals
- nut butters with added sugar
- some protein powders & bars
- many brands of beef jerky
This list is non-exhaustive, as sugar gets added to a huge number of products and dishes.
Your best bet is to always check the label (or ask the waiter, if you’re eating out). Beware that sugar is not always listed as “sugar” – there are plenty of other types of sugar that you might see on labels. More on that in a second.
Additionally, different types of sugar-free diets limit carbs to a different level, so you might try out different approaches and see what works best for you (and what is sustainable for you in the long run).
Natural sugars, or carbs, are present in a great number of foods, so completely limiting them is not realistic for most people (although there are, indeed, people who are following a Carnivore diet or a zero-carb diet).
Fruits and vegetables, for example, contain not only sugars but fiber and essential micronutrients that are necessary for optimal health. That’s also why they are generally considered healthy.
Of course, everything depends on context and on the amounts you eat – eating a kilo of grapes a day might undermine your efforts to improve your health by omitting the added sugar.
Because of the fiber and the water content in both fruits and vegetables, they are much more difficult to overeat than processed food.
Types of Added Sugar
A sugar-free diet would mean checking labels and making sure that no added sugar is present in what you’re buying.
In many cases sugar isn’t simply listed as sugar, though – there are plenty of different types of added sugars, and sometimes the names can be confusing.
Always check the label for any of these products:
- sugar, white sugar, granulated sugar
- brown sugar
- powdered sugar (sometimes also “confectioner’s powdered sugar”)
- raw sugar
- cane sugar
- invert sugar
- cane juice
- sugar cane juice
- coconut sugar
- high-fructose corn syrup
- corn syrup
- corn syrup solids
- corn sweetener
- malt sugar
- malt syrup
- maple syrup
- nectars, such as peach nectar, agave nectar, etc.
- fruit juice concentrates
Keep in mind that many processed foods actually have more than one type of sugar in them, in order to make it look like they contain less sugar overall.
Some resort to more “natural” types of sugar, such as honey, or raw sugar, or maple syrup. Keep in mind, however, that sugar is sugar, and that although these alternatives sound healthier, they aren’t.
How To Limit and Eliminate Sugar In Your Diet
If you want to start following a sugar free diet, here are some basic tips:
#1. Re-evaluate Your Relationship With The Taste Of Sweet & Processed Foods
The best strategy when starting a sugar-free diet might be to rethink your need for an added sweet taste to food, and to retrain your palate to enjoy food that is less sweet, and, most of all, to appreciate natural sweetness. Even cherry tomatoes can be quite sweet when they’re in season!
If you’re comparing fruit to candy, it’s clear which one will be sweeter. However, if you don’t indulge in sugary desserts for a while, you’ll start noticing how incredibly sweet some fruits actually are.
It’s still a good idea to not go crazy with fruits either, especially with the types that are high in carbs, but if you’re looking for healthier alternatives to dessert, a serving of a 1/2 cup of berries or an apple is much better than a muffin.
Additionally, limiting processed food is essential, as it often contains sugar, or other refined carbs – ketchup, salad dressing, store-bought marinades, pre-made soup, and frozen meals are some examples of food where you wouldn’t expect sugar to be one of the key ingredients, but it often is.
#2. Cooking Without Sugar
Some dishes include sugar as one of their ingredients – for example, the marinade for salmon is often made with brown sugar.
The same goes for other types of marinade, as well as for many sauces and some types of gravy. If a recipe calls for sugar, you will most likely be able to find online an alternative version of it that is sugar-free.
If you want to cook a dish that calls for sugar, before you start cooking, always read the full list of ingredients and all the steps, in order to figure out if and how sugar can be avoided.
If it’s an integral part of the recipe, you need to search for a sugar-free version of it before you begin.
Also, keep in mind that substituting sugar for honey, maple syrup, molasses, or the like, is still essentially the same thing as adding sugar.
If you’re making a dessert, your best bet would be to search for a keto or a paleo version of it, in order to find a sugar-free recipe.
There are plenty of amazing keto recipes with no sugar whatsoever, and we have many on our website too, just check out our “Recipes” section, if you need ideas!
#3. Remove Sugary Beverages From Your Diet
A huge portion of the sugar many people consume comes from the beverages they’re drinking – soda, iced tea, cappuccinos, frappuccinos and the like usually contain enormous amounts of sugar.
Your best bet would be to remove any beverages with added sugar from your diet, but if you find that too difficult, here are some ideas:
- Instead of soda, try sparkling water. For added flavour & taste, you can add lemon juice and a sweetener of choice. Diet soda is not ideal, but if it helps you do the transition and if you have it occasionally, it’s still an okay option, compared to traditional soda.
- Instead of adding sugar to your coffee or tea, use a sweetener, or learn to enjoy them without the added sweet taste. Frappuccinos and the like are best to be avoided altogether.
- Instead of iced tea, make your own homemade tea with no sugar. You can refrigerate it afterwards, or add ice to it.
- Fruit juices are best avoided altogether – while they may seem like a healthier alternative to soda, they still contain a ton of sugar and no fiber.
If your goal is weight loss, avoid drinking your calories, regardless of whether there is added sugar or not – real food is much more satisfying and will keep you fuller for longer. Your body is not adapted to properly register liquid calories and your satiety signals won’t reflect the calories you’re drinking.
Benefits of the Sugar-free Diet
The benefits of a sugar-free diet will depend on a few factors – how much sugar you were consuming prior to starting the diet, and what types of food you decide to consume once you embark on a no-sugar diet.
Regardless of their specific approach and views, all nutritionists, doctors and scientists who study food and nutrition, agree that what you eat has a huge impact on your health and well-being.
Although many of them have very different opinions on what’s optimal, they all tend to agree on the fact that added sugar has no real benefit, and that it’s nutritionally void.
If you were consuming lots of added sugar before, a sugar-free diet could be very beneficial for you.
By consuming less sugar, you’re lowering your risk for the following diseases and conditions:
- metabolic syndrome
- type 2 diabetes
- tooth decay
- heart disease
- fatty liver disease.
Additionally, you’ll feel better overall, due to the fact that your blood sugar levels will become more stable – for most people, this translates to better energy levels and not experiencing the post-meal slump that comes from the roller-coaster of unstable blood sugar levels due to a high sugar or excessive carb consumption. Moreover, your cognitive function & mood will improve gradually (2).
Your insulin sensitivity will improve, and you might also lose weight, and especially tummy fat, as insulin resistance is one of the contributing factors for gaining visceral fat (3).
Fat loss will depend on the caloric deficit that you create by removing sugar – the magic happens when you’re consuming less than what you’re burning (yeah, sorry – actually there is no magic, only physiology).
If a lot of your daily calories were coming from sugar, you’d probably be able to lower your daily calories without too much of an effort, and, most importantly, without feeling super hungry and deprived because of it. Added sugar is notoriously unsatisfying, so removing it will be relatively easy in terms of how hungry you feel.
Your skin will become clearer – unstable blood sugar levels contribute to inflammation, and once you give your body a chance to heal, you’ll notice how much better your skin tone and texture will look (4).
You’ll experience fewer cravings for sweets and for carbs in general. Usually, the more you feed a craving, the stronger it becomes. Our bodies and brains are not evolutionarily adapted to the hyper-palatable foods that are available almost anywhere you go.
Added Sugar vs. Natural Sugar
As discussed above, many foods have natural sugars in them. While it might be a good idea to limit your carb consumption to a certain level, naturally occurring sugars are something you don’t need to avoid completely. Even in very low-carb diets such as keto you still consume some carbs.
Many natural foods that are high in sugar are also high in fiber.
Take fruit, for example. While it might be a great idea to keep your carb intake to moderate or low, and therefore not to consume fruits in excess, either, they will almost certainly feel more satisfying and keep you fuller much better than candy.
Depending on the actual dieting strategy you wish to adopt, you might want to limit sources of natural sugar as well, or stick to a range that feels best for you.
Refined Carbs And High-carb Food That You Might Wish To Limit
If your goal is weight loss and better health, refined carbs are clearly not ideal, so you might wish to limit them, together with sugar.
White flour, bread, pasta, rice, cereals are best avoided, as they are mostly nutritionally void but contain lots of calories and have a strong effect on blood sugar levels.
Processed food, in general, is not optimal for health – the less you eat of it, the better you’ll feel. Try it for yourself – concentrate on whole, natural foods, eat adequate protein, eat veggies, don’t over-indulge in fruit, and see how you feel in a month or two. You’ll soon start seeing a number of positive effects.
Dried fruit and high-carb fruit is also something you might wish to limit, or eat only occasionally.
Sugar is still sugar, even when it’s naturally occurring, and dried fruit has much less volume, and therefore a much higher concentration of sugar in it – raisins, dried dates, cranberries are indeed quite sugary and not very filling, and some dried fruit has added sugar to it.
Other high-carb fruits that you might wish to eat in moderation, or limit altogether, are bananas, pineapples, pears, mangos, grapes.
Limiting grains is a matter of personal preference, and many people discover they feel much better without them – wheat in particular, but also other grains, seem to cause adverse reactions for many people.
If you wish to limit grains, but are not ready to make the transition yet, start with refined grains, such as white flour and white rice.
Additionally, you might want to look into other diets that take the no-sugar approach further, such as low-carb, keto, paleo or primal.
Sugar Alternatives – Natural and Artificial Sweeteners
We have covered sugar-free sweeteners and sugar alcohols before, and while there are some sweeteners that are still being scrutinized and might not be ideal, health-wise, there are still plenty of alternatives to sugar that you can safely use.
Natural sweeteners that you might wish to try out:
Artificial sweeteners are very controversial, but here are some that have undergone lots of research and were deemed safe to use in moderation. If you want to stay safe, it’s best to avoid them.
- Sucralose (not to be confused with sucrose, which is just a type of added sugar)
If you’re on a quest for an improved overall health, limiting added sugar is a great way to start. If you wish to go a step further, look into other diets that limit carbs and sugar, such as low-carb, Paleo, primal and keto.
Although you might miss sugar in the beginning – people who were eating lots of sugar sometimes experience a withdrawal period that can last a couple of days – and look for ways to substitute it, you’ll soon notice that you don’t need that much sweetness in your life.
Over-consuming sugar and processed food, in general might, make it seem difficult to switch to simple, natural, nutritious food. After all, processed food has been engineered to trick your brain into wanting more of it, while ignoring its natural satiety signals. Nevertheless, if you stick to it for a while, you’ll see how much better your body and mind will feel. Give it a try – it’s well worth it!
Once you adapt yourself to this diet, you might want to take it to another level, which is the low carb high fat ketogenic diet. Don’t forget to check our meal plan and food list whenever you need it.