What Is the Low Sugar Diet?

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The low sugar diet involves lowering your intake of added sugars and sweeteners, as well as foods containing natural sugars. A no-sugar diet would be very difficult and would mean not consuming many fruits and vegetables, which contain fiber and vital vitamins and antioxidants. But a low sugar diet is manageable and can help prevent diseases and health complications, ultimately leading to a healthier lifestyle. It may also help with weight loss.

The primary goal of a low sugar diet is to maintain a healthy level of glucose in the body. Long-term and excessive intake of sugary beverages and refined sugars that leads to the over-consumption of your overall caloric intake can act negatively in a domino-like effect in the body, leading to a number of health complications. A low sugar diet may help manage and/or prevent diabetes, heart disease and stroke, mood levels, weight loss, inflammation, and even the health of your skin.

What Experts Say

“A low-sugar diet focuses on reducing both natural and added sugar in your meals. Experts agree that limiting added sugar has numerous benefits, from weight maintenance to heart health. Keep in mind that foods with natural sugar, like fruit, can still be a part of a healthy diet.” 

Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

Background

While small amounts of natural sugar in a healthy person’s diet won’t cause catastrophic outcomes, higher-than-usual intakes can wreak havoc in the body. When sugar is metabolized, it becomes fuel or energy for the body. However, if excess amounts of sugar are consumed, the excess sugar may turn into fat deposits long-term which could lead to fatty liver disease, as well as other diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

The low sugar diet originates from the low-fat diet in some ways. Starting in the 1960s, many physicians believed that a diet consisting of less fat could help people suffering from poor health—but also people who were already healthy. By the 1990s, manufacturers were offering low-fat foods. But in exchange for the fat, these foods contained more sugar.

In the early 2000s, opinion began to shift in the direction of low carb and low sugar diets. While a low sugar diet is essential for those who suffer from diabetes or heart disease, making this lifestyle change is beneficial to all.

Following a low sugar diet can help you bring more attention to your sugar intake and create a healthier and more balanced way of eating. If you have a high risk for diabetes, currently diagnosed with pre-diabetes, or have diabetes this diet would be most beneficial.

How It Works

Eat foods that will keep you fuller longer. Avoid added sugars along with foods that are high in carbohydrates that break down into sugar in the body.

What to Eat

Compliant
  • Green leafy vegetables, raw or cooked

  • Fruit (citrus fruits and berries in particular)

  • Whole grains

  • Beans and legumes

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Fatty fish

  • Lean proteins

  • Herbs and spices

Non-Compliant
  • Fruits high on the glycemic index scale

  • White bread or flour

  • Refined sugars

  • Sugary drinks

  • Packaged snack foods, such as chips and pretzels

  • Alcohol, in excess

Compliant

Leafy Green Vegetables: These vegetables are packed with vitamins and nutrients and seem to have a very small impact on blood sugar levels. Spinach and kale are two excellent examples, both packing quite the punch with vitamin A, potassium, calcium, fiber, and protein. Other healthy and low sugar leafy vegetables include collard greens, cabbage, bok choy and broccoli.

Fruits: Citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruit are excellent source of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C and potassium. Berries are also excellent fruit choice on the low sugar diet; they are filled with antioxidants and vitamins.

Whole Grains: Whole grains have higher fiber and nutrient levels than white grains, making them a healthier substitute in the low sugar diet.

Beans and Legumes: Beans and legumes are an excellent way to add fiber and protein to a healthy diet while still curbing carbohydrate intake. Beans are a complex carbohydrate, and therefore take longer for the body to digest.

Sweet Potatoes: Sweet potatoes are a great alternative to white potatoes with their lower glycemic index (GI) level. They also provide vitamins A and C, fiber, and potassium.

Nuts and Seeds: Nuts contain healthy fatty acids. Walnuts in particular are extremely high in omega-3 fatty acids that are vital for a healthy heart and brain.

Fatty Fish: Fish is another excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which help to promote heart and brain health. Fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, albacore tuna, anchovies, halibut, and trout are excellent options.

Lean Proteins: Lean protein, such as chicken, is compliant on the low sugar diet, and very helpful because protein helps you feel fuller for longer.

Herbs: Flavorings like cumin, turmeric, and cinnamon can be very beneficial in sticking to a low-sugar diet. Not only will they help with seasoning and providing sugar-free options when preparing food, but some seasonings have been shown to help lower blood sugar blood sugar levels in individuals with diabetes.

Non-Compliant

White Bread or Flour: These should be avoided, as they have very high glycemic index levels. Opting for foods such as quinoa or whole-grain pasta is best.

Refined Sugars: Refined sugars provide empty calories with none of the added benefits that come from foods with natural sugars. If you’re going to allow yourself some sugar, natural is the way to go. Refined sugars can be found in packaged cookies, breakfast cereals, and even in unsuspecting items like ketchup.

Sugary Drinks: This rule goes hand-in-hand with no refined sugars. Sodas, juices, energy drinks, coffee drinks, and sweetened smoothies should be avoided while on the low sugar diet. 

Packaged Snack Foods: Packaged foods are filled with added sugars that you may not realize you’re consuming. Snack foods that are labeled as low fat are often filled with more sugar to improve the taste. Whole-fat options are actually better for someone trying to limit sugar intake. You don’t have to avoid packaged snack foods completely, but make sure to read the labels and check for sugar levels and sugar types before you buy.

Alcohol: Alcohol intake should be very limited on a low sugar diet, as it can interfere with blood sugar levels. If you do drink alcohol, avoid high sugar options such as champagne or dessert wine and opt for a dry red wine or dry spirits such as gin or vodka paired with soda water instead.

Recommended Timing

The low sugar diet isn’t too regimented as far as eating times go. The important part is to maintain blood sugar levels enough so that you don’t become sluggish as a result of low energy. To maintain energy, try to eat every three to four hours. Several small meals throughout the day is ideal, and adding protein and fiber can keep you fuller for longer periods of time.   

For example, add lean and healthy proteins to your breakfast with some poached eggs and greens such as spinach or mixed salad greens. Snack on healthy fats such as nuts and seeds.

The first few days will naturally be the hardest. Many aspects contribute to our craving of sugar, including lack of sleep, underconsumption of calories, macronutrient imbalance, emotional stress and a regular intake of sugar itself. To help with cravings, try getting more sleep, opt for healthy carbs, and find support.

Resources and Tips

One of the biggest tips that can help with sticking to the low sugar diet is to read labels. Many of us buy food items without taking a look at exactly what we’re eating. Taking the time to look for sugars hiding in the food that we buy can help a great deal.

Additionally, having a firm understanding of what foods to eat and what foods to avoid will make this diet so much easier. With many sugar alternatives out in the world and numerous low sugar recipes, eating a low sugar diet is easier than ever.

To have the most success with the low sugar diet, seek out whole foods and avoid processed and pre-packaged items. Eating whole foods will make it much easier to stick to a low sugar diet because they are satiating and full of nutrients.

Modifications

The low sugar diet is ideal for even the healthiest individual. The fact of the matter is, we should all be mindful of our sugar intake and work to keep it at a healthy level. Modifications can be made for those allergic to certain foods suggested in this diet, but overall the low sugar diet fits the needs of most.

The low-sugar diet emphasizes complex carbs, but you can choose from many options other than wheat, including amaranth and quinoa. Beans and starchy vegetables such as potatoes and carrots can also cover your fiber and carbohydrate needs.

The low sugar diet emphasizes fatty fish, nuts, and other common allergens. If you’re allergic to any of these, avoid them as usual and double up on something else. Just be sure that you are still covering all of the main food groups, ensuring a well rounded and healthy diet. 

While the low sugar diet doesn’t specifically call for eggs or dairy, both are good low sugar additions to this diet. However, if you are allergic to either, there are plenty of dairy alternatives and faux egg products on the market. Read labels carefully to make sure these products are safe for you.

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Weight loss

  • Promotes heart health

  • Improved mental health

  • Lowers risk of diabetes

  • Allows for customization

  • Easy and plentiful recipes

Cons
  • Not helpful for intense workouts

  • Can be complicated

  • Risks of disordered eating

Pros

Weight loss: Lowering sugar intake has been shown to help with weight loss and overall well-being.  The overconsumption of refined sugars leading to the overconsumption of calories may increase obesity and visceral fat, which can be harmful to internal organs.

Promotes heart health: A low sugar diet can also help a great deal with heart health by lowering blood pressure. Consuming less than 5% of your calories from added sugars may help with the raising of good cholesterol (HDL) and the lowering of bad cholesterol (LDL). This can also help prevent strokes and heart attacks.

Lowers risks of type 2 diabetes: While sugar isn’t the sole cause of diabetes, eating less of it lowers your risk for type 2 diabetes. High sugar intakes leading to the overconsumption of calories can cause weight gain, which in turn greatly increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Allows for customization: As long as you keep your meals balanced, modifications and substitutions can be done with the low sugar diet. If an allergy prevents you from eating a specific food, swap it out for something else on the recommended food list. Sugar is the main component you need to remove for this diet to work best, which still allows for an abundance of foods and ingredients that will allow you to stick to a balanced and healthy meal plan.

Easy and plentiful recipes: Lowering sugar intake has risen in popularity over the years, allowing for an abundance of recipes suited to fit the needs of this diet.

Allow this diet to work for you without making it seem like work. Don’t overthink it. This diet aims to achieve balance in your meals and overall lifestyle. But there are a few drawbacks.

Cons

Not helpful for intense workouts: If you’re training for a marathon or consistently doing rigorous workouts, this may not be the diet for you. Carbs break down into glucose in your body, acting as fuel for the muscles during high intensity workouts. This doesn’t mean you should splurge all the time, but the sugars found in energy and sport drinks can be helpful for building muscle.

Can be complicated: While it may be tedious, make sure to look out for sugar on food labels and be on the lookout for sugar in foods that you may not expect to have them. Hidden added sugars are hiding in a great deal of the products we buy on a daily basis. Better yet, aim to cook whole foods. It’s also helpful to make salad dressings and sauces at home instead of buying them so that you can control the sugar levels and ingredients.

Risk of disordered eating: Similarly to any other diet that involves being overly aware of your intake of certain foods, this diet can skirt the fine line between diet and obsession. The whole point of this diet is to live a healthier and more balanced lifestyle, so don’t become too caught up in labeling foods “good” or “bad.”

Take these cons into consideration before considering a low sugar diet. While it’s an ideal lifestyle choice for most, a few groups don’t quite fit. Modify as needed and create a plan that will work for you.

How It Compares

A low-sugar approach is apparent in many popular diets such as the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet and the Sugar Busters diet, most of which have the same goal.

USDA Recommendations

The federal dietary recommendations include five food groups: fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy, and protein. The key recommendations in the federal guidelines include:

  • A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
  • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils
  • Limited saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars, and sodium

The low sugar diet guidelines complement the federal dietary recommendations nicely. Both emphasize whole foods such as whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, a variety of lean proteins, and nuts and seeds versus processed foods.

Eating whole foods ultimately allows you to control the levels of sugar going into the food that you prepare. Added sugars are an obvious no-go with the low sugar diet, similar to the federal dietary guidelines.

There are some key differences between the two eating plans.

  • Sodium: The low sugar diet doesn’t address sodium intake.
  • Non-fat and low-fat dairy foods: The federal recommendations emphasize fat-free or low-fat dairy foods, while the low sugar diet encourages occasional full-fat dairy options as they tend to have less sugar than the low-fat options.
  • Low-glycemic fruits and vegetables: While the low sugar diet recommends eating fruits and vegetables, both fruits and vegetables eaten on this diet should be those that are less starchy, and lower on the glycemic index scale.
  • Whole grains: The federal recommendations suggest making half of grains whole, while the low sugar diet discourages consumption of any grains that are not whole.
  • Saturated fats: Saturated and trans fats aren’t specifically included in the low sugar diet, but as the overall theme of the diet is to create healthier eating choices, adhering to the federal dietary on this topic would be in the best interest of someone on the low sugar diet.

Calories

If you are following a low sugar diet (or any eating plan) with a goal of losing weight, it is important to first figure out exactly how many calories you should be eating per day. A weight loss calorie goal calculator can help you determine your daily caloric needs.

Most people need around 2,000 calories per day. Smaller-framed women and children may need less; men and very active people may need more. It’s important to remember that variables such as age, physical activity, height, and weight all play a part in determining your daily caloric intake.

Similar Diets

Mediterranean Diet

The low sugar diet and the Mediterranean diet are almost interchangeable, both stemming from the same philosophy. Both diets are unstructured, allowing for customization and modification. Both emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and herbs. The Mediterranean diet has been shown to help with heart disease and the lowering of cholesterol and the lowering of blood sugar for those with diabetes.

The main difference between the two diets is the specific fruits and vegetables that the low sugar diet recommends. The Mediterranean diet doesn’t specify fruits and vegetables low in starch and low on the glycemic index scale.

Perhaps the only drawback to both a Mediterranean diet and a low sugar diet is the cost of all of the fresh ingredients, and the time needed for meal prep.

DASH Diet

Similar to the low sugar diet, the DASH Diet focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats. The DASH Diet is an effort to stop hypertension over a long period of time. It is a lifestyle change rather than a short-term diet. The DASH Diet focuses a great deal on salt intake, the main culprit behind hypertension. 

The low sugar diet is similar to the DASH Diet in most ways. The main difference is that the low sugar diet doesn’t focus on salt consumption in particular. Both diets are relatively easy to follow and unrestrictive, but can be expensive due to the costs of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Sugar Busters Diet

The Sugar Busters diet is the most similar to the low sugar diet. The two emphasize whole fruits and vegetables low on the GI scale, lean proteins, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and whole grains. Sugar Busters focuses more on weight loss as a goal, whereas the low sugar diet focuses more on overall health, which often includes weight loss.

The Sugar Busters diet emphasizes exercise in addition to the diet in order to further promote weight loss. This diet is easy to follow and does not require calorie counting. 

A Word From Verywell

The low sugar diet can benefit both those suffering from conditions such as diabetes or heart disease and those simply looking to create a well balanced eating plan. The low sugar diet encourages the consumption of fresh, unprocessed food with the idea that this way of eating can easily become a long-term lifestyle.

While this diet can work well for some, not everyone benefits the same way. Athletes, for example, especially those partaking in high-intensity workouts, require higher carbohydrate and sugar intakes to fuel their muscles.

While changing your eating habits can help a great deal with physical and mental health, it is important to acknowledge that it isn’t the only solution. Sleep, lifestyle choices (such as smoking and alcohol us), exercise, and even relationships can cause changes in your health.

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