What Is the Low Sugar Diet?

The Low Sugar diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

The low sugar diet involves reducing your intake of added sugars and sweeteners, as well as foods that contain natural sugars. A no-sugar diet is more difficult since it would mean not consuming many fruits and vegetables, which also contain important nutrients like dietary fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants.

Not only is a low sugar diet more manageable than a no-sugar diet for the long term, but it also comes with health benefits like reducing the risk of certain diseases. 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. 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.

Long-term and excessive intake of sugary beverages and refined sugars can lead to over-consumption and negatively impacts your overall caloric intake, which can create a domino-like effect on your health with the potential to cause or exacerbate a number of health complications. For instance, excess sugar in the body can turn into fat deposits which could lead to fatty liver disease.

Not only can a low sugar diet help you lose weight, but this lifestyle can also help you manage and/or prevent diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, reduce inflammation, and even improve your mood and the health of your skin.

It could be said that the low sugar diet is (at least in part) a response to the low-fat diets that preceded it. Starting in the 1960s, many physicians believed that a diet consisting of less fat could help people experiencing poor health; this thought was then extended to people in good health and people looking to lose weight. By the 1990s, manufacturers began offering a variety of low-fat and no-fat food products. But in exchange for the fat, these foods often 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 with diabetes or heart disease, cutting back on added sugar is beneficial to everyone. A low-sugar approach is a key tenet among other popular health-conscious diets including the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the Sugar Busters diet.

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

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

What Can You Eat?

As a general rule of thumb, low sugar diets call for avoiding added sugars and foods that are high in carbohydrates that break down into sugar in the body.

The low sugar diet isn’t too regimented as far as the timing of meals—the important thing is to maintain your blood sugar levels so that you don’t become sluggish as a result of low energy. To maintain energy, these plans call for eating every three to four hours. Several small meals throughout the day is an ideal schedule, and eating more protein and fiber can keep you fuller for longer periods of time.   

Eat foods that keep you fuller longer. Try adding lean and healthy proteins to your breakfast with some poached eggs and greens like spinach or mixed salad greens. Snack on healthy fats such as nuts and seeds.

What You Need to Know

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 you buy can help a great deal.

Additionally, having a firm understanding of what foods to eat and what foods to avoid will make the low sugar lifestyle much more doable. With many sugar alternatives available and numerous low sugar recipes, eating a low sugar diet is easier than ever.

To succeed on a 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.

What to Eat
  • 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

What Not to Eat
  • 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

What to Eat

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 sources of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C and potassium. Berries are also an 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 with the low sugar diet. Lean protein choices are especially helpful when it comes to satiety, helping you feel fuller for longer.

Herbs and Spices

Flavorings like cumin, turmeric, and cinnamon can be very beneficial in sticking to a low sugar diet.

Not only do herbs and spices help with seasoning and providing sugar-free options when preparing food, but some herbs and spices have been shown to help lower blood sugar levels in individuals with diabetes.

What Not to Eat

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 unsuspecting items like ketchup.

Sugary Drinks

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

Packaged Snack Foods

Packaged foods are often filled with added sugars that you may not realize you’re consuming. Foods that are labeled as low fat are some of the biggest culprits as they tend to be filled with more sugar to improve the taste. Whole-fat options are commonly a better choice for someone trying to limit sugar intake. You don’t have to avoid packaged snack foods completely while following a low sugar diet, 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.

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

Modifications

A low sugar diet is ideal for even the healthiest individuals. The fact of the matter is that 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.

A low sugar lifestyle 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 recommends 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 options. 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.

Sample Shopping List

A low sugar diet emphasizes whole fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and especially whole grains. While what you eat on this plan is up to you, the following shopping list offers suggestions for getting started. Note that this is not a definitive shopping list and there may be other foods that you prefer.

  • Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard, arugula)
  • Veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, eggplant, carrots)
  • Fresh and frozen fruits (grapefruit, oranges, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries)
  • Lean protein (chicken, cuts of beef, ground beef, salmon, halibut, shrimp)
  • Whole grains (quinoa, barley, amaranth, brown rice, couscous)
  • Legumes (black beans, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans)
  • Healthy fats (avocados, walnuts, almonds, cashews, chia seeds, flaxseeds, olive oil)
  • Dairy products (milk, feta cheese, parmesan, unsweetened yogurt, cottage cheese)
  • Eggs
  • Dried herbs and spices (turmeric, paprika, oregano, cumin, sea salt)

Sample Meal Plan

There are myriad possibilities for creative and delicious meals that adhere to the low-sugar lifestyle. The following three-day meal plan is not all-inclusive but should give you a general sense of what a few days on a well-balanced low sugar diet could look like. Note that if you do choose to follow this diet, there may be other meals that are more appropriate for your tastes, preferences, and budget.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Aids weight loss

  • Promotes heart health

  • Improved mental health

  • Lowers risk of diabetes

  • Flexible and customizable

  • Easy and plentiful recipes

Cons
  • May not fuel intense workouts

  • Requires detailed label reading

  • Increased risk of disordered eating

This diet aims to achieve balance in your meals and overall lifestyle. But there are also a few drawbacks. Review the pros and cons so you can make an informed decision.

Pros

  • Aids weight loss: Reducing sugar intake has been shown to help with weight loss and overall well-being; overconsumption of refined sugars is associated with overconsumption of calories, increasing the risk of obesity and visceral fat, both of 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). Research shows that lowering bad LDL cholesterol can help reduce the risk for heart disease.
  • Lowers risk of type 2 diabetes: While sugar consumption isn’t the sole cause of diabetes, eating less of it does lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. High sugar intake that leads to the overconsumption of calories can cause weight gain, which in turn greatly increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Flexible and customizable: 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, resulting in an abundance of recipes suited to fit the needs of this diet.

Cons

  • May not fuel 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 that intense exercise requires a high sugar diet—rather that high-intensity training may periodically require more carbohydrates than a typical low sugar diet includes.
  • Requires detailed label reading: While it may be tedious, this diet requires that you identify sugar on food labels and be on the lookout for sugar in foods that you may not expect. Hidden added sugars are common in a great deal of the products from salad dressings and sauces to snack foods and beverages.
  • Increased risk of disordered eating: Similar to any other diet that involves being acutely 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 many, it's not appropriate for everyone. Modify as needed and create a plan that will work for you.

Is the Low Sugar Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy, and protein as part of a healthy, balanced diet. 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
  • Healthy 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 a no-go with the low sugar diet, in line with the USDA dietary guidelines.

There are some key differences between the low sugar diet and USDA guidelines:

  • 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, the 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 grain consumption whole grains, 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 USDA's guidelines on this topic would be in the best interest of someone on the low sugar diet.

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.

USDA guidelines state that 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.

Health Benefits

The health benefits of a low sugar diet are well-documented. In addition to promoting weight loss, research shows that cutting back on sugar can help manage and/or prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Reducing your sugar intake can also help protect the body against inflammation, regulate your mood, and even improve the health of your skin.

Health Risks

While there are no known health risks associated with a low sugar diet, it's important that you make sure you're still getting enough calories, especially if cutting back on carbohydrates is part of your eating plan. When sugar is metabolized, it becomes fuel or energy for the body. Without enough fuel, your body's blood sugar (glucose) levels could drop, causing headaches, tiredness, and weakness, among other concerns.

If you start to feel faint and think your blood sugar might be low, eat a serving of fruit containing natural sugars from carbohydrates such as an apple, banana, or orange. You could also drink a glass of pineapple or cranberry juice.

If you decide to follow a low-sugar diet, it's a smart idea to monitor your caloric intake to ensure you're getting enough energy from nutrient-dense foods each day.

A Word From Verywell

The low sugar diet can benefit both those with certain health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, as well as those seeking to maintain a well-balanced, healthy diet. 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 use), exercise, and even relationships can cause changes in your health.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, and budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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