What Is the Sugar Busters Diet?

Sugar busters 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 Sugar Busters diet focuses on eliminating refined carbohydrates and high glycemic index foods as a means of losing weight. As the name suggests, those following the diet cut out sweets, many processed products, and other foods that can cause blood sugar levels to spike.

This diet became popularized by the 1995 book, "Sugar Busters! Cut Sugar to Trim Fat" by H. Leighton Steward, Sam S. Andrews, Morrison C. Bethea, and Luis A. Balart. All but Steward are medical doctors. In 2002, the authors published a follow-up book, "The New Sugar Busters! Cut Sugar to Trim Fat." There are also cookbooks, a shopping guide, and a kids' edition.

The Sugar Busters eating plan eliminates added sugars, restricts carbohydrates, and emphasizes the consumption of most (but not all) fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, low-fat dairy products, and healthy fats. The program is based on consuming foods with a low glycemic index (GI) to maintain optimal blood sugar levels. High GI foods tend to raise blood sugar, which often factors into overeating and weight gain.

Though the diet is relatively balanced and may promote weight loss, it restricts certain healthy foods and lacks scientific evidence. Learn more about the Sugar Busters diet to determine whether this program is the right choice for you.

What Experts Say

"At its core, Sugar Busters balances low-glycemic carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Experts agree the emphasis on eating a variety of unprocessed food is wise—but disagree that you need to eliminate all the 'forbidden foods,' like bananas and beets."
Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

What Can You Eat?

The Sugar Busters diet recommends that about 40% of calories in the diet come from high fiber, low glycemic carbohydrates. In addition, 30% of daily calories should come from lean protein sources like chicken and fish, and about 30–40% of calories from fat (primarily unsaturated fats). Low glycemic index (GI) foods have a value of 55 or less. These foods include most fruits and vegetables, whole grains, some dairy products, and healthy fats like nuts and olive oil.

What You Need to Know

While the rules on the Sugar Busters diet seem fairly straightforward, the program does also allow for some flexibility with the percentages. This could generate confusion around certain foods and how much you should eat in order to meet your goals. For instance, the creators of the program state that you can consume as much as 50–55% of calories from carbs, but they don't offer recommendations for how to adjust your fat and protein intake.

The Sugar Busters diet books don't offer specific measurements for portions, but simply recommend that you consume one plate of food at mealtime and that the plate should not be overly full. Guidelines suggest that you put reasonable portions on the plate and don’t go back for seconds.

People on the Sugar Busters diet can consume foods throughout the day according to their preference. They can eat anywhere from three to six meals per day, but the authors advise no eating after 8 p.m. They also suggest that fruits and juices (those that are allowed) should be consumed separately from other foods.

The Sugar Busters diet books can be helpful resources to reference as you learn which foods are considered high- and low-glycemic.

What to Eat
  • Lower-glycemic fruits and vegetables

  • Whole grains

  • Nuts and legumes

  • Lean meats

  • Eggs

  • Fish and seafood

  • Low-fat dairy products

What Not to Eat
  • High-glycemic fruits and vegetables

  • Refined carbohydrates

  • Sugar

  • Beer

  • Caffeine (in excess)

Lower-Glycemic Fruits and Vegetables

Some fresh, canned, and frozen fruits and vegetables are included in this diet except for the ones listed as high-glycemic. For example, canned fruits should not be packed in syrup. But this is an area where it's easy to get confused about which foods to include and which ones to avoid. For example, sweet potatoes are listed as a compliant food when they can actually be a high glycemic food. Sweet potatoes have a glycemic index of 44 when boiled, but 94 when baked.

Whole Grains

Whole grains, such as brown rice and oatmeal, are permitted, as are products made with 100% whole grain flour. The authors explain that “wheat flour” is not whole grain flour. The ingredients list should state that flour is 100% whole wheat to be compliant. Grain products should also not contain added sugars.

Nuts and Legumes

Legumes (including many different types of beans) are a good source of protein and fiber and are lower in calories. They are an acceptable carbohydrate on this diet. Nuts and nut butters are also permitted, but read ingredient lists on nut butters closely and avoid those that contain added sugar.

Meats, Fish, and Eggs

The diet advises eating lean meats, removing the skin from poultry, and trimming the fat from lean beef, lamb, and pork. All fish and seafood are allowed, as are whole eggs. However, no breading is allowed on any meat or seafood products. Those on the Sugar Busters diet should also avoid meat cured in sugar (such as bacon and ham).

Low-Fat Dairy Products

Unsaturated fat is emphasized, but saturated fat is not forbidden. Butter is acceptable in moderation, for example, as are cream and cheese. Nonetheless, saturated fat should not comprise more than 10% of the diet. And low-fat dairy products should not contain added sugar.

High-Glycemic Fruits and Vegetables

High glycemic fruits and vegetables to avoid include bananas, raisins, pineapple, most root vegetables (white potatoes, beets, parsnips) as well as products made from those foods, like potato chips. Carrots are acceptable in moderation, as are 100% fruit juices that contain no added sugar.

Refined Carbohydrates

The diet has a list of refined carbohydrate foods that should be avoided, including white rice, white flour, and products made with white flour such as bread, cake, cookies, crackers, pretzels, doughnuts, bagels, and muffins. Whole grain pasta is allowed. Consumers may also want to consider legume pasta, as it includes more fiber and nutrients than refined pasta.

Sugar

Added sugar is off-limits. Honey, syrups, and products with added sugar are to be avoided. Readers are advised to avoid jams, jellies, some salad dressings, sauces (like ketchup and teriyaki sauce), soft drinks, and juice-based beverages that include added sugar.

Artificially-sweetened soft drinks, pure fruit jams and jellies, sugar-free ice cream, and chocolate (at least 60% cacao) are allowed in moderation. Caffeinated beverages should be limited to two to three cups per day. While beer is not permitted, the occasional glass of dry red wine with a meal is acceptable.

Sample Shopping List

Shopping for foods on the Sugar Busters diet is pretty straightforward: avoid high GI foods (over 55) and balance your intake of protein, carbs, and fats according to your personalized plan. Steer clear of most packaged foods since they often contain added sugars and other artificial ingredients. In general, stick to real, whole foods whenever possible.

While what you eat on this plan is up to you, the following shopping list offers suggestions for getting started. Note this is not a definitive shopping list and there may be other foods that you prefer.

  • Lean protein (chicken, lean beef, pork tenderloin, salmon, halibut, shrimp)
  • Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard, arugula)
  • Veggies (broccoli, asparagus, celery, cucumber, peppers, spinach, tomatoes)
  • Whole fruits (grapefruit, apple, peach, orange, grapes, cherries, strawberries)
  • Whole grains (barley, brown rice, oat bran, whole-grain pasta, wheat tortillas)
  • Legumes (black beans, lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, split peas)
  • Healthy fats (avocados, walnuts, almonds, pecans, olive oil)
  • Low-fat dairy products (milk or dairy-free alternative, plain yogurt)
  • Eggs

Sample Meal Plan

If you've relied on packaged or prepared foods, cooking your own meals from scratch may seem like a daunting process. But if you decide to follow the Sugar Busters diet and are adhering to its dietary restrictions, then you will likely spend more time in the kitchen cooking. Fortunately, there are many fresh and simple meals you can enjoy at home that are relatively easy to prepare.

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 Sugar Busters diet could look like. You can accompany your meals with water, 100% fruit juice, or the occasional glass of dry red wine at dinner. Note that if you do choose to follow this program, there may be other meals that work better for you.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Simple and clear

  • Rules offer some flexibility

  • High in fiber and nutrients

  • Low in saturated fat

  • Accessible

Cons
  • Some contradictions in book

  • No maintenance phase

  • Lacks guidance

  • Restricts healthy foods

  • Questionable science

The Sugar Busters diet encourages healthy habits like choosing whole foods over processed foods and added sugars, which may be helpful for weight loss. However, there are some drawbacks to this plan. Review the pros and cons to help inform your decision about whether this is the right diet for you.

Pros

Simple and Easy to Follow

Most foods are a "yes," "no," or "sometimes" on this plan. Counting carbs or calories is not required, which makes it simple to follow. There are no diet phases and no measuring methods are required. To follow the basic diet, you just need to be able to identify certain food ingredients on product labels and in recipes then avoid the foods that are not compliant. You'll also need to become familiar with low-GI foods.

Plan Offers Some Flexibility

The Sugar Busters diet allows some leeway on the daily percentage of carbs (from 40% to 50% or even 55%), so you may be able to modify it to suit your individual preferences.

Provides Adequate Nutrition

Getting 40% of your calories from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains makes it easy to eat a nutrient-rich diet that is high in fiber and phytonutrients. The diet can be a nutritious eating plan for most people. It may be appropriate for those who have diabetes, but everyone reacts to carbohydrates differently. Be sure to follow your doctor's advice for managing your blood sugar with diet and insulin.

Low In Saturated Fats

The Sugar Busters book authors urge readers to consume less saturated fat, although the plan doesn’t place the same emphasis on this habit as other low-carb diets. Research is mixed concerning the intake of saturated fats , but a lower intake of saturated fats is still recommended by health organizations including the American Heart Association.

Accessible

While you will need a copy of the book to be able to follow this diet, the foods you'll eat are readily available at most grocery stores to suit your budget. You do not need to invest in any special ingredients or supplements.

Many of the foods that are eliminated on the Sugar Busters plan are commonly consumed foods. While the rules are relatively simple, the eating plan itself may not be easy for some people to stick to.

Cons

Contradictions

The book has a lot of good information in it, but there are also discrepancies that readers may find confusing. You might scan the food and meal lists but then find additional information in the text that contradicts the items on the lists. For example, the approved food lists include butter, cream, and cheese. But if you read the text, the authors suggest that you limit saturated fat. No guidance is provided for how to limit saturated fat or how much it should be restricted.

Information about fruit is equally confusing. The lists don’t tell you what specific fruits to avoid. The information is included in the text—it's just difficult to find.

No Maintenance Phase

Unlike some other low-carb plans, there is no maintenance phase to this diet. The idea is to keep eating this way indefinitely, which may be a challenge for some people.

Lacks Guidance

Without one-on-one guidance from a nutritionist or registered dietician, adjusting this diet to adequately meet the needs of an individual can be a challenge. This is especially an issue when it comes to carbohydrates because different people have different tolerances to glucose.

Restricts Some Healthy Foods

Despite the variation in percentages, the non-compliant foods don't change. So if you love bananas, potatoes, or pineapple, this diet might not be the right choice for you.

Lack of Scientific Evidence

This diet relies on the glycemic index which has come under scrutiny by researchers and other experts. The Sugar Busters diet does not use the glycemic index consistently.

The Sugar Busters diet includes some foods with a GI range close to or exceeding the glycemic index of sucrose—one of the highest GI foods. This puts the credibility of this program into question.

Is the Sugar Busters Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

The Sugar Busters diet is reminiscent of other low-carb eating plans and low sugar diets. It is less restrictive than the first phase of the Atkins diet, which cuts carbs more drastically. The South Beach diet is another low-carb and low-sugar plan that uses the glycemic index to determine which carbs are acceptable to eat. There's also the Protein Power diet, which is a high-protein, low-carb diet with a moderate intake of fats that relies on carb and protein counting.

The Sugar Busters program has many of the elements of a healthy, balanced diet, according to dietary guidelines set for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The plan recommends a balanced mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fat from a range of foods, and emphasizes whole grains over refined grains—a recommendation shared by the USDA and other health organizations.

But Sugar Busters deviates from federal guidelines by banning a number of healthy foods, rather than recommending them in moderation. In addition, the Sugar Busters diet is lower in carbs than what health experts recommend for a balanced diet. The USDA advises adults to consume between 45–65% of calories from carbohydrates, which is higher than what is allowed on the Sugar Busters plan, which is only about 40% of calories from complex carbohydrates at baseline (unless you choose to consume more).

USDA guidelines recommend a target of about 2,000 calories per day for weight maintenance and about 1,500 calories a day for weight loss, but these numbers vary depending on factors such as age, weight, sex, height, and level of physical activity. Despite that most nutritionists recommend counting calories to stay within your recommended range, there is no particular calorie count associated with the Sugar Busters diet. Use this calculator to determine the right number of calories to meet your goals.

The Sugar Busters diet is generally nutritionally balanced, although experts agree that eliminating certain healthy foods isn't necessary for weight loss or weight maintenance.

Health Benefits

Many people choose to follow low-carb and low-sugar diets to lose weight. In fact, a 2006 survey of more than 9,000 Americans following low-carb, high-protein diets (LCHP) like Sugar Busters, the Zone Diet, and Atkins showed a significant rate of weight loss among respondents, with 34% reporting an average loss of around 20 pounds. In addition, 40% of male and 30% of female respondents reported that they followed an LCHP diet long-term, which speaks to the sustainability of a low sugar lifestyle.

The health benefits of reducing your sugar intake are well-supported by scientific research and include a reduced risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. A diet low in added sugars is also associated with improved heart health and reduced risk for metabolic syndrome and coronary disease. The basis of the Sugar Busters diet is about choosing low-glycemic foods to help regulate blood sugar, which is important for heart health, according to the American College of Cardiology.

Health Risks

While there are no common health risks associated with the Sugar Busters diet, experts recommend approaching this plan with caution since the method eliminates healthy foods and lacks scientific evidence to justify these restrictions.

Additionally, restrictive eating plans without personalized guidelines can create unhealthy eating habits and nutritional imbalances. Since there is no calorie counting on the Sugar Busters diet, it's important to make sure you're still getting enough calories each day from a variety of nutrient-dense foods to maintain healthy blood sugar levels and balanced nutrition.

A Word From Verywell

Sugar Busters has both positive and negative features. It's healthy to limit refined carbs and emphasize whole grains and nutrient-rich, high-fiber, low-calorie foods. But eliminating nutritious fruits and vegetables because of their glycemic index is probably unnecessary. Whether you choose Sugar Busters or another plan, it's wise to discuss your diet plans with your healthcare provider, especially if you have a condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease.

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, 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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