What Is the Sugar Busters Diet?

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Sugar Busters diet foods
Verywell / Joshua Seong

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 rise.

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

Background

This diet was first popularized in 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. The authors published a follow-up book in 2002 titled The New Sugar Busters! Cut Sugar to Trim Fat. There are also cookbooks, a shopping guide, and a kids' edition.

How It Works

Authors of the diet recommend that about 40% of calories in the diet come from high fiber, low glycemic carbohydrate, 30% from protein, and about 30% to 40% from fat (primarily unsaturated). They also state that people may consume as much as 50% to 55% of calories from carbohydrate. However, they don't say how to adjust fat and protein intake if you increase carbohydrate to those levels.

The books don't give specific measurements for portions, but simply recommend that you consume one plate of food at mealtime and that the plate should not be over-full. They suggest that you put reasonable portions on the plate and don’t go back for seconds.

What to Eat

Compliant Foods
  • Lower-glycemic fruits and vegetables

  • Whole grains

  • Nuts and legumes

  • Lean meats

  • Eggs

  • Fish and seafood

  • Low-fat dairy products

Non-Compliant Foods
  • 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 on 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 readers may get confused about which foods to include and which ones to avoid. For example, sweet potatoes are listed as a compliant food. But they can 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. Authors explain that “wheat flour” is not a whole grain flour. 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, with lower calories. They are considered to be a "good" carbohydrate on this diet. Nuts and nut butters are also acceptable, but watch ingredient lists on nut butters and avoid those that contain added sugar.

Meats, Fish, and Eggs

The diet advises eating lean meats, removing the skin from poultry and trimming 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 (a newer addition to the market) as it includes more fiber and nutrients than refined pasta.

Sugar

Added sugar is off-limits. Honey, syrups, and products with added sugar are also 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.

Beer

While beer is not permitted, one alcoholic beverage with a meal is acceptable. Dry red wine is preferred.

Caffeine

Limit caffeine to two to three cups of caffeinated beverage per day, and fewer is better.

Recommended Timing

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.

Resources and Tips

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

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Simple and clear

  • High in fiber and nutrients

  • Low in saturated fat

  • Accessible

Cons
  • Some contradictions in book

  • Inflexible

  • Questionable science

Pros

Simplicity

There are no diet phases and no counting or measuring methods are required. In fact, very little special knowledge is needed. 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. Of course, many of the foods that are eliminated on this diet are commonly consumed foods. So this diet is not necessarily easy. But the rules are relatively simple.

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-Fat

Book authors urge readers to consume less saturated fat, although Sugar Busters 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.

Accessibility

While you will need a copy of the book to be able to follow this diet, the foods you'll eat are readily available. You do not need specialty ingredients or supplements.

This diet has many of the elements of a healthy, balanced diet. For example, the program encourages readers to choose whole grains over refined grains—a recommendation shared by the USDA and other health organizations. Healthy eating habits like these may be helpful for weight loss. However, there are some drawbacks.

Cons

Contradictions

The book has a lot of good information in it, but there are also discrepancies that readers may find confusing.

For example, readers may 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, authors suggest that you limit saturated fat. No guidance is provided for how to limit saturated fat or now 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—just difficult to find.

Inflexibility

There is no way to adjust this diet for individual variation. This is especially an issue when it comes to carbohydrates, because different people have different tolerances to glucose.

Lack of Scientific Evidence

This diet relies on the glycemic index which has come under scrutiny and has been questioned by researchers and other experts. And Sugar Busters does not use the glycemic index consistently. There certain allowed foods that have a GI range close to or exceeding the glycemic index of sucrose—one of the highest GI foods.

How It Compares

The Sugar Busters diet is similar to other low-carb diets. It also has many elements of a healthy, balanced eating plan.

USDA Recommendations

Variety

The Sugar Busters diet recommends a balanced mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fat from a range of foods, although the percents vary slightly from USDA guidelines (depending on which numbers you use). The guidelines recommend that adults consume between 45% and 65% of calories from carbohydrate. The biggest difference is the way the Sugar Busters diet places an outright ban on a number of foods, rather than recommending them in moderation.

Calories

The USDA guidelines recommend a rough target of about 2000 calories per day for weight maintenance. There is no particular calorie count associated with the Sugar Busters diet. Instead, users are encouraged to look at the makeup of their calories (40% complex carbohydrates, 30% protein, 30% fat).

Similar Diets

Here's how Sugar Busters compares to some other low-carb plans.

Sugar Busters Diet

  • Nutrition: This diet is generally nutritionally balanced, although experts say eliminating certain foods completely isn't necessary.
  • Ease of use: On this diet, most foods are a "yes," a "no," or a "sometimes."
    Counting carbs or calories is not required, which makes it pretty simple to follow.
  • 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 a bit. But the non-compliant foods don't change, so if you love beer or potatoes or pineapple, this diet might not be right for you.
  • Sustainability: 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.

Atkins Diet

  • Nutrition: Especially in its first phase, the Atkins diet cuts carbs more dramatically than Sugar Busters. In its original form, the diet seemed to recommend too much saturated fat, but the diet has been modified over the years to emphasize lean protein and unsaturated fat instead.
  • Ease of use: People on the Atkins diet must learn how to count carbs, which can be tricky.
  • Flexibility: The Atkins diet is highly structured, with its carb-counting requirements and a four-step process to get from beginning (induction phase) to end (maintenance).
  • Sustainability: The Atkins diet has a maintenance phase, so after initial weight loss and adjustment to a lower-carb lifestyle, users are meant to continue with the plan indefinitely.

South Beach Diet

  • Nutrition: Like Sugar Busters, the South Beach diet is a low-carb and low-sugar plan that also uses glycemic index to help determine which carbs are okay to eat. Beyond that, it encourages a balanced mix of carbs, protein, and healthy fats.
  • Ease of use: Instead of counting net carbs as on Atkins, the South Beach diet tracks carbs via portion size and number of portions. As with Sugar Busters, certain foods with added sugar are off-limits completely.
  • Flexibility: When compared to Atkins, South Beach is a little more flexible. Unlike Sugar Busters, both plans have a phased approach that is stricter in the beginning and then loosens as you learn how carbs affect your body.
  • Sustainability: After two phases of cutting carbs and slowly adding them back in, you reach the third or maintenance phase, which ideally continues indefinitely. If you have success in the first part of this or any low-carb diet, you may be motivated to continue. But it's hard to give up certain foods forever.

Protein Power Diet

  • Nutrition: Like the other low-carb diets, Protein Power includes all major food groups, so you should be able to get all the nutrients you need. As the name suggests, the Protein Power diet is a high-protein, low-carb diet with a moderate intake of fats.
  • Ease of use: This diet also relies on carb and protein counting. A revised version allows for tracking portions instead of grams, which is easier for most people.
  • Flexibility: As with the other diets, complex carbs are the preferred source of carbohydrate. You also consume more protein than you may be used to. There is no calorie counting.
  • Sustainability: Like Sugar Busters, this diet does not have phases. You spend about 30 days learning how to eat differently and what level of carbohydrates is right for you, and then you keep at it.

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.

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