What is a sugar-free diet and how does it work?

Diets, General / Lifestyle choices

  9 Minutes
Are you looking to improve your health and reduce your risk of chronic diseases? Look no further than a sugar-free diet. Read on as we explore the ins and outs of a sugar-free diet and provide tips to help you transition to a healthier lifestyle. Whether you’re looking to lose weight, improve your overall health, or merely reduce your sugar intake, a sugar-free diet is an excellent place to start.

What is a sugar-free diet?

A sugar-free diet involves eliminating or reducing added sugars in your diet. Added sugars are any sugars or sweeteners added to foods or drinks during processing or preparation, including white sugar, brown sugar, honey, glucose syrup, and other sweeteners. This diet has gained popularity in recent years due to the harmful effects of excess sugar consumption on one’s health. By eliminating added sugars from your diet, you can improve your health and reduce your risk of chronic diseases.

Added sugars, such as sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup, are found in many foods and drinks, including soft drinks, fruit drinks, candy, baked goods, and processed foods. These added sugars provide calories but offer no nutritional benefits, which means they are “empty calories.” They also often lead to weight gain and have been linked to numerous health problems such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

One of the most significant benefits of a sugar-free diet is weight loss. By reducing your intake of added sugars, you can decrease your calorie intake and improve your body’s ability to burn fat. Furthermore, a diet low in added sugars can improve insulin sensitivity, which means, your body can better regulate blood sugar levels and reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

A sugar-free diet also promotes healthier eating habits by encouraging the consumption of whole, nutrient-dense foods. Foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins are all excellent sources of vitamins, minerals, and fibre. These foods can help you feel fuller for longer and reduce your overall calorie intake.

While eliminating added sugars can be challenging, there are many ways to make it easy. One approach is to read food labels and avoid products that contain added sugars. Additionally, cooking at home with whole ingredients will help you avoid hidden sugars in processed foods. Finally, replacing sugary drinks with water, unsweetened tea, or coffee can significantly reduce your daily sugar intake.

How does reducing added sugars from your diet improve your health?

Reducing or eliminating added sugars from your diet has many positive effects, which include weight loss, improved insulin sensitivity, lower risk of heart disease, better oral health, improved energy levels, and reduced inflammation. Here’s how:

  1. Weight loss. Added sugars are high in calories and can contribute to weight gain. Reducing or eliminating added sugar from your diet helps decrease calorie intake and promote weight loss.
  2. Better insulin sensitivity. Eating too many added sugars can lead to insulin resistance – a precursor to type 2 diabetes. By reducing your intake of added sugars, you can improve your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels and lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  3. Lower risk of heart disease. A diet high in added sugars leads to an increased risk of heart disease. When you reduce your intake of added sugars, you can lower your risk of heart disease and improve your heart health.
  4. Better oral health. Consuming too many added sugars can lead to tooth decay and gum disease. Eliminating added sugars can help improve your oral health and reduce your risk of dental problems.
  5. Energy levels. Added sugars can cause spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels, making you tired and sluggish. By reducing your intake of added sugars, you can stabilise your blood sugar levels and improve your energy levels throughout the day.
  6. Reduced inflammation. A diet high in added sugars can contribute to inflammation in the body, often linked to chronic diseases. Reducing your intake of added sugars can lower your inflammation levels and reduce your risk of chronic diseases.

By focusing on whole, unprocessed foods and reading food labels carefully, you can reduce your intake of added sugars and improve your overall health.

Is sugar addictive?

Is sugar addictive

Many people use sugary foods in ways that aren’t healthy. Even though it may not be an actual addiction, a few tell-all signs that you have a bit of a sweet tooth include:

  • you crave sugar
  • lose control, and
  • eat more than you planned.

When we consume sugar, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, creating a temporary feeling of euphoria, which makes us crave more sugar in the future.

Over time, consuming large amounts of sugar can lead to changes in the brain’s reward system, which make it more difficult to resist sugar cravings. To fully understand the addictive properties of sugar, more research is needed, but it’s unmistakably clear that sugar can be a powerful influence on our behaviour and health. Consuming added sugars in moderation and focusing on a balanced, whole-foods-based diet can help support our body’s health and reduce the risk of addiction and associated health problems.

How much sugar can we eat?

The amount of sugar one can eat depends on age, gender, physical activity level, and overall lifestyle. Adults need to limit their added sugar intake to no more than 10% of their daily caloric intake, which translates to about 50 grams (or 12 teaspoons) per day for an adult consuming 2000 calories per day, including added sugar in processed foods, beverages, and cooking.

Children should consume even less added sugar, with the recommended limit being no more than six teaspoons per day for children aged 4 to 6 and no more than nine teaspoons per day for children aged 7 to 10. It is also important to note that the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends an even lower limit of 5% of daily caloric intake from added sugar, equivalent to about six teaspoons per day for adults. Choosing whole, nutrient-dense foods and limiting the intake of processed foods and sugary drinks is also highly recommended.

What whole foods can help you avoid hidden sugars found in processed foods?

When following a sugar-free diet, consuming whole, unprocessed foods is essential. By incorporating these whole foods into your diet, you can avoid added sugars in processed foods and support your overall health and well-being. These foods typically do not contain added sugars and are naturally low in sugar. Here are some whole foods that can help you avoid hidden sugars found in processed foods:

  1. Fresh fruits and vegetables – fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of fibre, vitamins, and minerals, and they are naturally low in sugar. They can satisfy your sweet cravings while providing many health benefits.
  2. Whole grains – whole grains such as oats, quinoa, and brown rice are high in fibre and provide sustained energy throughout the day. They also do not contain added sugars like many processed cereals and bread.
  3. Lean protein – lean protein sources like chicken, turkey, fish, and tofu do not contain added sugars and are excellent sources of essential amino acids that your body needs for optimal function.
  4. Nuts and seeds – nuts and seeds are excellent sources of healthy fats, protein, and fibre. They can be consumed as a snack or added to meals such as salads or oatmeal.
  5. Herbs and spices – herbs and spices can add flavour to your meals without adding any sugar. They are also rich in antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties that can help improve your health. Visit Living Naturally’s online store to find healthier herb and spice alternatives to support your sugar-free diet.

As you can see, focusing on whole, unprocessed foods naturally low in sugar is an effective way to avoid hidden sugars in processed foods. When you limit your intake of added sugars and consume a balanced nutritious diet, your health benefits the most. You’re probably asking yourself how does one start a sugar-free diet? Keep reading on…

How to start a sugar-free diet?

How to start a sugar-free diet

Starting a sugar-free diet can be challenging, but it is possible with the right strategies and mindset. We’ve put together some easy steps you can take to begin your sugar-free journey:

  1. Educate yourself: Learn about the sources of added sugars in your diet by reading food labels and researching hidden sources of sugar to help you make more informed choices about what you eat.
  2. Set realistic goals: Set small, achievable goals to reduce sugar intake. For example, aim to eliminate sugary drinks or snacks from your diet for a week and gradually work your way up.
  3. Plan your meals: Plan your meals and snacks well in advance to ensure that you have healthy, sugar-free options when hunger strikes. It can also help you avoid reaching for sugary snacks or convenience foods.
  4. Focus on whole foods: Eat unprocessed foods naturally low in sugar, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein sources, and healthy fats. These foods will help keep you feeling full and satisfied without the need for added sugars.
  5. Find sugar-free alternatives: Certain sugar substitutes are naturally present in various sources, such as xylitol, which can be found in berries, fruits, and select vegetables. Xylitol has a taste similar to that of sugar, but it is metabolised by our bodies independently of insulin and has a low glycemic index of 8, with a caloric value of 2.4 calories per gram. In contrast, sugar has a GI of 65 and contains 4 calories per gram. Other frequently used examples of natural sugar substitutes include fructose, also known as fruit sugar, as well as mannitol and sorbitol. (Foods that possess a high glycemic index (GI) induce a swift and transient surge in blood glucose levels, which is unfavourable for individuals with diabetes, those attempting to shed weight, or those with insulin resistance. Conversely, foods with a low GI have a significantly gentler and consistent impact).
  6. Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water can help reduce cravings for sugary drinks and snacks. Add lemon or lime slices to your water for a refreshing, sugar-free flavour boost.

Remember, a sugar-free diet is not just a quick fix; it requires dedication to a lifestyle change. Be patient with yourself and celebrate small victories along the way. With time and effort, you can break free from the grip of added sugars and improve your health and well-being!

  Read another article here: Sugar or sweeteners – which is the lesser of the evils?
  Listen to the podcast: Sugar & sweeteners

References and additional reading:

  1. Water and sugar sweetened beverages (no date) Western Cape Government. Available at: https://www.westerncape.gov.za/westerncape-on-wellness/water-and-sugar-sweetened-beverages. (Accessed: April 25, 2023).
  2. Avena, N.M., Rada, P. and Hoebel, B.G. (2008) Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake, Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2235907/ (Accessed: April 25, 2023).
  3. Whelan, C. (2017) No-sugar diet: How to get started, Healthline. Healthline Media. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/no-sugar-diet (Accessed: April 25, 2023).
  4. No-sugar diet: 8 tips and health benefits (no date) Medical News Today. MediLexicon International. Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319991#8-tips-for-cutting-out-sugar (Accessed: April 25, 2023).
  5. (no date) NHS choices. NHS. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/food-types/how-does-sugar-in-our-diet-affect-our-health/ (Accessed: April 25, 2023).
  6. Sugar levels in food (2016) Western Cape Government. Available at: https://www.westerncape.gov.za/general-publication/sugar-levels-food (Accessed: April 25, 2023).
  7. Healthy diet (no date) World Health Organization. World Health Organization. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/healthy-diet (Accessed: April 25, 2023).
  8. Shereen Lehman, M.S. (2021) Reasons to cut added sugars from your diet, Verywell Fit. Verywell Fit. Available at: https://www.verywellfit.com/what-is-a-no-sugar-diet-2507715 (Accessed: April 25, 2023).
  9. High sugar intake linked to risk of heart disease and stroke: Study (2023) NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal News Group. Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/health/heart-health/high-sugar-intake-risk-heart-disease-stroke-study-rcna70406 (Accessed: April 26, 2023).
  10. Sugar or sweeteners – which is the lesser of the evils? (no date) Living Naturally. Available at: https://www.livingnaturally.co.za/articles/general-healthcare/sugar-or-sweeteners-which-is-the-lesser-of-the-evils (Accessed: April 26, 2023).
  11. Diabetes (no date) Living Naturally. Available at: https://www.livingnaturally.co.za/articles/general-healthcare/diabetes (Accessed: April 26, 2023).