The Basics of a No-Added Sugar Diet

Dr. Christopher McGowan
February 8, 2021

Not many of us would belly up to the kitchen counter and start our day by knocking back spoonfuls of raw sugar one after the other. In effect, though, that is what the average American does—to the tune of more than 22 teaspoons of added sugar every day. 

Food labels tell the story of just how much sugar we are consuming. A large amount of the food we eat has sugar in it somewhere. This is particularly true of pre-packaged and processed foods we buy in grocery stores or eat in restaurants. You may not be putting down bags of candy every evening, but chances are you are eating more sugar on a daily basis than you think. 

The overconsumption of sugar has become standard in the American diet, and it is a serious problem. Not only does eating too much sugar lead to insulin resistance and an increased likelihood of type 2 diabetes, but it can lead to many other health concerns including:

  • obesity
  • high cholesterol
  • inflammation throughout your body
  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure

As more and more research shows the dangers of consuming too much sugar, it is becoming more common for doctors and dietitians to recommend diet plans that avoid or eliminate added sugars. These “no-added sugar” diets can be crucial if you are trying to lose weight, and may be necessary to prevent you from getting diabetes or even having a heart attack. 

What Does “No-Added Sugar” Actually Mean?

A no-added sugar diet plan is one that eliminates all forms of sugar not occurring naturally in the foods we eat. Keeping to a no-added sugar diet is actually harder than you might think. Beyond obviously sweet treats like ice cream or soda, sugar may be hiding in places you don’t expect. Everything from pasta sauce to fruit juice and even salad dressing can contain added sugar. To keep up a no-added sugar diet plan, you will need to check the ingredients list on everything you eat and avoid any foods containing fructose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, and even honey.

Making sure you are cutting all sources of added sugar from your diet means tracking down all the places sugar is creeping into your diet under different names. A few of the most common kinds of added sugar you will see include:

  • fructose
  • glucose
  • high fructose corn syrup
  • maple syrup
  • honey
  • sucrose 
  • brown sugar
  • corn sugar
  • dextrose

What Can You Eat on a No-Added Sugar Diet?

Thankfully, with a little planning and some careful reading of nutrition labels, there is still a wide range of food you can eat on a diet that avoids added sugar. Mostly your new diet will focus on whole grain foods, fresh veggies, complex carbs like quinoa, and healthy sources of dietary fat. At first, this may not seem terribly appetizing if you have gotten used to a diet heavy on the sweets, but with a little work, you may be surprised how quickly your taste buds can adapt.

On a diet like this, you may still be allowed to eat some naturally occurring sugars. These sources include fructose from fruits and lactose if you are consuming dairy products like cows’ milk or cheese. Even unsweetened fruit juices contain natural sugars that can help you still find an occasional sweet treat in your diet without resorting to added sugars. 

As you begin a diet that has less sugar, you are going to have to work a little harder to ensure you keep to the plan. One of the best ways to avoid additional sugars is to make as much of your food at home as possible. Cooking for yourself takes time, though, and not everyone has the experience or inclination to dive into the mix in the kitchen. 

For some forms of dieting, prepackaged meal services that provide ingredients and directions to help you get started can be useful. If you are serious about a no-sugar added diet, though, be aware that you will still need to be vigilant as pre-made dressings and sauces often contain extra sugars and sweeteners.

If you have the time and space to prepare your own food, every meal you can make yourself is a chance to be sure you have kept added sugar off the menu. As is the case in all dietary changes, the key here is to start slowly. The average American gets as much as 15% of their calories from sugar, which means even if you aren’t addicted to sugar, just cutting the extra sweets out of your diet could leave you feeling hungry and prone to overeating in other areas. 

Overcoming a Sugar Addiction

If you are a confirmed carnivore, it may annoy you if your doctor tells you to cut out red meat for your health. Trying to cut sugar from your diet, on the other hand, is a fight against more than your taste buds. If you have been eating a high-sugar diet for years, your body can become chemically addicted to sugar, meaning you will not only have to change your habits, but also fight off sugar cravings if you are going to be successful on a low-sugar diet plan. 

Sugar cravings can be hard to manage, but there are ways to find freedom from these urges. One of the most important things to do is slowly lower your sugar consumption over time to allow your body to get used to your lower sugar intake as you go along. Another way you can satisfy sugar cravings is adding healthier foods to your meals that have natural sugars. 

There are many different foods that contain natural sugars that are healthy for you in other ways. Raisins and other fruit are perfect examples of foods that may help stave off a sugar craving without the need to reach for a bag of candy. 

Sugar Substitutes and Weight Loss

One of the ways people often try to begin cutting sugar is by switching to versions of the foods they love that are made with artificial sweeteners or other sugar substitutes. While using these alternative sweeteners may gain products a coveted “sugar-free” label, that does not necessarily mean they are healthy for you. 

Some of these sugar alternatives are made from potent synthetic chemicals that can have detrimental effects on your health. Studies have shown that consuming some artificial sweeteners can damage your taste buds, making it less enjoyable to eat foods that are not artificially sweetened. Furthermore, some studies have shown that continuing to drink sugar-free diet sodas may still contribute to weight gain. 

Increasingly, naturally occurring sugar alcohols like stevia have become popular. These intensely sweet compounds may be natural, but that does not mean your body quite knows what to do with them. Some sugar alcohols can cause an osmotic effect as water is drawn into your small intestine when your body tries to digest these compounds. This can lead to potentially uncomfortable or even dangerous diarrhea. 

The idea behind artificial sweeteners is to give your taste buds the sweet flavors you have gotten used to without the sugar your body is prone to store as fat. Some research suggests this may be counter-productive, though. Many artificial and natural sweeteners are not metabolized by the body. If you don’t replace the missing calories with healthy sources of energy, you may be even more prone to crave the very sugar you are trying to avoid. 

How Do I Start a No-Sugar Added Diet?

If you have been eating a high-sugar diet for years, you are going to have to detox your body from the sugar addiction you have built up. Even if you don’t eat a diet packed with sweet food, the average American still consumes an unhealthy amount of sugar through processed foods. 

Starting your new diet gradually will give your body a chance to slowly move from constantly asking for sugar to burning other fuels more efficiently. To begin with, reducing and eventually eliminating obvious sources of sugar such as cakes, brownies, cookies, and candy is a great first step. Steadily eliminating sugary drinks from your diet is another great step to take. 

Once you have eliminated the most glaring sources of additional sweeteners and sugars in your diet, it is time to move on to the less obvious places sugar could be creeping into your diet. This can mean it is time to say goodbye to things like sugar or flavored creams in coffee and tea. In addition to the lactose in dairy-based creamers, the added sugar placed in coffee or tea can add up quickly, especially if you are drinking multiple cups a day. 

As you get more serious about eliminating sugar, sauces and dressings are next on the list. A large number of salad dressings you find on store shelves contain sugar in some form. Thankfully, salad dressings are among the easiest things to make yourself, and the internet abounds with recipes, many of which are made out of simple ingredients you probably have around the house already. 

One of the last, but possibly most frustrating, places to eliminate added sugars are in processed carbohydrates. A simple slice of white bread may not seem sweet on the tongue, but your body readily converts the simple carbohydrates in pasta, white rice, and processed white flour into sugars. This can cause a spike in blood sugar levels as your body tries to process the glucose created from a carb heavy meal. 

Types of Diets that Eliminate Sugar

It is important to make a distinction between a no-added sugar diet and one that completely eliminates all sources of sugar. A true no-sugar diet free of even naturally occurring sugars is another matter. This is a specific diet that can be required to treat certain medical conditions, but this is a different thing from simply avoiding additional sugar in your diet.

Low carb diets often end up being low-sugar or nearly no-sugar by design. Many of the foods we eat contain carbohydrates that the body quickly breaks down into simple sugars, and cutting the carbs takes these sugars along for the ride. For diets like keto, a focus on healthy fats as an energy source can replace the sugars your body has gotten used to burning. By starving the body of sugar and providing it ample quantities of healthy fats, you can urge your body to begin burning fat instead of sugar, often with dramatic results for your waistline. 

For those not on the keto train, paleo diets that eliminate nearly all processed foods are another option. This diet based around whole foods and raw ingredients tends to eliminate most of the sources of added sugar that creep into the diet of your average American. Paleo diets also tend to avoid artificial sweeteners, which can be less helpful than you might think when eliminating sugar from your diet. 

Getting Help With a No-Added Sugar Diet

Anyone can look at the ingredients list on the back of the foods they buy and pick out a few of the different names of added sugar to avoid. Building a healthy, balanced diet that avoids sugars but is still enjoyable takes more than looking at the nutrition facts label. For some people, this means getting a little help along the way. Consulting with a nutritionist or dietitian to help you build habits of healthy eating can be the added boost you need to get started, and to stay, on the right path. 

At True You, our medical nutrition therapy program is designed to help people who are struggling with obesity, have tried dieting on their own, but may not be a candidate for weight loss procedures such as endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty.

If you have been struggling with additional body weight, it is time to make a change. Whether that is changing the way you eat or taking more serious steps such as a weight loss procedure, True You Weight Loss is here to help. Request a consultation today to learn more about how we can help you find freedom from the dangers of excess body weight.

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan

Dr. Christopher McGowan, MD, a leader in endobariatrics, specializes in non-surgical obesity treatments and is triple-board-certified in Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and Obesity Medicine. Renowned for pioneering endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG) with over 2,000 procedures, his global influence and research contributions define him as a top expert.

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