What is the no-sugar diet? The pros and cons of a sugar-free diet

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When you think about overhauling your lifestyle for the better, quitting sugar is probably one of the first changes you think of. After all, over the past few years, sugar has been linked to a slew of health conditions, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. So, it’s hardly shocking that the popularity of the no-sugar diet is on the rise.

It’s clear that the UK has a sugar problem. While the NHS recommends that free sugars – that’s sugars added to food or drinks, and sugars found naturally in honey, syrups, and unsweetened fruit and vegetable juices, smoothies and purées – should not make up more than 5 per cent of your total daily calories (FYI: That equates to 30g of free sugars a day – or roughly 7 sugar cubes), the average intake is much higher (55g for men, and 44g for women), according to the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF).

‘The disparity between the actual and recommended doses of sugar is significant,’ says Vanessa Rissetto, registered dietician and the CEO and co-founder of Culina Health.

Biscuits, buns, cakes, pastries and fruit pies are the biggest single contributors for adults but together, sugary soft drinks and alcoholic drinks contribute the most to free sugar intake, per the BNF.

But you may not be aware that some of the products you consume on a daily basis may have sugar in the mix too, according to Deborah Cohen, registered dietician and associate professor in the department of clinical and preventive nutrition sciences at Rutgers University School of Health Professions. ‘High-fructose corn syrup, which is essentially sugar, is found in thousands of foods, including those that don’t even taste sweet — ketchup, canned soup, fast food, breakfast cereal, bread, peanut butter, and lunch meats,’ she says.

And all that sugar isn’t exactly doing your health a solid. ‘Excess added sugar causes inflammation in the body, which may lead to a host of conditions, such as joint pain and certain cancers,’ says Keri Gans, registered dietician and author of The Small Change Diet.

It makes sense, then, that some people want to cut back on the sweet stuff. We caught up with the experts to break down what this eating plan is and what to eat on a no-sugar diet.

Meet the experts: Vanessa Rissetto, RD, is the CEO and co-founder of Culina Health. Deborah Cohen, RDN, is an associate professor in the department of clinical and preventive nutrition sciences at Rutgers University School of Health Professions. Keri Gans, RD, is a nutritionist based in NYC and the author of The Small Change Diet.

What is a no-sugar diet?

This is a little open to interpretation. ‘Basically, this is a diet that eliminates all added sugars, foods high in natural sugars, and sugar substitutes,’ says Sonya Angelone, registered dietician and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But ‘the extreme version of the no-sugar diet also eliminates foods with natural sugars like fruit, milk, and plain yoghurt,’ she adds.

If you want to get really technical, cutting out any form of sugar would leave you with pretty limited food choices. ‘Technically, a no-sugar diet would contain only pure fats and pure protein sources,’ says Cohen.

The diet isn’t necessarily time-restricted, but many people find that avoiding all foods with sugar (including those with naturally occurring sugar) just isn’t sustainable. Still, when most people opt for a no-sugar diet, they usually mean a no-sugar-added diet, says Gans.

In general, it’s best to slowly transition to a no-sugar diet instead of going cold turkey, Angelone says, to help your palate get used to having less sweet foods. ‘This means eliminating obvious sources of added sugars like desserts and foods with added sugars,’ she suggests. ‘Try using less sugar in coffee or tea and eliminating sugary beverages. It is best to eliminate sugar substitutes so you can learn to eat less sweet foods.’ From there, you can slowly remove all sources of added sugar.

In general, Angelone recommends following these rules:

  • Drink only unsweetened beverages, such as plain water and unsweetened coffee or tea
  • Skip foods with added sugars
  • Choose whole, unprocessed foods like fresh veggies

What are the benefits of following a no-sugar diet?

There are a lot of potential perks of going on a no-sugar diet.

  • Weight loss. This isn’t a given, Cohen says, but she points out that sugary foods tend to be packed with calories. If you get rid of the sugar and eat fewer calories than before, you’ll lose weight.
  • Lower risk of heart disease. Excess added sugars increase blood triglyceride levels, which raises your risk of having a stroke or heart attack, Cohen says.
  • Lower chance of developing type 2 diabetes. This is typically linked to weight loss, Cohen says.

You may also have lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and less bloating, Angelone says, noting that it’s tied to the inflammation that sugar can cause in your body.

What can you eat?

Sure, sugar is in a lot of foods, but there’s still plenty you can eat on a no-sugar diet. In general, these are unprocessed foods and those without added sugars, Gans says.

Some examples, per Rissetto, include the following.

  • Chicken
  • Fish
  • Beef
  • Tofu
  • Eggs
  • Avocado
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Olive oil
  • Unsweetened yoghurt
  • Beans
  • Quinoa
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Butternut squash
  • Brown rice
  • Sparkling water
  • Unsweetened coffee
  • Unsweetened tea

You’ll also want to look out for these sneaky sources of sugar while you’re reading food labels, per Cohen.

  • Syrups
  • Dextrose
  • Agave
  • Raw sugar
  • Turbinado sugar
  • Molasses
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Honey
  • Glucose

What does eating on a no-sugar diet look like?

Need a little help envisioning what your food situation would look like on a no-sugar diet? Experts offered up these meals to get you started.

Day 1

  • Breakfast: Two fried eggs on whole-grain bread with spinach and tomatoes
  • Lunch: Mixed green salad topped with grilled salmon, chickpeas, and feta cheese, dressed with oil and vinegar
  • Snack: plain roasted edamame with salt
  • Dinner: Pasta tossed with sautéed garlic, spinach, asparagus, and grilled prawns.

Day 2

  • Breakfast: Porridge made with low-fat cow’s milk or unsweetened non-dairy milk, topped with fresh berries and a tablespoon of natural peanut butter
  • Lunch: Omelet with spinach, tomatoes, and onion, served with two slices of lightly buttered 100 per cent whole-grain toast
  • Snack: Nuts
  • Dinner: Stir-fry vegetables with tofu and brown rice

Day 3

  • Breakfast: Low-fat Greek yoghurt with slivered almonds, hemp seeds, and a small banana
  • Lunch: Grilled chicken on sourdough bread, avocado, tomato, and a drizzle of olive oil
  • Snack: String cheese with a small pear or apple
  • Dinner: Filet mignon with roasted Brussels sprouts and a small sweet potato

Are there any drawbacks to a no-sugar diet?

It depends on how extreme you take it. If you take it too far and eliminate every type of sugar, including the naturally-occurring kind, like fruits and dairy products, you’re getting rid of several sources of vital nutrients (think: vitamins, minerals, and fibre) that are important for supporting your health.

The no-sugar diet can also be ‘overly restrictive,’ Angelone says, and create food rules that are not flexible and don’t allow you to eat your favourite foods, leading to disordered eating.

Instead, the goal should be to learn how to eat sugar-containing foods while still meeting nutrition requirements and not going overboard on calorie intake. Rissetto agrees, noting that a no-sugar diet is really ‘not sustainable’.

The bottom line: if you can cut back on your added sugar intake, you’re already doing great — there’s no need to get rid of it completely.


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Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives by the beach, and hopes to own a teacup pig and taco truck one day.

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