How to boost your health with a low-sugar diet

6 minReading time

Unhealthy food habits are a major risk factor for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and obesity. 

Fortunately, you can reduce the risk of these factors by simply eating healthier (1). In theory, it sounds simple but transforming your lifestyle can be extremely hard, especially if you have had poor eating habits your whole life. 

The modern-day diet often includes added sugars which are a major contributor to bad health. That blueberry muffin with your daily coffee, that piece of chocolate after lunch or the pastry after dinner may have become ingrained into your daily routine. Maybe you usually stay away from eating sugary snacks but drink a glass of regular soda with each meal. 

Either way, limiting the intake of added sugars is associated with better health and lower body weight, and once you finish reading this article, you’ll understand why (2).

What’s the difference between added sugars and natural sugars?

Sugar is often added to foods to get a sweeter taste, but can also be added for texture or color, as a food preservative, or to feed the yeast in bread and make it rise. 

Added sugars provide energy but don’t contribute the essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants (micronutrients) we need to stay healthy. Therefore, they can be regarded as empty calories. Examples of added sugars that can be found in a food list of ingredients are sugar, syrup, sucrose, molasses, high-fructose corn syrup, and honey (3). 

You might have heard that brown sugar, honey, and agave syrup have better health qualities than other sugars, but these claims lack substantial evidence. Brown sugar, honey, and agave syrup have the same nutritional characteristics as white sugar, also known as refined sugar or caster sugar. 

Fruits, vegetables, and milk also contain sugars. However, these sugars occur naturally and therefore do not count as added sugars. Naturally present sugars are not consumed as pure sugars, but are packed together with essential nutrients. 

Several factors influence how natural sugars are metabolized in your body, similarly to how we process complex carbohydrates. Fruits, vegetables, and milk provide you with energy, but unlike added sugars, they also provide various vitamins and minerals needed to maintain good health. Additionally, fruits and vegetables contain fiber, which has several health benefits and is linked with a reduced risk of obesity and chronic diseases. Foods with naturally occurring sugars are therefore recommended as a part of healthy food habits.

What happens when you have a high sugar intake?

High amounts of added sugars give you extra calories without contributing to the nutrients you need, like vitamins, antioxidants, fiber, and minerals. The World Health Organization (4) and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (5) recommend that added sugars should constitute less than 10% of the total energy intake for a healthy diet. As an example, a person who has a recommended calorie intake of 2,000 calories per day should be consuming no more than 200 calories in sugar, which equals four tablespoons or 48 grams of sugar per day. 

According to data from The National Center of Health Statistics (6), the average American ate about 4-7 tablespoons of added sugar daily between 2005-2010. 

Focusing on cutting the intake of added sugars for a few weeks may be the first step in transforming eating habits and routines.

Foods that are high in added sugars are also usually high in saturated fats (7). Saturated fats are found in butter, full-fat dairy products and more, and it is recommended to eat them sparingly, as consuming high amounts of saturated fats is often correlated with poor cardiovascular health.

The recommended intake of saturated fats is less than 10% of the total energy intake, just like the recommendations for added sugars. However, after eating 10% of calories from added sugars and another 10% from saturated fats, you will most likely not have enough calories left to meet your nutrient needs AND stay within the recommended calorie limit. The same can be said when the intake of added sugars exceeds 10% of your total energy intake. Therefore, keeping the intake of added sugars below 10% of the total energy consumption reduces the risk of being overweight and the chances of tooth decay. 

The more calories that come from added sugars, the harder it will be to achieve healthy food habits. When you cut the intake of added sugars, not only are you likely to consume fewer calories and lose weight, you will also replace calories from sugary foods with calories from more nutritious foods.

Sugars don’t just come in food format but also from consuming sugary drinks like regular soda, energy drinks, and fruit drinks. Regularly drinking sugary drinks is linked with weight gain, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, tooth decay, and more. Limiting the amount of these types of drinks will significantly aid in maintaining healthy eating habits and a healthy body weight.

What are the benefits of a sugar-free diet?

Completely excluding foods with added sugars will likely result in a lower calorie intake, making you lose weight. The calories from sugary foods will be replaced with calories from sugar-free foods which will undoubtedly be more nutritious, probably contain more fiber, and will make you feel fuller than the sugary food products would.

Furthermore, people on a sugar-free diet frequently report they eat more fruits and vegetables. When aiming to lose weight, it is best to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables due to their low-calorie content and the fiber they provide, giving an increased sensation of feeling fuller for longer. Drinking a glass of regular soda will not satisfy your hunger, whereas eating a piece of fruit or a vegetable with the same amount of calories will keep you full. 

People who have tried a sugar-free diet for a limited time, usually for a few weeks, often also report feeling less tired and more energetic. Another commonly observed benefit is the reduction in cravings for sugary foods within just one to two weeks.

The take-home message

  • By cutting your intake of added sugars such as honey, sugar, brown sugar, and all types of syrups, you are likely to eat fewer calories, therefore losing weight and consuming more essential nutrients. 
  • The recommended intake of added sugars is less than 10% of your total energy intake, corresponding to approximately four tablespoons of white sugar for a person with a daily intake of 2000 calories. 
  • Naturally occurring sugars provide vitamins and minerals and do not have the disadvantages that added sugars have. 
  • When sustaining a healthy diet, there is room for foods with added sugars in moderation. Always aim for a varied, well-balanced diet with high-quality meals including carbohydrates, fat, and protein, to stay healthy.

Further Reading

Mayo Clinic. Added sugars: Don’t get sabotaged by sweeteners [Internet]. Mayo Clinic; 2019. [cited 2019 Dec 12]. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/added-sugar/art-20045328

Nordic Council of Ministers. Nordic Nutrition Recommendations 2012 [Internet]. Vol. 5. Nordic Council of Ministers; 2014. Available from: http://www.oapen.org/download/?type=document&docid=483279

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition [Internet]. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture; 2015. Available from: http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/

World Health Organization. Guideline: Sugars intake for adults and children [Internet]. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2015. [cited 2019 Dec 12]. Available from: https://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/guidelines/sugars_intake/en/


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 (1)https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/healthy-diet

 (2)https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/top-sources-of-added-sugar/

 (3)https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fiber/art-20043983

 (4)https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/149782/9789241549028_eng.pdf;jsessionid=83A6EC0227B49C597230C4840F325287?sequence=1

 (5)https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf

 (6)https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db122.pdf

 (7)https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/different-fats-nutrition/

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