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No-Sugar Diet: 10 Tips to Get Started

Taking the plunge

It’s no secret that most Americans have a sweet tooth. The average adult consumes about 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day. And that’s on top of any naturally occurring sugars consumed through fruit, grains, and milk products.

Excessive sugar consumption has been linked to:

By adopting a no-sugar diet, your risk for these health conditions significantly decreases. Keeping this in mind may help you stick with a new diet plan.

Keep reading for tips on how to get started, foods to look out for, sweet substitutes to try, and more.

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Start gradually

1. Start gradually

Creating an eating plan you can stick to is key. For many people, this means starting slowly. Think of the first few weeks as a period of lower sugar instead of no sugar. Your taste buds and palate can be “retrained” to adopt a less sugary lifestyle, and eventually you will not crave the same high-sugar foods as before.

During this time, you can still eat foods with natural sugars, like fruit, as these are packed with nutrients and fiber. As your knowledge base grows, you should begin to make small changes to your diet to decrease your intake of sugars.

You can
  • Try putting less sweetener in your coffee, tea, or breakfast cereal.
  • Swap regular soda and fruit juices for a flavored carbonated water that has no artificial sweeteners. Another option is to infuse your water with your favorite fruit.
  • Reach for unflavored yogurt instead of your usual full-flavor pick. Try flavoring your own plain yogurt with berries.
  • Be mindful of how much dried fruit you eat, as it often has added sugar on top of its higher naturally occurring sugar content. Replace dried mango and other fruits with fresh berries.
  • Choose whole wheat breads, pastas, and other grains with no added sugar. Read labels to make sure you’re not getting added sugar in foods.

Many people deal with sugar withdrawal during the first week, so if you’re feeling cranky or craving sugar, you’re not alone. Making small changes like these can help ease your cravings and put you on the path to success.

Cut the obvious sources

2. Cut the obvious sources

You don’t have to be a label reader to know that sugary sweets are off limits.

These include:

  • breakfast pastries, like muffins and coffee cake
  • baked goods, like cookies and cake
  • frozen treats, like ice cream and sorbet

Note that some foods with naturally occurring sugar are often nutrient-dense, high in fiber, and can be a part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. However, as you settle into your new routine, you can also remove foods high in naturally occurring sugar from your diet. This will further train your brain to have fewer cravings.

These include:

  • dried fruits, like dates and raisins
  • yogurt with added fruit or other flavors
  • milk
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Read the labels

3. Start reading food labels

Switching to a no-sugar lifestyle often carries a learning curve. There’s hidden sugar in many, if not most, products found on supermarket shelves.

For example, hidden sugars can be found in:

  • baked beans
  • crackers
  • tacos
  • boxed rice
  • frozen entrees
  • grains, like bread, rice, and pasta

The simplest way to eliminate hidden sources of sugar is to read the nutritional information and ingredients list found on the food label.

Keep in mind:

  • Sugar is often measured in grams on labels. Four grams is the equivalent of one teaspoon.
  • Some foods, like fruit, don’t come with an ingredients label. This means you’ll have to look up the nutritional information online.
  • Nutrition labels will soon have additional information to help you make informed decisions. The new label must list both total sugars and added sugars. Some companies have already adopted the new label, and all labels will be updated by July 2018.

Reading store labels can be confusing, so it may help to do some research ahead of time. There are also shopping apps, like Fooducate, that you can download right to your phone to help you check food facts on the go.

Learn the code names

4. Learn the code names for sugar

Sugar has many sneaky aliases, and you’ll need to learn them all to completely remove it from your diet.

A general rule of thumb is to look out for ingredients ending in “ose” — these are usually forms of sugar.

For example:

  • glucose
  • maltrose
  • sucrose
  • dextrose
  • fructose
  • lactose

In addition to clearly labeled sugars, such as malt sugar, the substance can take on many other forms.

These include:

  • molasses
  • agave
  • syrups, such as corn, rice, malt, and maple
  • fruit juice concentrate
  • maltodextrin

If this sounds daunting, take heart. Once you’ve learned to identify sugar in all its forms, it will be easier to avoid it and stick to your plan.

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Avoid artificial sweeteners

5. Avoid artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners can be anywhere from 200 to 13,000 times sweeter than real sugar. This can fool your brain into thinking that you’re actually eating sugar.

In the long run, these substitutes can trigger sugar cravings, making it harder for you to stick to your eating plan.

Common sugar substitutes include:

  • Stevia
  • Splenda
  • Equal
  • Sweet ‘N Low
  • Nutrasweet

Although they’re usually marketed as a sugar replacement for cooking and baking, they’re often used as ingredients in some food products.

Ingredients to watch for include:

  • saccharin
  • aspartame
  • neotame
  • sucralose
  • acesulfame potassium

Often, sugar substitutes are found in products sold as no-sugar, low-sugar, or low-calorie.

Learn more: Sugar may be as addictive as cocaine »

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Don’t drink it

6. Don’t drink it

It’s not just what you eat that matters. It’s also what you drink.

Sugar can be found in:

  • soda
  • fruit juices
  • flavored coffee
  • flavored milk
  • flavored tea
  • hot chocolate
  • tonic water

Cocktails and after-dinner liqueurs are also high in sugar. Wine, even if it’s dry, contains naturally occurring sugar derived from grapes.

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Opt for unsweetened

7. Opt for the unsweetened version

Many foods and drinks come in sweetened and unsweetened varieties. In most cases, the sweetened form is the default product. There usually isn’t any indication that it’s sweetened beyond the ingredients listing.

An “unsweetened” designation on the label is usually a sign that the item doesn’t contain added sugar. However, naturally occurring sugars may still be present. Take care to read the label thoroughly before making your selection.

Look to new flavors

8. Add more flavor without adding sugar

Removing sugar from your diet doesn’t mean eliminating flavor. Look to spices, seasonings, and other natural ingredients to add some variety to your meals.

For example, drop a cinnamon stick into your cup of coffee or sprinkle the spice onto a cup of unflavored yogurt.

Vanilla is another option. The extract can add a delicious flavor to the foods you used to sweeten with sugar, and you can use the whole bean to brew iced coffee or tea.

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Find food substitutes

9. Ensure that you’re getting enough nutrients from other sources

When eliminating foods laden with natural sugar, like fruit, it’s important to add other foods that can provide the same nutrients.

For example, fruit is usually high in vitamin A, vitamin C, and fiber. Vegetables can serve as an easy replacement for many fruit servings. Eat a variety of colors of vegetables to ensure you are getting the full spectrum of nutrients. Each color represents a different nutrient the body needs.

You may also wish to add a daily supplement to your routine. Talk to your doctor about your diet plan and how you can best meet your nutritional needs.

Save it for special occasions

10. Make sugar an occasion

Fully eliminating natural and added sugars is not easy to do. If the thought of never eating another piece of birthday cake is too much to bear, know that total abstinence may not be necessary. The American Heart Association recommends we limit our added sugar intake to nine teaspoons for men per day and six teaspoons for women per day.

Remember, once you retrain your palate, your desire for extra sweet foods won’t be as great. When adding sugar back in your diet, start with naturally occurring sugars, like in fruit. You will find these to taste sweeter, and they’ll be more satisfying once you have gone through the sugar elimination process.

Think of sugar like your favorite holiday. Knowing that there’s a sugary occasion to work toward may help you stick to your goals. On set occasions, sugar can be eagerly anticipated, fully savored, and then tucked away until next time.

Check out: Why I quit sugar »

Takeaway

The bottom line

Going completely sugar-free isn’t for everyone. However, limiting sugar is something most anyone can do, even if for a short period of time. You may wish to alternate your no-sugar diet with a low-sugar diet from week to week. You could also try avoiding refined sugars but reintroducing naturally occurring sugars, like in fruits, back into your diet.

No matter how you reduce your sugar intake, making a concerted effort to do so is likely to have a positive impact. It can help your skin clear up, increase your energy levels, and reduce excess weight you’ve been carrying. These health benefits will only increase over the long-term.

Keep reading: The practical 12-step guide to breaking up with sugar »

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