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It’s hard to know how to quit sugar, and to be fully aware of how much we’re consuming. But the truth is, in excess, the added sugar in our food and drink is harmful to us.
Eating sugar can have a big impact (opens in new tab). Added sugar (sugar that is added to food rather than occurring naturally) increases inflammation in the body. It causes spikes in our blood sugar and raises the risk of numerous health conditions, including type 2 diabetes (opens in new tab), fatty liver disease, heart disease and obesity. Sugar is harmful (opens in new tab) because it also provides empty calories – that's energy with little or no nutritional value.
Here, our expert nutritionists explain how much sugar is too much, how to take control of your sugar intake, and how to quit sugar cold turkey, as well as sharing what you can eat in place of sugar (opens in new tab) so you don’t feel deprived.
How much sugar can we eat?
‘Many foods contain natural sugar, including fruit, vegetables and dairy products and these should be included in a healthy diet, but aiming for no added sugar will help to support health and reduce cravings,’ says Adrienne Benjamin, nutritionist for ProVen Probiotics (opens in new tab).
‘The NHS (opens in new tab) states 30g (7tsp) added – or free – sugar a day as a maximum intake for adults, and suggests that sugar should only represent 5% of calorie intake,’ says Adrienne. In comparison, the average sugar intake in the UK is now 100g (25tsp) a day – way higher than the recommended amount. ‘But it’s very easy to consume excess sugar (opens in new tab). For example, 100g serving of Special K contains 10g (2.6tsp),’ she explains.
‘It’s really not that easy to stick to the recommended amounts,’ confirms Suzie Sawyer, clinical nutritionist for Feel Alive! Supplements (opens in new tab). ‘For example, for those with a passion for fizzy drinks, then one can of original cola has 35g (nearly 9tsp) sugar. And if you also eat a portion of Muller Greek Style Yoghurt with 22g (5½tsp) sugar that will take you well over the recommended daily intake.’
Here, Healthspan’s (opens in new tab) head of nutrition Rob Hobson shares further examples of the average amount of free sugar in a recommended serving of:
- A Mars Bar: 32g (6½tsp) sugar in 54g bar
- Sainsbury’s Fruit Yoghurt: 15g (nearly 4tsp) sugar in 125g pot
- Fruit Gummies: 12g (3tsp) sugar in 25g serving
- Ben's Original Sweet & Sour Sauce: 14g (3tsp) in 112g serving
- Bran Flakes: 4.3g (1tsp) in 30g serving
How long does it take to withdraw from sugar?
You've decided it's time to learn how to give up sugar, so what can you expect? ‘Sugar is known to be addictive and to have similar effects on the brain as some recreational drugs,’ says Adrienne. ‘When you cut it from your diet, you're likely to crave it more. You'll possibly also experience low mood and anxiety (opens in new tab) as dopamine levels reduce, as well as disrupted sleep (opens in new tab), headaches and fatigue (opens in new tab),’ she explains.
‘These feelings should only last a few days,’ she adds reassuringly. ‘But they may last longer depending upon how much sugar you currently consume.’
Although withdrawing from sugar ‘does not provoke the same unpleasant symptoms as stopping caffeine (opens in new tab)’ says Suzie, if you eat a lot of the white stuff you’re likely to feel its absence. ‘Certainly for the first few days, people may suffer from very strong sugar cravings (opens in new tab). Plus, they may notice energy levels flagging as the body adjusts,’ explains Suzie. ‘However, tastebuds may change within one to two weeks and sugar cravings can disappear.’
How to quit sugar
You know in your heart when you’re eating too much sugar. You want to cut down but you don’t know how to go about it without further fuelling cravings. But you can do it. Here's how to quit sugar.
First, remove all sugary treats from your home. Replace them with healthier sugary options, such as fruit and low-sugar alternatives. Fill your biscuit tin with nuts and swap the sugar in your porridge for a teaspoon of honey.
Next, think about your diet. ‘The key is to plan ahead,’ advises Adrienne. ‘Start reducing the amount of processed and packaged foods that you eat, including snack bars, chocolate and bread. Buy in lots of “one ingredient” foods, such as meat, eggs, nuts, seeds, veg and fruit and start to cook from scratch,’ she says.
‘Eat three balanced meals around 4-5 hours apart throughout the day to support healthy digestion and reduce insulin spikes,’ she continues. 'This may be difficult when you first quit sugar so eating a small snack in between meals can be helpful. This can include fruit to satisfy sugar cravings, but eat it with some protein or fat, such as a few nuts and/or seeds, nut butter, yoghurt or hummus. Many of these healthy snacks (opens in new tab) are suitable. This sugar-free diet plan (opens in new tab) can also make a difference
Certain supplements may help. ‘Supporting energy levels by taking a daily multivitamin and mineral such as Alive! Ultra Wholefood Plus (opens in new tab) (£21.99 for 60 tablets, Amazon), which contains optimal levels of all family of B-vitamins, essential for helping the body produce energy, is recommended,’ says Suzie. ‘Importantly, the range contains high levels of vitamin B3. This is essential for the body to produce glucose tolerance factor (GTF), which helps modulate insulin activity, further helping blood sugar balance,’ she explains.
‘Taking a chromium supplement (opens in new tab) (£14.95 for 360 tablets, Healthspan) can help to support blood sugar balance and reduce cravings during the first month of removing sugar from your diet,’ adds Adrienne, as can a probiotic supplement (opens in new tab) (£21.95 for 30 day supply, ProVen Probiotics) to balance out a ‘microbiome imbalance (opens in new tab) – as many of the potentially bad bacteria in our gut feed on sugar.'
There are also a number of lifestyle changes you can make to distract yourself from your sugar cravings. For starters, don’t skip meals. ‘If you let yourself get ravenous as your blood sugar drops you’re more likely to crave something sweet,’ says Rob. ‘Get busy, as idle hands make for the devil’s work,’ he advises.
‘Evenings are one of the times most people crave sweet treats. So try going out for a walk, do something around the house or have a nice bath rather than flopping in front of the TV with a packet of sweets,’ adds Rob.
Rob also recommends drinking ‘a large glass of water when you get a craving as dehydration can be confused with hunger (opens in new tab).’ Chewing gum may benefit some people, too. 'It's been shown that in some cases this may ease cravings. Though obviously go for something sugar-free!’
It’s also important to relax as anxiety is often a trigger. ‘Stress can have a major impact on cravings as we seek out comfort foods,’ says Rob.
Another useful trick that Rob recommends is sniffing vanilla. ‘It sounds weird but some people find this helpful to alleviate sugar cravings,’ he says.
Can you quit sugar cold turkey?
Knowing how to quit sugar is one thing but should you go cold turkey or take it slowly? ‘Cutting down can be tough and going cold turkey rarely gets long-lasting results,’ warns Rob. 'Psychology plays a huge role as mood, boredom and habit can drive your desire for the sweet stuff. A lack of sleep, skipping meals, hormones and visual temptation can also contribute to sugar cravings,’ he says.
But there are ways to manage this challenging period. ‘Some people suffer blood sugar imbalances making them feel rather jittery. But this can be avoided by eating sufficient protein,’ advises Suzie.
If you find the thought of going cold turkey too extreme weaning yourself off slowly may suit you better. ‘A useful approach is to make small changes to your diet. Reduce the sugar you add to coffee or tea, choose lower-sugar food products and switch sweet treats for healthy alternatives such as fresh fruit,’ suggests Rob.
What can you eat when you quit sugar?
‘The high fibre content of apple offers great satiating effect,’ says nutrition expert Dr Laure Hyvernat (thenaturalconsultation.com (opens in new tab)). ‘Fibres are low calorie and take up a lot of space in your stomach, indicating to your brain that you are full.’ Eating a high-fibre diet (opens in new tab) can also help to control your blood sugar levels – when these are too low, your body will crave sugar to raise them and increase your energy.
Berries make another nutritious choice for stopping sugar cravings,’ says nutritionist Mays Al-Ali (opens in new tab). ‘They’re sweet and their high-fibre content means they are low GI (glycaemic index) so they don’t cause a sharp rise in blood sugar and then a crash, leading to more cravings.’
If you’re a TV snacker, these make a great alternative to chocolate or sweet popcorn. ‘Berries are rich in compounds and have strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,’ explains Mays. A study (opens in new tab) published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also found that eating a cup of blueberries a day decreases heart disease risk by up to 15%, even among those already at risk. Mays suggests combining them with a handful of nuts or a spoon of almond butter to prevent blood sugar from spiking.
‘Chia seeds are a good source of important nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, soluble dietary fibres and vegetable proteins,’ explains Dr Hyvernat. ‘This sort of fibre is readily absorbed. It swells up to form a jelly-like substance in your gut, which contributes to feeling fuller for longer and preventing sugar cravings.’
If you’re partial to chocolate, swap milk for a high percentage dark option (opens in new tab) to take the edge off your craving. ‘A small portion of dark chocolate (70% cocoa or higher) may help as it contains magnesium that can reduce cravings,’ recommends Adrienne.
Water from an Air Up bottle
It’s been reported that 16 million Brits want to reduce their sugar intake but are struggling due to a lack of alternatives, which is why we love the clever water bottles from Air Up. Using a specific technology called retronasal smell, Air Up bottles contain a scent pod that fools your brain into thinking you're tasting a flavoured drink when you're drinking water.
You can buy the reusable water bottles and recyclable flavour pods from the Air Up website (opens in new tab). The Starter Se (opens in new tab)t, which includes one bottle and two scent pods, is priced from £29.95.
Ready meals can contain a lot of sugar - as many as 6tsp in some! Stick to homemade low calorie meals (opens in new tab) – avoiding all jars, tins and packets – so you know exactly what has gone into each meal.
Protein with each meal and snack
'The most effective way to stop sugar cravings is to eat plenty of protein at each meal,’ advises Suzie.
‘For example, an apple with a few almonds makes a great afternoon snack. If you’re having a fruit smoothie, add a little rice or pea protein powder to help balance blood sugar levels and banish cravings,’ she says. You'll find some high protein, low-cal snacks here (opens in new tab).
Prunes and dates
‘Their sweet taste and high amount of essential nutrients, including natural carbohydrates and fibres, make them a quick healthy fix,’ says Dr Hyvernat. ‘Their high-fibre content and naturally occurring sorbitol (a sugar alcohol that the body metabolises slowly) also help relieve constipation.’
A study (opens in new tab) by Tufts University in Boston ranked prunes, or dried plums, as the number one food in terms of their high antioxidant content. They also contain magnesium and iron, which help control blood sugar levels, vital for keeping cravings at bay.
‘Use spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg in place of sugar. They have a sweet taste and work well sprinkled on yoghurt or added to smoothies or coffee,’ says Rob.
Research (opens in new tab) also suggests that cinnamon may help to combat some effects of diabetes. Participants consumed 1g of cinnamon for 12 weeks and showed a 17% reduction in fasting blood sugar levels. Researchers believe this is due to its ability to improve insulin sensitivity, needed for the body to effectively reduce blood sugar. High blood sugar is a symptom of diabetes. Left untreated, diabetes can cause permanent damage to vital organs such as the nerves and kidneys.
When you’re grocery shopping check food labels. This will help you keep on top of your sugar intake. According to the NHS (opens in new tab), a high sugar product will contain 22.5g or more total sugar per 100g, while a low sugar product will have 5g or less total sugar per 100g.
Rob suggests sipping on the occasional low-calorie hot chocolate drink. ‘These use sweeteners that can help to give you the hit you desire without the added sugar,’ he says.
If you’re an ice-cream aficionado avoid standard brands. Some, such as Green & Blacks Organic Vanilla Ice Cream, contain as much as 15.2g (nearly 4tsp) of sugar in a 100ml serving.
We like WheyHey (opens in new tab). Touted as the ‘UK’s first and only sugar-free ice cream’ it’s high in calcium, fibre and protein but low in calories. Sweetened with naturally occurring xylitol, you'll find it in M&S and Spar (£4.50 for 500ml).
Three balanced meals a day
Stick to three regular meals and day and don't skip breakfast as the first meal of the day 'will keep you full for longer and maintain balanced blood sugar,' says Adrienne. She adds: ‘Most people find that when they introduce adequate fat and protein to their diet, their energy becomes more stable and cravings diminish.'
If you're really suffering from sugar withdrawal, you can opt for these sugar substitutes (opens in new tab). Substitutes include the plant-derived stevia (opens in new tab), fibre-rich inulin syrup (opens in new tab) and xylitol (opens in new tab), which has a glycaemic index of 7 – nearly 10 times lower than sugar.
Only have small amounts, however, as you’re trying to get your palate less used to sweet flavours. Eventually, you should be able to give these up for good.
What about booze?
You might think that drinking alcohol doesn't count. But what you may not have realised (or turned a blind eye to) is the amount of sugar in booze.
For example, a standard glass of white wine contains about 1g sugar. And a liqueur such as Baileys contains 6g per serving. Stick to spirits served with a little citrus juice and soda water or a low-sugar mixer, or opt for low calorie wine (opens in new tab) instead.