Many of us are on the lookout for ways to improve our health – and cutting back on the amount of added sugar in our diet is a popular focal point. In fact, recent studies have revealed that 60% of the UK population is actively seeking to reduce their sugar intake.
According to the NHS, added sugars – such as those found in table sugar, syrups, and fizzy drinks – shouldn’t make up more than 5% of the energy we get from our daily diet. That’s equivalent to around 30g a day. However, recent research has revealed that the majority of Brits consume around double this amount.
With this in mind, we’ve pulled together a list of nine simple ways to cut back on added sugar.
What is added sugar and what are the health consequences of having too much?
Added sugars are those put into processed foods or drinks. These differ from naturally occurring sugars found in fruit, vegetables, and milk.
There are several ways that added sugar can be listed on food labels. Some examples of ingredients to look out for include: sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, hydrolysed starch, corn sugar, and molasses.
Added sugars offer no essential nutrients and are high in calories. As a result, having too much added sugar in your diet is linked with weight gain and health conditions, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
According to the NHS, food and drink that contains 22.5g or more of ‘total sugar’ per 100g is considered high in sugar. Meanwhile, 5g or less of total sugar per 100g is considered low.
9 simple ways to cut back on added sugar
So, we know the importance of reducing the amount of added sugar in our diet, but how can we put this into practice?
We’ll cover some ideas below…
1. Base your diet around whole foods
The good news is that if you base your everyday diet around eating whole foods, you can’t go too far wrong.
Whole foods are those which haven’t been processed or refined and are free of additives. Examples of whole foods include fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
Not only do processed and refined foods, like cookies, cake, and white bread, often contain more added sugar to begin with, but research has also found that eating them can make us hungrier.
This is because highly processed foods have been stripped of fibre, vitamins, and minerals – which makes food easier to digest. As a result, when eaten, highly processed foods cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels, leading to an increase in appetite and food cravings.
On the other hand, research has shown that eating a high-fibre diet based around whole foods can increase feelings of fullness, keep blood sugar levels stable, and reduce sugar cravings.
For this reason, making simple swaps like having whole grain bread, pasta, or rice instead of refined alternatives can make a big difference.
2. Be mindful of processed snacks that are labelled as healthy
Recent research revealed that over half of snacks labelled as ‘healthy’ are considered high in sugar, fat, and/or salt.
This includes products such as pre-made smoothies, breakfast bars, and dried fruit products – which, due to misleading health claims, are often mistaken for healthier snack options. For example, you may be familiar with labels like ‘made from real fruit’ and ‘one of your five a day’.
However, research conducted by Action on Sugar found that 65% of fruit snacks that are marketed as healthy contain the equivalent of two or more teaspoons of sugar in a single portion – the same as eating an iced doughnut.
For example, Tesco’s Apple and Sultana Bars contain 18.4g of sugar per 30g bar – which is over 60% of the NHS’s daily recommended allowance of 30g of sugar per day.
Therefore, it’s often worth checking labels before buying snacks – even if they’re branded as healthy.
3. Swap out sugary drinks
According to the NHS, nearly a quarter of the added sugar in our diets comes from sugary drinks such as fizzy drinks, sweetened fruit juice, cordials, and milkshakes. And considering a regular 330ml can of Coca-Cola contains a whopping 35g of sugar, this isn’t surprising.
Not only are many of these drinks high in sugar, but studies have also shown that drinking sugary drinks can dull your sensitivity to sweet tastes and spark a vicious cycle of wanting more foods and drinks with added sugar.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to choose alternatives like sugar-free or no-added-sugar drinks and lower-fat milks – and to drink more water instead. If you usually take sugar in your tea or coffee, consider gradually reducing the amount you add until you can cut it out altogether – or try swapping it for a natural sweetener.
Some people also enjoy drinking herbal teas or adding slices of lemon or ginger to hot water so as not to miss out on flavour. If you’re finding it difficult to cut down on sugary drinks but are trying to make healthy diet changes, why not try some of these 9 healthy and hydrating alternatives to water?
4. Where possible, consider cooking from scratch
Many of us simply don’t have the time to cook delicious meals from scratch every day and may find ourselves turning to convenient alternatives such as ready meals or takeaways.
However, alongside their potentially high fat and salt content, many ready meals and takeaways contain high amounts of added sugar. For example, Sainsbury’s sweet and sour chicken ready meal contains 25.5g sugar while a takeaway pepperoni passion pizza from Domino’s contains 2.8g sugar per slice.
Cooking from scratch may seem like a lot of effort, but it can make a huge difference to the amount of added sugar in your diet. And the good news is that there are plenty of ways to cut down your time spent in the kitchen.
Batch-cooking and freezing meals have become popular methods for people looking to save time in the kitchen, while still enjoying hearty, nutritious meals. If you wanted to, using these methods, you could do all your cooking at the weekend ready for the week ahead. This will often save you money too, as you’ll need to plan shopping trips – and will probably make fewer spontaneous food purchases throughout the week.
For ideas on where to start, check out our articles; 8 batch cooking recipes that will last all week and 15 freezable recipes that make for easy meals later. Alternatively, if you’re short on time but still enjoy cooking fresh each day, you might like to give some of these 19 healthy 30-minute meals a go.
5. Be mindful of low-fat alternatives
Another thing to look out for when trying to cut down on added sugar is products labelled as ‘low-fat’.
Much like the healthy snacks mentioned earlier, it’s easy to associate ‘low-fat’ with good health – but the truth is that these products usually contain high amounts of added sugar. This is because manufacturers often add sugars or sweeteners to make up for the flavour lost when the fat content is reduced.
For example, Yeo Valley’s 0% fat natural yoghurt contains nearly 2g more sugar per 100g than the regular version, despite claiming ‘no added sugar’. Similarly, Tesco’s regular peanut butter contains 1.3g less sugar per tablespoon than the reduced fat version.
Being aware of the risks of low-fat alternatives can help you identify more areas in your diet where you can cut back on added sugar. Other common examples where low-fat foods typically contain more sugar than full-fat versions include breakfast cereals, biscuits, and cream.
6. Remember that added sugar can appear in unexpected places
When we think of added sugar, we tend to picture chocolate, sweets, or desserts. But added sugar can appear in a range of unexpected foods too. This includes pasta sauces, canned food, and condiments.
Luckily, a lot of brands now produce healthier alternatives that contain up to 50% less sugar. For example, Heinz’s reduced sugar ketchup contains 2.3g less sugar per tablespoon than the original version.
For more guidance on how to enjoy your favourite flavours while eating less sugar, head over to the British Heart Foundation website where you’ll find a breakdown of popular condiments and healthier alternatives.
7. Consider adding more protein to your diet
Research shows that out of the three main macronutrients – carbohydrates, fats, and protein – protein is by far the most filling.
One reason for this is that eating protein reduces levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin and so leaves you feeling fuller by eating less food.
Protein also has a minimal effect on blood sugar levels and, according to scientific research, can help to stabilise blood sugar levels. As a result, adding more protein to your diet can significantly reduce sugar cravings.
For example, this study found that increasing the amount of protein in your diet to 25% of your daily calories reduced sugar cravings by 60%.
For more tips on how to up your protein intake, have a read of our article, 12 high protein meal ideas – which covers breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
8. Avoid keeping high-sugar foods at home
It’s understandable that if we keep high-sugar foods in our homes, we’re likely to eat them. Therefore, one of the most straightforward things you can do to lower your sugar intake is to avoid buying products with added sugar in the first place.
If this isn’t possible for you – for example, if you live with others who like having sweet treats around – it can be helpful to have a plan in place for when sugar cravings strike. Studies have found that positive distractions – such as doing puzzles or other mindful activities like painting or drawing – can be highly effective in reducing cravings.
It’s also worth keeping a range of healthy and satisfying low-sugar snacks in the house to enjoy instead – for example, fruit, hummus, or homemade popcorn. Check out our list of 14 quick and healthy snack ideas for more inspiration.
9. Improve your sleep quality
We’ve previously written a lot about the importance of getting enough good-quality sleep for health – and it’s helpful for cutting back on sugar too.
A lack of sleep can have a huge impact on our appetite and cravings. In this study, people who went to bed late and got less than the recommended amount of sleep ate more food the following day than those who got a good night’s sleep. Not only did they eat more calories, but they were also more likely to reach for calorie-dense foods that are high in sugar and fat.
The reason for this is that a lack of sleep can lead to imbalances in hunger hormones – in particular, higher levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin.
If you’re currently struggling to get enough good sleep, head over to the sleep and fatigue section of our website. Here, we have information on everything from creating the ideal environment for sleep to tips for beating insomnia.
Consuming too much added sugar is a common problem in the UK. But while sussing out healthy snacks and fighting cravings can seem like a bit of a minefield, the good news is that there are plenty of simple ways to cut back on added sugar and improve your health.
For more healthy diet tips – including essential vitamin and mineral guides and help with portion control – head over to the diet and nutrition section of our website. And for some ideas for healthy meals, why not see what cooking demonstrations are coming up over on Rest Less Events?
What changes have you made to cut back on added sugar? Will you be trying any of our tips? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.