How to cut down on sugar in your diet

We Britons really do eat too much sugar: 700g of the sweet stuff a week. That's an average of 140 teaspoons per person.

Added sugars, such as table sugar, honey and syrups, shouldn't make up more than 5% of the energy you get from food and drink each day. That's about 30g a day for anyone aged 11 and older.

Below are some simple tips to help you gradually cut down on the amount of added sugar in your diet:

Sugar's many guises

There are lots of different ways added sugar can be listed on ingredients labels:

  • sucrose
  • glucose
  • fructose
  • maltose
  • fruit juice
  • molasses
  • hydrolysed starch
  • invert sugar
  • corn syrup
  • honey 

Nutrition labels tell you how much sugar a food contains:

  • high in sugar – 22.5g or more of total sugar per 100g
  • low in sugar – 5g or less of total sugar per 100g

Some packaging uses a colour-coded system that makes it easy to choose foods that are lower in sugar, salt and fat. Look for more "greens" and "ambers", and fewer "reds", in your shopping basket. 

Breakfast

Many breakfast cereals are high in sugar. Try switching to lower-sugar cereals or those with no added sugar, such as:

  • plain porridge
  • plain wholewheat cereal biscuits
  • plain shredded wholegrain pillows

Swapping a bowl of sugary breakfast cereal for plain cereal could cut out 70g of sugar (up to 22 sugar cubes) from your diet over a week.

Porridge oats are cheap and contain vitamins, minerals and fibre. Make porridge with semi-skimmed, 1% or skimmed milk, or water.

If you usually add sugar to your porridge, try adding a few chopped dried apricots or a sliced or mashed banana instead. Or you could try our apple-pie porridge recipe.

For a more gradual approach, you could eat sugary cereals and plain cereals on alternate days, or mix both in the same bowl.

If you add sugar to your cereal, you could try adding less. Or you could eat a smaller portion and add some chopped fruit, such as a pear or banana, which is an easy way of getting some of your 5 A DAY.

Read our guide to choosing healthy breakfast cereals.

If toast is your breakfast staple, try wholemeal or granary bread, which is higher in fibre than white bread, and see if you can get by with a little less of your usual spreads like jam, marmalade, honey or chocolate. Or you could try sugar-free or lower-sugar options. 

Main meals

Many foods that we don't consider to be sweet contain a surprisingly large amount of sugar. Some ready-made soups, stir-in sauces and ready meals can also be higher in sugar than you think. 

A third of an average-sized jar of pasta sauce (roughly 150g) can contain more than 13g of sugar, including added sugar – the equivalent of three teaspoons of sugar.

When eating out or buying takeaways, watch out for dishes that are typically high in sugar, such as sweet and sour dishes, sweet chilli dishes and some curry sauces, as well as salads with dressings like salad cream, which can also be high in sugar.

Condiments and sauces such as ketchup can have as much as 23g of sugar in 100g – roughly half a teaspoon per serving. These foods are usually served in small quantities, but the sugar count can add up if eaten every day.

Get tips on making healthier choices when buying takeaway food and eating out.

Snacks

Healthier snack options are those without added sugar, such as fruit (fresh, tinned or frozen), unsalted nuts, unsalted rice cakes, oatcakes, or homemade plain popcorn. For more ideas, check out these quick and easy 100-calorie snacks.

If you're not ready to give up your favourite flavours, you could start by having less. Instead of two biscuits in one sitting, try having one. If your snack has two bars, have one and share the other, or save it for another day.

If you're an "all-or-nothing" type person, you could find something to do to take your mind off food on some days of the week.

When shopping, look out for lower-sugar (and lower-fat) versions of your favourite snacks. Buy smaller packs, or skip the family bags and just go for the normal-sized one instead.

Here are some lower-calorie substitutes for popular snacks:

  • cereal bars – despite their healthy image, many cereal bars can be high in sugar and fat. Look out for bars that are lower in sugar, fat and salt. Or try this fruity granola bar recipe to make your own.
  • chocolate – swap for a lower-calorie hot instant chocolate drink. You can also get chocolate with coffee and chocolate with malt varieties.
  • biscuits – swap for oatcakes, oat biscuits, or unsalted rice cakes, which also provide fibre.
  • cakes – swap for a plain currant bun, fruit scone, or malt loaf. If you add toppings or spreads, use them sparingly or choose lower-fat and lower-sugar varieties.

Dried fruit, such as raisins, dates and apricots, is high in sugar and can be bad for your dental health because it sticks to your teeth.

To prevent tooth decay, dried fruit is best enjoyed at mealtimes – as part of a dessert, for example – rather than as a snack. 

Drinks

Nearly a quarter of the added sugar in our diets comes from sugary drinks, such as fizzy drinks, sweetened juices, squashes, and cordials.

A 500ml bottle of cola contains the equivalent of 17 cubes of sugar. Try sugar-free varieties, or – better yet – water, lower-fat milk, or soda water with a splash of fruit juice.

If you take sugar in tea or coffee, gradually reduce the amount until you can cut it out altogether, or try swapping to sweeteners instead. Try some new flavours with herbal teas, or make your own with hot water and a slice of lemon or ginger.

Like some fizzy drinks, fruit juice can be high in sugar. When juice is extracted from the whole fruit to make fruit juice, sugar is released, and this can damage our teeth. Limit your intake of fruit juice or smoothies to 150ml a day.

However, fruit juices do contain vitamins and minerals, and a 150ml glass of unsweetened 100% fruit or vegetable juice counts as one of your 5 A DAY.

You could try flavouring water with a slice of lemon, lime, or a splash of fruit juice. But watch out for the sugar content in flavoured water drinks: a 500ml glass of some brands contains 15g of sugar, the equivalent of nearly four teaspoons of sugar. 

Dessert

Work out some ground rules. Do you need to have dessert every day? How about only having dessert after your evening meal, or only eating dessert on odd days of the month, or only on weekends, or only at restaurants?

Do you have to have chocolate, biscuits, and cake every day? If you had this type of sugary snack less often, would you actually enjoy it more?

Less sugary desserts include fruit – fresh, frozen, dried, or tinned, but choose those canned in juice rather than syrup – as well as lower-fat and lower-sugar rice pudding, and plain lower-fat yoghurt.

However, lower fat doesn't necessarily mean low sugar. Some lower-fat yoghurts can be sweetened with refined sugar, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, and fructose syrup.

If you're stuck between choosing two desserts at the supermarket, why not compare the labels on both packages and go for the one with the lower amount of sugar.

Page last reviewed: 15/02/2016

Next review due: 15/02/2018

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