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.

Our love affair with sugar can mean that many of us are getting too many calories, which is one of the causes behind our ever-expanding waistlines.

Most of us could do with eating less sugar, particularly added sugar. But many habits, especially ones we like, are hard to kick.

Dietitian Alison Hornby says: "Identify the sources of sugar in your diet, and decide what to cut out completely and what to cut down on.

"You don't need to cut down on sugars found in fruit or dairy products because these foods contain lots of nutrients that are good for us.

"It's the food high in added sugar – such as fizzy drinks, which contain lots of calories but few other nutrients – that we should be trying to consume less of."

Added sugars shouldn't make up more than 5% of the energy (calorie intake) you get from food and drink each day. That's about 30g a day for anyone aged 11 and older.

Find out how much sugar is too much.

Nutrition labels tell you how much sugar a food contains. If an item's total sugar content is more than 22.5g per 100g, it is high in sugar. Anything under 5g of total sugar per 100g is low.

"Get used to reading food labels and comparing products to choose the healthier option," says Alison. "Watch out for other words used to describe added sugar in the ingredients list."

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

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.

Cutting down on sugar doesn't have to mean going cold turkey. There are lots of small changes you can make, which can add up and make quite a difference over the course of a day.

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


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, try adding a few chopped dried apricots or a sliced or mashed banana instead. Try our apple-pie porridge recipe.

For a more gradual option, 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 spread. Or you could try sugar-free or lower-sugar options. 

Main meals

If you don't consider yourself to have a sweet tooth and avoid sugary drinks, you may still be eating more sugar than you think. 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. Some of this sugar will come from the fruit and vegetables they contain, such as tomatoes – which we don't need to cut down on – but sugar is often added for flavour.

A third of an average-sized jar of pasta sauce (roughly 150g) can contain over 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, and salads with dressings like salad cream, which can 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.


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 of person, you could find something to do to take your mind off food on some days of the week," says Alison.

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. 


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.

Don't drink all your fruit. Like 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 cause damage to our teeth.

Drinking fruit juice doesn't fill you up as much as eating fruit. It takes about 2.5 oranges to make a glass of juice. But a glass of juice isn't as filling as eating 2.5 oranges because the fibre in the fruit can help satisfy your appetite.

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.

Remember, fruit juice only counts as a maximum of one of your 5 A DAY, even if you have more than one glass. Even unsweetened fruit juice is sugary, so try to drink no more than one glass (about 150ml) of fruit juice each day.

If the idea of switching to water feels drastic, you could try flavouring it with a slice of lemon, lime or a splash of fruit juice. 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. 


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 – choose those canned in juice rather than syrup), lower-fat and lower-sugar rice pudding, and plain lower-fat yoghurt.

Watch out for added sugar content. 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: 28/01/2014

Next review due: 28/01/2016


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