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 so 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 10% of the energy (calorie intake) you get from food and drink each day. That’s about 70g for men and 50g for women. 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 over 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 such as:

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

Some packaging uses a colour-coded system which 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 over the course of a day can add up and make quite a difference.

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

 

Breakfast

Many breakfast cereals are high in sugar, with some containing up to 37% in sugar. Try switching to lower sugar cereals or those with no added sugar, such as:

  • plain porridge
  • plain whole wheat cereal biscuits
  • plain shredded whole grain 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.

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 (jam, marmalade, honey, chocolate spread) or 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 such as 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 if eaten every day, the sugar count can add up.

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, dried, 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 some popular snacks:

  • Cereal bar – 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.
  • Sweets – try dried fruit such as raisins, sultanas, dates, apricots or figs, which all count towards your 5 A DAY.
  • Cake – 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.

 

Drinks

Nearly a quarter of our 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 two-and-a-half oranges to make a glass of juice. But a glass of juice isn't as filling as eating two-and-a-half oranges because the fibre in the fruit makes you feel fuller for longer. 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 a drastic departure, 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.

 

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 – choose those canned in juice rather than syrup), lower-fat and 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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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Mickey1280 said on 25 November 2014

This is the kind of feeble, useless advice that has for decades resulted in the rotten-toothed, grossly obese nation that you see around you
Here's some proper, effective healthy diet advice:
Eat no processed food
Eat no 'diet' or 'low-fat' processed food
Eat no sweets, cake, biscuits, ever
Never have sugar in the house
Never snack or eat 'treats' atall
Make your own bread, excluding the sugar and the salt from the standard recipe. Shock-horror, it tastes the same!
Drink only water or milk

Go on, I'm some sort of madman? Not really, much of the world eats like this, much to their benefit. Fancy a life where you never have to think of going to the dentist ever again, never have to worry about putting on weight ever again, able to get on with your life without spending most of the day thinking about food?
Impossible? Not really, just a different approach to thinking about how to look after yourself. You're not depriving yourself of any flavours either. Tomatoes, fruit, many 'bland' vegetables actually taste sweet, who'd have thought it!
Oh, and no diabetes in middle to later life either.
Go on, take control of your future, it doesn't hurt a bit!

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Shukor said on 22 September 2014

Hello munim786,

The article does not recommend glucose or fructose syrup at all. Quite the opposite: the article warns consumers of the many ways sugar can be found in food.

Steven, Live Well editor

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munim786 said on 25 July 2014

Totally misleading. Article states reduce sugar consumption then recommends glucose and fructose syrup. Has no reference to carbs and doesn't even consider how dangerous the fruits are on our liver. Suggesting foods with lower fat content means foods will contain more sugar, I could even open up a list of scientific studies suggesting fat actually doesn't make us fat.

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