Low-Sugar Guide

So you want to cut back on sugar. You’re probably not a total newbie to the concept and you’ve likely already figured out that your morning donut runs are gonna have to go. But cutting back on sugar doesn’t have to mean swearing off all the sweet things in life. Instead, focus on getting the best nutrient bang for your buck at every meal (and leaving a little nutritional wiggle room for your favorite treats). Use this guide to find out how you’re going to get through the next 30 days with little to no sugar; we promise it’s easier than you think.

Natural Vs. Added Sugars

Sugar is everywhere. But there’s a big difference in naturally occurring sugar versus foods with added sugars (we’re looking at you, “healthy” granola bars). The natural sources of sugar include fruit, starchy vegetables, grains, and dairy, but the added-sugar foods are what you find in most desserts, candy, baked goods, alcohol, etc. (We’ll get to more of that in a minute.) We bet you can guess which sugar group is the one to stay away from during your 30-day low-sugar challenge: yep, the added sugar.

Why? Because naturally occurring sources of sugar found in dairy, dairy alternatives, and fruit are bound up with fiber, protein, and fat. These “hunger-crushing” compounds help slow down the digestion of the sugars, which helps prevent the blood sugar and insulin spikes. We can’t say the same for the added stuff, and that’s why we’re here to help you give it a break.

How Much Sugar Is Too Much?

Currently, the USDA hasn’t specified the amount of total or natural sugars you should consume (we say just keep your portion sizes in check), but as far as added sugar goes, the World Health Organization recommends limiting our intake to 10 percent of our calories each day. So if you eat 2,000 calories a day, that would mean up to 50 grams of added sugar, or 10 teaspoons. The American Health Association is even more conservative, citing men should consume no more than 9 teaspoons a day (37.5 grams) and women no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams).

We say make it a goal to follow the AHA’s numbers since you’re dedicating the next 30 days to cutting back on the sweet stuff. Now, let’s take a look to see what foods are best for you to eat, and which ones you should steer clear of.

The Dos: What You Can Eat

Fruits
Like we said, fruit contains natural sugars called fructose and sucrose, but you don’t have to worry about restricting these. Aim for 2-4 servings a day depending on your size, weight, and level of activity, and choose higher-fiber options most often.
  • Apples
  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Blackberries
  • Blueberries
  • Cantaloupe
  • Coconut
  • Cranberries
  • Dates
  • Grapefruit
  • Grapes
  • Honeydew
  • Figs
  • Mango
  • Nectarines
  • Oranges
  • Papaya
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Pineapple
  • Plums
  • Pomegranate
  • Raisins
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries
  • Watermelon
Vegetables
Again, load up on the fresh veggies, at least 3-5 servings each day, aiming for extra portions of our high-fiber veggie friends.
  • Acorn squash
  • Artichoke hearts
  • Arugula
  • Asparagus
  • Beets
  • Bell peppers
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Broccoli
  • Butternut squash
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Collard greens
  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Fennel
  • Green beans
  • Green peas
  • Kale
  • Mushrooms
  • Okra
  • Onions
  • Parsnips
  • Potatoes
  • Radishes
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Summer squash
  • Spinach
  • Sweet potato
  • Swiss chard
  • Zucchini
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices are a great way to add flavor without added sugar. Feel free to go to town with these.
  • Allspice
  • Basil
  • Caraway
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Chili pepper
  • Cilantro
  • Cinnamon
  • Cumin
  • Dill
  • Fenugreek
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Lemongrass
  • Mint
  • Marjoram
  • Nutmeg
  • Oregano
  • Paprika
  • Parsley
  • Pepper
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Sage
  • Salt
  • Spice blends
  • Vanilla
  • Wasabi
  • Za’atar
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds may be high in calories, but they’re rich in the good monounsaturated fats, protein, and fiber that help keep us full longer, and help balance out the small amounts of sugar we do choose. Stick to 2 to 4 servings each day and choose the natural nut butters and nut milks with no added sugar (read your labels!).
  • Almonds
  • Brazil nuts
  • Cashews
  • Chia seeds
  • Flaxseeds
  • Hazelnuts
  • Pine nuts
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sesame seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Unsweetened almond butter
  • Unsweetened cashew butter
  • Unsweetened nut milks
  • Unsweetened sunflower seed butter
  • Walnuts
Animal Proteins
Butter is a no-no for vegans, but most plant-based oils are OK for consumption in moderation. If you’re particular about how your oil is processed, avoid refined types and look for “expeller-pressed” or “cold-pressed” on the label.
  • Beef
  • Bison
  • Chicken
  • Cod fish
  • Crab
  • Duck
  • Eggs
  • Halibut
  • Lamb
  • Lobster
  • Pork
  • Salmon
  • Scallops
  • Shrimp
  • Tuna
  • Turkey
Dairy
Dairy is a source of natural sugars (called lactose) so as long as you’re choosing unsweetened versions, you’re in the clear.
  • Butter
  • Cream
  • Milk
  • Plain cottage cheese
  • Plain kefir
  • Plain yogurt
  • Unsweetened milk alternatives
Pulses
Not feeling the meat? No problem. There are plenty of vegan ways to get in your protein with pulses. We love that pulses contain a combination of protein and fiber to keep you feeling full and stabilize your blood sugars.
  • Adzuki beans
  • Black beans
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Broad beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Fava beans
  • Kidney beans
  • Lentils
  • Miso
  • Navy beans
  • Peanuts
  • Peas
  • Pinto beans
  • Soybeans
  • Tempeh
  • Tofu
  • Unsweetened Peanut butter
  • White beans
Grains, Breads, and Other Starches
No need to fear carbs on a low-sugar diet. Some grains, breads, and other starches are rich in slow-digesting carbs, and while they may contain some natural sugars, you can easily determine if they have added sugar by reading the ingredient list. Choose whole-grain options for a fiber boost and make sure that your breads and crackers don’t have sugar added to the recipe.
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur
  • Corn
  • Farro
  • Freekeh
  • Millet
  • Plain oatmeal
  • Plain popcorn
  • Quinoa
  • Rye
  • Whole-grain bagels
  • Whole-grain bread
  • Whole-grain couscous
  • Whole-grain crackers
  • Whole-grain pasta
  • Whole-grain rice
  • Whole-grain wraps
Drinks
Drinks are typically one of the biggest sources of added sugars in people’s diets. Choosing unsweetened beverages might just be one of the fastest and least painful ways to cut back. Avoid diet drinks and sodas that will only perpetuate your cravings for sweet.
  • Unsweetened sparkling water
  • Milk
  • Unsweetened coffee
  • Unsweetened iced tea
  • Unsweetened protein shakes
  • Unsweetened smoothies
  • Water
Condiments
No need to eat everything bland and dry. Sauce up your meals with these flavorful, sugar-free condiments.
  • Homemade salad dressing (oil, vinegar, mustard, herbs and spices)
  • Hot sauce
  • Hummus
  • Mustard

The Don’ts: Foods High in Sugar

As you start stocking up on vegan-friendly foods, here are the items to toss from your kitchen, steer clear of at the store, and opt out of at restaurants.

Added Sugar Ingredients
Get used to reading labels on even seemingly healthy food: You may be surprised by the number of times you spot one or more of these stealthy sugar monikers. While the American food label doesn’t yet require that added sugars be clearly labeled, you can spot sources by scanning the ingredient list.
  • Agave
  • Anything ending in “–ose”
  • Anything ending in “syrup”
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Brown sugar
  • Cane sugar
  • Cane syrup
  • Coconut sugar
  • Corn sugar
  • Corn syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Glucose
  • Honey
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Fructose (including high-fructose corn syrup)
  • Invert sugar
  • Isomalt
  • Lactose
  • Malted barley syrup
  • Maltodextrin
  • Maltose
  • Malt sugar
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Raw sugar
  • Sucrose
  • White sugar
Desserts and Snacks
OK, so these foods should be pretty obvious. Nix these bad boys to make a huge dent in your daily sugar tally.
  • Brownies
  • Cakes
  • Candy
  • Chocolate
  • Cookies
  • Cupcakes
  • Energy bars
  • Kettle Popcorn
  • Pastries
Drinks
Pro tip: Don’t drink your calories. While there’s nothing nutritionally redeeming about a cupcake, at least there is sometimes a little bit of fat in those goodies to slow down the blood-sugar spike. Sugary drinks tend to hit our blood stream even faster since they need little to no time to get broken down. And don’t go thinking your cold-pressed “detox” juice is in the clear. By removing the fibers in the juicing process, you’re getting straight up sugar. Nutritious sugar, but a sugar bomb nonetheless.
  • Fruit juice (even 100-percent pure)
  • Soft drinks
  • Sweetened alcoholic cocktails
  • Sweetened coffee drinks
  • Sweetened energy drinks
  • Sweetened protein shakes
  • Sweetened smoothies
Fruits and Vegetables
If you’re not buying fresh fruit, you need to be on the lookout for products packed in sugars or syrups and go for the unsweetened version.
  • Canned cranberry sauce
  • Sweetened apple sauce
  • Sweetened canned fruit
  • Sweetened frozen fruit
Animal Proteins
Like produce, most animal proteins are naturally sugar free, but keep an eye out for glazed or sweetened processed meats on the shelves. While not all jerky, deli meat, or sausages are packed with the sweet stuff, it’s worth turning the package around to check out what’s inside.
  • Glazed or sweetened deli meat
  • Honey ham
  • Maple-glazed bacon
  • Maple or brown sugar breakfast sausage
  • Sweetened jerky
Grains, Breads, and Other Starches
Grains and breads don’t have to be bad news bears, but you’ll want to make sure you’re choosing nourishing options. You might be surprised to note that some seemingly healthy breads can be a sneaky source of added sugar, so always check the ingredient list before you buy.
  • Breakfast loaf
  • Breakfast pastries
  • Flavored oatmeal
  • Granola
  • Muffins
  • Pancakes
  • Scones
  • Some bagels (check for sugar in ingredients)
  • Some breads (check for sugar in ingredients)
  • Sweetened cereal
  • Waffles
Nuts and Seeds
Most nuts and seeds are a fantastic, satisfying partner for sources of carbohydrates like fruit, but watch out for sweetened spreads and mixes when buying your nuts.
  • Candied nuts
  • Chocolate hazelnut spread
  • Sweetened nut butter
  • Trail mix with candy
Pulses
While a nourishing source of protein and fiber in their naked state, some processed products are packed with added sugars, so be sure to check the label first.
  • Baked beans
  • Sweetened peanut butter
Dairy
Dairy is a source of the milk sugar lactose, meaning even plain unsweetened products will have some naturally occurring sugar. We’re not worried about that stuff. Watch for sugars that have been added to your milk or milk alternatives and go for the unsweetened plain variety whenever you can.
  • Chocolate milk
  • Flavored creamer
  • Frozen yogurt
  • Fruit-flavored cream cheese
  • Fruit or vanilla-flavored sweetened kefir
  • Fruit or vanilla-flavored sweetened yogurt
  • Ice cream
  • Pudding
  • Sweetened almond milk
  • Sweetened cashew milk
  • Sweetened coconut milk
  • Sweetened soy milk
Condiments
The sugar surprise attack is fierce in the condiment aisle. Cutting back on condiments might just be the easiest and best way to cut back on the sweet stuff, so be sure to read labels at the store, especially on these sauces that tend to pack in the most white stuff.
  • BBQ sauce
  • Hoisin sauce
  • Honey mustard
  • HP sauce
  • Ketchup
  • Ponzu sauce
  • Satay sauce
  • Some store-bought salad dressing (check the label for sugar)
  • Some dips (check the label for sugar)
  • Some tomato sauce (check the label for sugar)
  • Sweet chili sauce
  • Teriyaki sauce
Artificial Sweeteners
If you can’t have sugar, then it’s time to stock up on Splenda packs, right? Not so fast. While artificial sweeteners technically don’t contribute to our overall or added sugar intake, research is mounting that suggests they may not be as benign as originally hoped. Studies have linked artificial sweeteners to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, caloric intake, and hunger. And yes, even “natural” sweeteners like Stevia are on the naughty list too. It seems that these sweeteners interfere with our healthy gut microbiome, interfering with everything from blood sugar regulation, to our preference for sweets. Since the goal of this month is to reduce your dependence on sweetness, in general, we recommend cutting back on these non-nutritive sweeteners as well.
  • Aspartame
  • Diet Soda
  • Equal
  • Erythritol
  • Glycerol
  • Lactitol
  • Maltitol
  • Monk fruit
  • Saccharin
  • Sorbitol
  • Splenda
  • Stevia
  • Sweet n’ Low
  • Xylitol
  • Yacon Syrup
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So what does an OK amount of added sugar even look like?

Working off the recommendation of 9 teaspoons (37.5 grams) of added sugar per day, here’s a sample menu of what you can eat.

Breakfast

Toast:
1 slice whole grain toast
1 tbsp natural almond butter

Parfait:
1/2 cup plain cottage cheese
1/2 cup raspberries
1/3 cup granola (7 g added sugar)

Drink:
1 americano with unsweetened almond milk

Snack

1 store-bought granola bar (9.5 g added sugar)

Lunch

1 cup lentil soup

Salad:
1 green salad
1 hard-boiled egg
2 tbsp store-bought balsamic vinaigrette (1 g added sugar)

Snack

1 cup baby carrots
1/4 cup hummus

Dinner

Chicken stir-fry:
4-ounce chicken breast
2 cups mixed vegetables
1/2 cup quinoa
2 tbsp teriyaki sauce (5 g added sugar)

Yogurt sundae:
1/2 cup low-fat frozen yogurt (15 g added sugar)
1 cup strawberries
1 tbsp sliced almonds

Recipe Starter Kit

Sure, you can spend a few hours sorting through our favorite blogger resources (and we definitely suggest you do), but here’s some of our personal favorite recipes to get your started on a low-sugar life.

Breakfast

Lunch

Dinner

Dessert

Low-sugar Pantry Staples

Make a trip to the store to stock up on these pantry staples that will make the next 30 days a lot more manageable (and tasty).

Chia Seeds

Perfect for adding fiber, protein, and healthy fats while thickening up fruit to yield no-sugar-added jams and spreads.

Baking Spices

Need to sweeten your coffee or oats without the sugar? Add a generous sprinkle of cinnamon, nutmeg, or ginger.

Natural Nut Butter

Nut butters are a great sugar-free way to add flavor to cereal, oats, and yogurt without honey or syrup.

Dates

When a recipe demands some sweet, try pureeing nature’s candy instead. And feel free to grab one or two when your sweet tooth just won’t go away.

Mustard

Load up your sandwiches, hamburgers, and wraps with this sugar-free condiment. It’s also the perfect addition to a DIY salad dressing so you don’t just have to stick to olive oil and balsamic for a month.

Salsa

Want ketchup? Grab salsa. Add a generous spoonful of this low-calorie condiment to eggs, burgers, or meatloaf.

Unsweetened Almond Milk

If you’re not into dairy, unsweetened almond milk will become your new low-sugar BFF for smoothies, coffee, and oats.

Vanilla Extract

Despite being sugar free, vanilla just tastes cozy and sweet so add a splash to all your breakfast and baked goods.

Unsweetened Coconut

Even the unsweetened version has a natural sweet taste so feel free to add a spoonful to any recipe that needs a boost.

Rolled Oats

While we’re always down for a big breakfast bowl of oats, this high-fiber whole grain can be pulverized into a sugar-free flour for breading meat or baking treats.

Apple Cider Vinegar

Salad dressings are notorious for being packed with added sugar, so use a naturally sweet vinegar like apple cider to cut back.

See, you don’t have to give up all of your favorites to eat a low sugar diet. It’s all about balancing your diet with tons of protein and veg, and choosing naturally sweet treats like dates, fruit, or yogurt when the sugar craving strikes.