How to cut sugar intake without making your life miserable

Going sugar-free is de rigueur these days but going cold turkey won’t suit everyone. In my experience the complete avoidance of specific foods is problematic. Unless one has an unpleasant allergy to something, giving it up won’t have any immediate repercussions, and so motivation can wane.

Although cutting down on sugar intake is advisable, complete abstinence may not be required and is not especially practical. I know of several people who avoid sugar by carefully checking labels, eating at home as much as they can while extolling the benefits of their newfound way of eating, only to be found face down in a pile of Haribo a couple of months later.

This isn’t so much of a relapse, more an understandable response to having been too strict. Short of feast or famine, surely there has to be a way that we can have some sugar in the diet without suffering guilt and enrolling in recovery?

I have found that rather than try to avoid sugar altogether, minimising the desire for sweet food allows you to take it or leave it rather than crave the stuff and rely on willpower to see you through. The good news is there is an easy way to achieve this.

The processes of digestion and energy creation are obviously highly detailed, so forgive the simplistic one-line description but, in essence, food is broken down in the digestive system to provide glucose that circulates in the blood, allowing cells to absorb it for use as fuel to create energy.

Insulin stimulates cells to absorb glucose and so eating triggers the pancreas to release insulin to deal with the resulting glucose. Cells are limited in how much glucose they can process at any time and so when glucose levels in the blood exceed capacity the excess is stored away, a process also attributed to insulin. As glucose levels fall the hunger response is triggered and that’s when we make choices about what to eat.

Carbohydrates, proteins and fats are broken down with varying degrees of ease by the human body. Carbohydrates are relatively easy to digest and, as such, are a ready source of fuel. Proteins take longer, while fats are slowest. Carbohydrates come in two forms — complex and simple. The former contain more fibre and take longer to pass through the digestive system. The latter contain less fibre and their journey from food to glucose is more rapid. Sugar is, in effect, the simplest of simple carbs.

Eating sweet food is likely to result in wanting more as glucose levels rise and fall like a rollercoaster, with cravings increasing as glucose drops.

The way around this is to combine the food groups so that glucose levels remain more consistent. In short, a drip-feed of glucose results in stable energy levels and easily managed appetite. This is remarkably easily achieved — simply combine the food groups every time you eat, be that a full meal or a snack, and ensure that there is a little protein and complex carbs in each.

In practice that means a breakfast of toast with smoked salmon instead of jam, or adding a palmful of nuts to a bowl of porridge instead of honey. Lunch might be a chicken or hummus salad sandwich made with fibre-rich granary bread rather than a pasta salad. Plain yoghurt with fresh fruit works well as a snack or if you are on the move an apple and a few walnuts will do just as well. I find that asking oneself ‘where’s the protein?’ is a useful way to get into the habit.


  • Callipygian

    I love sweets, but I don’t need my sweets to be extremely sweet. I cut the sugar in nearly every cake and dessert recipe I use — to say nothing on pies, on which I am expert. I also don’t use every garnish they advise: cream, ice cream, caramel sauce — which cuts calories and my insulin response down a bit, too.

    The main thing is not to have sweets all the time. A nice occasional treat instead of a nightly reward is better.

    • Sara

      Don’t skip breakfast. That makes your body absorb more calories at dinner. The best way to eat is every 3 hours or so and in small amounts. Always think your body is made for hunter-gatherers, so it expects you to behave and feed the same way: eating and burning up the calories immediately.

      • Callipygian

        That hasn’t been my experience.

  • pauliew

    Guess artificial sweeteners must be evil then.

    • Mary Ann

      I find that if I drink a cup of coffee with a spoonful of sugar in it I feel full up for at least an hour afterwards, if I use an artificial sweetener half an hour later I crave a bar of chocolate, my theory, is the sweet taste creates an expectation in the brain for sugar with the sweetener doesn’t satisfy.

  • emily dibb

    Tim Noakes has a couple of good tips on how to beat the sugar-craving – the use of complex carbs is one, oat porridge, whole-wheat bread. And the other is to take a spoonful of coconut oil when the craving gets the upper hand. Coconut oil on its own is tolerable when its hard, and it absolutely destroys any further thoughts of a visit to the fridge.

  • commenteer

    I cut out sugar every year or so and go onto a low-carb diet until getting back to my preferred weight. The first week or so is tricky, like quitting any other addiction. After that, I miss neither bread nor sugar. Lots of salad, nuts, cheese, fish and meat. Easy. Just apply willpower.

  • James Glass

    Interesting article but it makes the common mistake that sugar is glucose. Glucose is a type of sugar. When we commonly talk about sugar, we are in fact talking about sucrose, which is broken down into a glucose molecule and a fructose molecule. Arguably it is the fructose molecule, not the glucose molecule that is so bad for your health. That is why high-fructose corn syrup is so bad for your health. Complex carbohydrates generally don’t contain fructose in their structures and therefore do not cause all the long term health implications that table sugar does.

  • AdrianM

    So going sugar-free is de rigueur? Try de rigor mortis as a fashionable prerequisite.