Several years ago, Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez made headlines for going on a no-sugar diet. Since then, posts about going on a no-sugar diet have randomly popped up on social media. And, given how much staying power this eating plan seems to have, it’s understandable to be at least a little curious about the no-sugar diet and what it involves.
While it seems obvious…what is a no-sugar diet, exactly? Can you really have no sugar on a no-sugar diet? Are fruits OK or does everything sweet need to be weeded out? Nutritionists break it all down.
What is a no-sugar diet?
It’s important to get this out there upfront: There’s no set definition for a no-sugar diet. “There may be several variations depending on where you're getting your information from,” says dietitian Scott Keatley.
Keatley notes that some no-sugar diets “call for an elimination of all added sugar, sugar from fruit, as well as milk sugars.” But, he points out, “the most common variation is to get your added sugar intake down to zero.” (Added sugar, in case you’re not familiar with it, is sugar that’s added to foods vs. naturally occurring in them.)
What are the benefits of a no-sugar diet?
So…why are people doing this, again? There are a few different reasons. “We have so much research that shows sugar is a pro-inflammatory food, and inflammation is a root cause of many different health conditions,” says Jessica Cording, a dietitian, health coach and author of The Little Book of Game-Changers. With that, some people cut out sugar from their diets to try to be healthier.
“You could potentially reduce your risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and certain cancers,” says Keri Gans, dietitian and author of The Small Change Diet.
Other people cut out sugar to try to lose weight. “It’s not uncommon that people lose weight when they limit added sugar,” Cording says. “A lot of highly palatable processed and packaged foods tend to have added sugar, and cutting those out will limit some extra kilojoules.”
What are the drawbacks of a no-sugar diet?
It depends on how extreme you take this. If you cut out all forms of sugar (including naturally-occurring sugars) and eliminate foods like fruits from your diet “you are missing out on important nutrients your body needs to perform at its best,” Gans says.
Plus, a no-sugar diet is also just hard to follow. “It’s a huge challenge to drop that added sugar number down to zero because, well, sugar tastes good and it can provide a hit of dopamine,” Keatley says. “So, by going off added sugar cold-turkey, you could find yourself feeling down more often and also frustrated by all of the reading you have to do on packaged or restaurant foods.”
What can you eat on a no-sugar diet?
“You can eat any whole food,” Keatley says. He lists off fruits, vegetables, starches, legumes, nuts, meats, and more as go-to foods on this diet.
“When you start dipping into foods that have been modified, that's when you need to inspect the food label,” he says. Keatley recommends steering clear of products that contain any of the following:
- brown sugar
- corn sugar
- corn syrup
- high-fructose corn syrup
- raw sugar
- sugar syrup
- turbinado sugar
Need a jumping-off menu to get you started? Gans offers this up as a sample day of eating on a no-added sugar diet:
A bowl of oatmeal made with cow’s milk or an unsweetened milk alternative, a tablespoon of natural peanut butter, and a small banana
A large mixed green salad topped with grilled chicken, avocado, and chickpeas, tossed in olive oil and vinegar
Cup of plain Greek yogurt with sliced strawberries
Broiled salmon with roasted Brussels sprouts and small baked potato topped with a little butter or sour cream
Is it safe to do a no-sugar diet?
Keatley says this can be safe, provided you focus on added sugars and not all sugar-containing foods. “Having all the forms of sugar in whole foods—not drinks—is a way to maintain your energy levels, appease your tastebuds, and meet your nutritional goals,” he says.
Gans agrees. “If presently your diet consists of large amount of added sugar and you are now limiting these foods, it would 100% be safe to do,” she says. “However, if you start to take this to extremes, it could definitely be unhealthy. Besides the limiting of important nutrients your body needs, any restrictive diet can cause have an emotional toll on its user that can affect their day to day living.”
Overall, experts recommend just aiming to cut down on your added sugar intake vs. focusing on getting rid of all of it. “Eliminate the idea of elimination,” Keatley says. “Don’t try to get your added sugar down to zero but try to balance out grams of added sugar with grams of dietary fibre. This will lead to a more sustainable diet that has benefits outside of just reducing sugar intake.”