Cutting Sugar from Your Diet

Eliminating sugarby Melissa Diane Smith

Eat sugar comes with bitter health consequences – see my article A Reminder about The Bitter Truth About Sugar – and just this week a new study came out that estimates that sugary drinks alone kill 184,000 a year through diabetes, heart disease and cancer (see story). Even knowing the risks of sugar, many people are addicted to sugar and have a hard time eliminating it from their diet.

So, how do you kick the habit and adopt a sugar-free diet when the sweet stuff is so hard to resist? Here are three plans.

Ask the Nutritionist

I am 35 pounds overweight and prediabetic. I really want to try to cut out my sugar, but don’t want to fail before I start. Do you have some suggestions on how to begin? In one of your previous columns, you mentioned that going sugar-free can be really hard, and that more than likely, there are be withdrawal symptoms. Is there a way to minimize that so it’s not so bad?

– Stephanie T. from Jacksonville, Fla.


Congratulations on recognizing that ridding your diet of sugar is one of the most important nutrition strategies you can do to improve and protect your health! There are several different sugar-phasing out plans you can try. As a nutritionist, I individualize a plan adapted from one or a combination of the following three programs, depending on a client’s health condition, eating habits, and specific weaknesses for sugar.

The Sugar Freedom Plan

This is a five-phase program to gradually reduce and eliminate sugars and carbohydrates fueling our addiction to sugar. It was developed by Nicole Avena, Ph.D., and John Talbott, authors of Why Diets Fail (Because You’re Addicted to Sugar). The plan starts with a period of a few weeks of getting rid of sugary beverages. It is followed by periods of cutting sugar-rich junk foods, then complex carbs that quickly turn into sugars, such as bread, pasta, and rice, then hidden sugars, such as sugar hidden in salad dressings, marinades, and condiments, and finally maintaining all those phases.

This plan can work well for some people. But just like sugar, wheat and other grains can be (and often is) addictive. Based on what I’ve seen with my clients, eliminating obvious sources of sugar without avoiding wheat and other grain products at the same time doesn’t go far enough for many sugar addicts and can lead to binges.

JJ Virgin’s Sugar Impact Diet

This is a three-week program that takes people from a high-sugar diet to a low-sugar diet. Virgin, a nutritionist, spells out what I see in my own practice – there are seven hidden sources of sugar, including grains, roots, fruits, low-fat and diet foods, sauces and dressings, sweet drinks, and sweeteners. In the first week of the plan, the idea is to taper from a high-sugar-impact diet to a medium-sugar-impact diet. Instead of a muffin and a latte for breakfast, a shake that has chia seeds, protein powder, coconut milk, and berries is suggested. Instead of a white flour wrap sandwich for lunch, use a rice tortilla wrap with some wild salmon and lots of veggies. For a snack, have some coconut yogurt and fresh fruit, and for dinner, some sweet potatoes and a grass-fed beef patty with no bun and more veggies.

After tapering your sugar intake during that first week, the next two weeks focus on substituting medium-sugar-impact foods for low-sugar-impact foods—and eliminating fruit. Breakfast might be a lower-sugar cocoa-cashew shake, followed by a roast beef veggie wrap with some beans for lunch, a turkey avocado lettuce wrap for a snack if needed, and some chicken kabobs with lentils and an artichoke for dinner.

After three weeks, try eating two medium-sugar-impact foods per day and see if you start to feel sluggish, get more cravings, or gain weight. This will help you decide how much of a sugar impact your body can handle. I find many aspects of this plan helpful, but my clients tend to feel more satisfied and have fewer sugar cravings throughout the day if they eat a meat-and-vegetable-based meal for breakfast instead of drinking a liquid shake.

The Paleo Approach

Another way to cut sugar out of the diet is to transition over a few weeks to a hunter-gatherer Paleolithic diet, first by eliminating sugar and grain products, followed by gradually eliminating dairy products and beans. Make meals out of animal protein, generous amounts of non-starchy vegetables, and natural fats, such as avocados, olives, nuts and seeds, and coconut oil and olive oil as much as possible.

The combination of these whole foods keeps blood sugar levels steady and provides ample amounts of nutrients, which make low blood sugar levels and sugar cravings less apt to occur. Switching to a Paleolithic diet is a big change for most people, but some prefer this approach for kicking the sugar habit because they find that blood sugar stabilizes and cravings go away more quickly. (By far, this is the approach I most prefer.)

If you try this plan, when you get a craving, use protein and fat – for example, a few slices of organic chicken or beef and unsweetened almond butter spread on celery sticks – to stabilize your blood sugar. Many people, especially diet-conscious women, don’t eat enough protein and fat to support steady blood sugar. If protein and fat don’t satisfy, allow yourself some smart Paleo-based fruit treats, such as:

  • Sautéed apples in organic coconut oil or butter, sprinkled with cinnamon. (Add a few raisins if you need it sweeter in the beginning weeks.)
  • A bowl of berries topped with shredded coconut and/or unsweetened coconut milk. (Add some fresh cherries or pineapple cubes for extra sweetness in the beginning weeks.)
  • Almond flour- or coconut flour-based pancakes sweetened with unsweetened applesauce or mashed banana, vanilla extract, and cinnamon.

Copyright 2015 Melissa Diane Smith


Sugar-Smart Swaps

As part of a sugar-reducing plan, try the sugar-smart alternatives on the right in place of the drinks and foods that contribute to sugar cravings on the left.


INSTEAD OF   …                                      TRY…

Regular or diet soft drinks   …                 Sparkling mineral water with lemon

Sweet tea   …                                            Brewed tea with lemon

Sweetened vitamin-enhanced water   …   Hint water or Metromint water

Italian dressing   …                                    Extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice & oregano

Ketchup   …                                             Salsa or mustard

Wheat or corn tortillas  …                        Lettuce wraps or coconut wraps

Pasta   …                                                  Spaghetti squash or shirataki noodles

Mashed potatoes   …                                Mashed cauliflower

Potato chips   …                                        Unsweetened kale chips

Corn chips   …                                          Flax crackers

Glazed nuts   …                                        Home-toasted raw nuts

Sweetened nut butter on bread   …          Unsweetened nut butter on celery



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