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How to cut your sugar intake in a few simple steps

Sugar cubes and a teaspoon full of sugar on a blue background
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Sugar is a type of carbohydrate that occurs naturally in lots of different foods. It’s also added to some of our favourite snacks, including chocolate and biscuits. While a little bit of sugar is fine, eating too much can be a problem, as it’s bad for your teeth and can cause weight gain.

The good news is, lowering your sugar intake doesn’t mean cutting out all sweet foods and drinks. Instead, it’s a case of making some simple swaps and cutting out foods and drinks that are the worst offenders.

What are the benefits of cutting out sugar?

Sugar is packed with calories, and eating too much can lead to weight gain. This increases your risk of serious health conditions like heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Eating too much sugar will also increase your risk of tooth decay.

What should my daily sugar intake be?

When we talk about cutting back on sugar, we mean “free sugars”. This is a term that describes foods that have sugar added to them, although it also incorporates some foods and drinks that naturally contain sugar.

Government guidance is that free sugars should make up no more than 5% of our calories each day. For adults and children over 11, this means having no more than 30g each day. Younger children should have even less.

Which foods contain “free sugars”?

Mostly, the term “free sugars” applies to sugar that has been added to foods or drinks like:

  • Chocolate
  • Biscuits
  • Cakes
  • Pastries
  • Desserts
  • Jams and sweet spreads
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Savoury condiments like ketchup

We also use “free sugars” to describe the sugars that occur naturally in syrups and juices, such as:

  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Golden syrup
  • Agave syrup
  • Unsweetened fruit juices
  • Unsweetened vegetable juices
  • Smoothies

Even though these don’t contain added sugars we still have to be careful about how much we have.

How can I check sugar content on a label?

Food and drink labels won’t point out how many free sugars they contain. Instead they tend to list “Carbohydrates of which sugars” and a total amount of sugars in grams.

If you’re buying a food or drink that contains free sugars you should check the label to make sure the total sugars aren’t too high. The NHS considers foods and drinks high in sugar when they have “more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g”. Foods low in sugar have “5g or less of total sugars per 100g”.

Another thing to check on the label is the ingredients list. If you see the word “sugar” near the top, this is a good sign that the food is high in free sugars. Other words to look out for include cane sugar, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, glucose, nectars, syrups, dextrose, maltose, molasses, maple syrup, agave syrup, and fruit juice concentrates or purées.

If the food or drink only contains natural sugars that aren’t considered free sugars – for example, it’s an unsweetened dairy product or fresh fruit – you don’t need to worry about checking the sugar content.

What are the best ways to cut back on sugar?

If you want to cut back on your sugar there are some simple things you can do. This guide from the NHS is really helpful – but we’ve also listed some tips to get you started below.

1. Switch to low-sugar drinks

Many of us get a lot of sugar without realising it, simply by drinking too many sugary drinks. To cut back, try the following:

  • Switch to sugar-free versions of your favourite drinks e.g. from Coca Cola to Diet Coke or Coke Zero
  • Buy squash with no added sugar and dilute it with still or sparkling water
  • Cut back on unsweetened fruit juices and smoothies, as these contain free sugars
  • Try to avoid adding sugar to hot drinks like tea and coffee

2. Go for unsweetened or low-sugar foods

Lots of foods have sugar added to them to make them sweeter – often without us even noticing! The next time you reach for your favourite sweetened yoghurt or breakfast cereal in the supermarket, check the label to see how much sugar it contains – then see if you can switch it out for a low-sugar alternative.

Many brands will have low-sugar or unsweetened versions in their range, and you may not notice a big difference in taste.

3. Curb sweet cravings with fresh fruit

Fresh fruit is a great thing to have in your diet, as it’s an excellent source of essential nutrients and fibre. If you have a sweet tooth, reach for some fresh or tinned fruit, rather than a chocolate bar or bag of sweets.

At dinner time, fruit and unsweetened yoghurt is a great alternative to ice cream or a sugary dessert.

4. Don’t forget about savoury foods

We mostly associate sugar with sweet foods, but many savoury foods have sugar added to them too. These include:

  • Condiments like ketchup and salad cream
  • Sauces for pasta, curries, and stir-fries
  • Ready meals
  • Takeaways

Some brands will offer low-sugar versions of their products, so make sure you keep your eyes peeled.

5. Check the label

It may make your supermarket shop longer, but checking the label can be really helpful when you’re first starting to cut back on free sugars.

Remember, the NHS guidance is that foods considered low in sugar have only around 5g of total sugars per 100g. If the number is a lot higher than this, you may want to steer clear.

6. Embrace home cooking

One of the best ways to get control of your sugar intake is to do more home cooking, and to rely less often on ready-made ingredients like jar sauces.

Home cooking may be more time-consuming than sticking a ready-meal in the oven, but it doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. For inspiration, check out the NHS Change 4 Life website, where you’ll find lots of quick, cheap, and healthy recipes suited to the whole family.

More tips for weight loss

Cutting back on sugar can be a great start if you’re trying to lose weight. However, it’s important to make sure that your whole diet is ticking the right boxes.

A healthy diet includes the following:

  • Starchy carbohydrates that are high in fibre
  • At least five portions of fruits and vegetables each day
  • Healthy protein like pulses, eggs, fish, and lean meat
  • A small amount of low-fat, low-sugar dairy
  • Less saturated fat, less salt, and less red and processed meat

The NHS recommends eating 600 fewer calories each day if you’re actively trying to lose weight. You should also be doing regular exercise.

If you’re struggling to get motivated, try the NHS Weight Loss Plan – this is a free resource which gives you 12 weeks of materials for diet and exercise.

The LloydsPharmacy Weight Loss Service

If you’ve been trying to lose weight through diet and exercise, and you’re not seeing any results, we can help.

Our Weight Loss Service can be used by anyone with a BMI over 30, and by people with a BMI over 27 who have a medical condition worsened by weight gain.

Weight loss service