The benefits of a low-sugar diet and the foods to avoid

Published Jul 2, 2024


Sugar, a staple in our diets for centuries, has recently come under scrutiny for its potential negative impacts on health. In today's world, sugar is everywhere – from the sweetness in our morning coffee to the hidden sugars in our favourite snacks.

But why is this ingredient often portrayed as a villain in our diets? We are constantly told not to consume too much sugar. But not all sugar is bad. Naturally occurring sugars provide fuel for the body in the form of carbohydrates.

As far as diets are concerned, “free sugars” are the bogeyman. These are the processed and refined sugars added to food and drink, as well as the type of sugar found in honey, syrup and fruit juice.

They are described as “free” because they're not found inside the cells of the food we eat. These sugars are easier to consume without realizing and are linked to poor diet and elevated blood glucose.

Health experts recommend that we limit free sugars in our diet."

What is a low-sugar diet?

South African dietary guidelines recommend that adults should have no more than 30g of sugar a day, which is the equivalent of seven sugar cubes (a can of fizzy drink can contain around nine teaspoons of free sugars).

A low-sugar diet should be below the 30g limit. The primary goal of a low-sugar diet is to maintain a healthy level of glucose in the body.

Some research suggests that sugar can be addictive, leading to cravings and overconsumption. Picture: Taryn Elliott /Pexels

According to a 2022 report by the Western Cape government, more than 60% of South African women and 30% of men are obese.

Being obese puts you at extremely high risk of diabetes, hypertension, depression and cardiovascular disease. After tuberculosis, these diseases kill more South Africans than any other.

What sugar does to our bodies:

Obesity and weight gain: Excessive sugar intake, especially in the form of sugary beverages and processed foods, has been strongly linked to weight gain and obesity.

High sugar consumption can lead to an increase in overall calorie intake without providing essential nutrients, contributing to unhealthy weight gain.

Risk of type 2 diabetes: Consuming large amounts of sugar over time can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This is because sugar-rich diets can lead to insulin resistance, where cells become less responsive to insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels.

Approximately one in nine South African adults have diabetes, totalling around 4.2 million individuals. Diabetes is also the leading cause of death among women in the country, according to data from the University of Pretoria.

Dental health: Sugar is a major contributor to tooth decay and cavities. Bacteria in the mouth feed on sugar, producing acids that erode tooth enamel and lead to dental decay over time.

According to the World Health Organization, millions of South Africans suffer from dental diseases, oral cancer, and tooth decay, especially children: 41% of one to nine-year-olds had untreated tooth decay; at least 28% of those five and over suffered from this in baby and permanent teeth; while nearly 25% of teenagers had severe gum disease in 2019.

Addictive properties: Some research suggests that sugar can be addictive, leading to cravings and overconsumption. This addictive behaviour may contribute to difficulty in reducing sugar intake even when aware of its negative health effects.

While natural sugars found in fruits and dairy products are generally less concerning due to accompanying nutrients and fibre content, added sugars in processed foods and sugary drinks are particularly problematic.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends limiting added sugar intake to less than 10% of daily calories to reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.

Soda and other sugary beverages: These are some of the biggest sources of added sugars in the diet. Even "diet" sodas can contain artificial sweeteners that may have negative health effects.

Baked goods: Cookies, cakes, pies and other desserts tend to be very high in added sugars. Even "healthy" baked goods like muffins and granola bars often contain a lot of sugar.

Candy and chocolate: These are essentially just concentrated sources of added sugars and provide little nutritional value.

Processed snack foods: Chips, crackers, and other savoury snacks often have added sugars, even in flavours that don't seem sweet. Many condiments like ketchup, barbecue sauce, and salad dressings contain significant amounts of added sugars.

Foods to supplement sugar with

Fresh fruits: Fruits contain natural sugars like fructose, as well as fibre, vitamins, and antioxidants. Good options include berries, citrus fruits, apples, bananas and pears.

Nuts and seeds: These protein-rich foods have healthy fats and are low in natural sugars. The healthy fats and protein in nut butter can make a satisfying sweet and creamy snack.

Plain Greek yoghurt: This dairy product has natural milk sugars but is much lower in added sugars than flavoured yoghurt.

Dark chocolate: Look for dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa. The bitterness of dark chocolate can curb sweet cravings.

The key is to choose snacks that provide natural sweetness, fibre, protein, and healthy fats to help satisfy cravings in a more nutritious way. Limiting added sugars and focusing on whole-food ingredients can help maintain healthy blood sugar levels.