How to cut down sugar without struggle? Read these tips from experts

Sugar-consumption being unhealthy was a well-known factor, but it has gone up in the country over the last several decades.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Apr 12, 2024 | 8:10 AMUpdatedApr 12, 2024 | 12:07 PM


Recent research has unveiled alarming statistics linking excessive sugar intake to a surge in health complications such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease — particularly in India, where the prevalence of diabetes is skyrocketing.

Dr Manohar KN the chairperson of the Karnataka Research Society for the Study of Diabetes in India (KRSSDI), noted, “The most addictive substance in the world is food — more specifically, those with sugar content.”

Pointing out that sugar consumption being unhealthy is a well-known factor, Dr Sudhir Kumar — a noted neurologist from Apollo Hospitals in Hyderabad — explained how its consumption over the last several decades had gone up in the country.

“This is mainly because we consume sugar directly where it is added to several foods — like tea, coffee, and desserts. Certain new customary concepts are being introduced in society, leading to an increase in the consumption of sugar,” he added.

Sudhir explained how it had become sort of a custom now that every meal should end with a dessert.

Then came the concept of welcome drinks at parties, housewarming ceremonies, marriages, or engagements. There, sugar is added to the likes of fruit juice, soft drinks, or dry-fruit shakes.

Sudhir also spoke about how it was a practice now to cut cakes for every celebration — be it a birthday, office promotion, or anniversary, to name a few.

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How to reduce sugar consumption?

While it is common knowledge that sugar consumption was not good for health, stopping or reducing sugar intake was more easily said than done, said Dr V Mohan, the chairman of Dr Mohan’s Diabetes Specialties Centre in Chennai.

“Sugar is highly addictive. It is estimated that it is more addictive than tobacco or alcohol. Hence, many people would find it difficult to stop their sugar intake,” he said.

The deleterious effects of sugar intake are not just restricted to inducing diabetes in those prone to it. It worsens the condition of those with type 2 diabetes besides altering lipid profile, increasing body weight, and leading to a high incidence of dental issues, and possibly some cancers.

Sometimes, just stopping sugar intake for a few weeks to few months helps.

Mohan explained: “I have known people who were took sugar with their coffee, tea, or milk and gave it up for a couple of months. “They tell me that they are unable to take such beverages with sugar as they get only the taste of sugar and not the beverage.”

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Will power gradually lessen sugar intake?

Sudhir said will power is the pre-requisite for cutting down sugar.

He explained, “There should be strong willpower to cut down on sugar. It is a dependence. Once someone has a habit of sweets on a daily basis, they will crave for sugar. So, first the three to four weeks is definitely going to be a challenge and that is the test of mental strength.”

He added: “Tell yourself: ‘This month I will either not have sugar or cut down the quantity of sugar intake’.”

Sudhir also said the first step could be to cut down the high-sugar-content items — for instance, cakes, soft drinks, sweets, packaged fruit juices, desserts and ice cream.

The next month, people could start cutting down on the amount of sugar in tea and coffee.

“Once you are accustomed to sugarless tea and coffee, it will definitely help. It is a gradual process. Those ingesting small amounts of sugar can in fact take a little sugar without any problem,” Sudhir added.

Advising similar strategy, noted metabolic health coach Shashikant Iyengar — who advocates a low carb diet — said, “Lower sugar intake gradually.”

He explained: “For example, if someone is taking two teaspoon of sugar in tea or coffee, they can lower it gradually — like using 1.5 teaspoons in the first month and then opting for one teaspoon the next month and then half teaspoon the third month. This way our system will gradually lower the sugar intake.”

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The 21-day rule

Mohan advised the 21-day rule — based on the premise that it takes three weeks to form or break a habit.

It is said to offer a structured approach to gradually reducing sugar consumption.

He said, “The famous 21-days rule says that if you develop any habit — whether good or bad — for 21 days, it sticks to you.”

Mohan explained that the first step was to simply try if people could give up sugar.

Doctors South First talked to  vouched for this rule in helping breaking the sugar consumption.

The first and foremost step would be to identify and record daily sugar consumption. A food diary would help in noting down everything sugar-related one ate or drank.

Consumers were also encouraged to not forget hidden sugars — like in processed foods, sauces and soft drinks, said doctors.

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Mohan noted that some people had a sweet tooth and would like something sweet. So, adding alternative forms of natural sugar might help them.

There are several sweeteners — like stevia or sucralose — with zero-calorie, despite being sweet. They did not increase weight or increase lipid metabolism, he noted.

“Many people are happy substituting sugar with these alternative sweeteners. The use of jaggery or other less-refined forms of sugar — including raw brown sugar — would be another choice, although they are definitely sweet and not close to the alternatives,” he explained.

However, Sudhir warned that while jaggery and honey were considered healthy alternatives to sugar, they also had 70-80 percent of sugar content. They could not be used in large quantities.

Shashikant added that using a sweetener like stevia, monk-fruit extract, or allulose could also help. Even dry fruits — like dates or raisins — were also rich in sugar. Thus, the best was to consume fresh and seasonal fruits, he noted.

Next was to replace sugary drinks with healthier alternatives, like plain water or water infused with slices of fruit for flavour. He also advised not to store sweets, cakes, and desserts at home.

If someone gifted these to individuals, the recipients could have one slice and distribute the rest to others so that they were not refrigerated.

Invariably, people would clean up the sweet box in two to three days if available at home, he noted.

Also Read: Think twice before downing your favourite sweetened soft drink

How to reduce sugar cravings?

Shashikant suggested that having foods with higher magnesium content — like nuts, seeds, or avocado — could help lower cravings.

Meanwhile, he said sugar-craving could also be killed by having salted lemon water or even coconut meat. Using ghee-fats in daily meals could lower cravings in some people.

He advocated staying away from processed food.

Meanwhile, stress-eating was a big factor in triggering sugar intake. Some fatty foods — like nuts — could help avoid sugar intake, he explained.

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Do this if you just can’t quit sugar

Mohan suggested this for some who just couldn’t quit sugar: “If one is totally unable to stop eating sugar at all, reducing it is the only option.”

He added: “Instead of adding two or three spoonful of sugar, one can cut it to one spoon and later to half a spoon.”

Mohan also said that even small amounts of sugar was enough for people to enjoy their coffee or tea.

He added that it was unlikely that such small doses — especially if consumption was not very frequent — would affect glucose or metabolic levels.

The doctor, however, also noted that when one used sweeteners — as in sugar-free substitutes and desserts without sugar — as part of sweets or desserts, large quantities were needed.

However, the World Health Organisation has questioned the use of substitutes in large quantities, Mohan added.

Beware of hidden sugar

Nutritionist Priya Nagwani provided further tips.

  • Identify hidden sugar: Read labels to spot hidden sugar in packaged foods
  • Reduce gradually: Cut back on sugary snacks and beverages gradually
  • Choose whole foods: Opt for fresh fruits instead of jams/preserves
  • Swap snacks: Replace sugary snacks with healthier options like nuts or fruit
  • Cook at home: Prepare meals at home to control sugar content. For instance, a lot of lentils, or vegetable dishes have sugar to enhance the taste
  • Practice mindful eating: Pay attention to hunger cues and avoid emotional eating.

(Edited by Arkadev Ghoshal)