How to cut down on sugar – and still enjoy what you eat

Practical steps for eating healthier.
Published July 13, 2020 | Updated October 21, 2022

Sugar is talked about as if it’s a forbidden evil product we must avoid at all costs, but the problem is, it’s in almost everything. How do we cut down on sugar and still enjoy what we eat? What’s the difference between natural sugars and added sugars? What does an average sugar intake look like? We asked a few experts for their advice.

How much sugar is okay?

The information that’s out there can sometimes be vague or conflicting.

Health Canada recommends a “healthy eating pattern” in which most sugars come from fruit, vegetables, and unsweetened dairy products.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada recommends no more than 10 per cent of our total calories each day come from added sugars – and ideally, less than 5 per cent. So, for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, 10 per cent would be about 48 grams (or 12 teaspoons) of added sugars. The foundation notes that foods that naturally have sugar in them, like fruit, vegetables, and milk, should be part of a healthy diet “in reasonable quantities.”

The American Heart Association, on the other hand, says men should have no more than nine teaspoons (or 36 grams, or 150 calories) of added sugar a day, while women should have no more than six teaspoons (25 grams or 100 calories) a day.

How to cut back on sugar

“The first step is to eliminate added sugars, especially white and refined sugars and corn syrup,” says functional medicine dietitian Miriam Jacobson.


Holistic health coach Michael Henri says about 75 per cent of packaged foods contain hidden sugars, so reducing the amount of packaged foods we eat is an easy way to cut our sugar intake. His other tips include:

Get used to checking food labels

“My favourite tip is to use the Rule of Fives,” Henri says. “When there is more than five grams of sugar per serving or sugar is in the top five ingredients, as a general rule you’ll want to skip this product.”

Know the names

Henri points out that sugar can be listed under dozens of name variations. “Look for anything that contains syrup, malt or ends in -ose.”

Cook your own food

“This way you’ll know exactly what you’re eating,” Henri says.

Jacobson recommends challenging yourself to consume no more than 25 grams of added sugars a day – not counting natural sugars.


And that raises an interesting point – what’s the difference between natural and added sugars? Do we count them the same way?


Natural sugars vs. added sugars


The basic difference between the two is obvious in the names – natural sugars occur naturally in things like fruit and vegetables; added sugars are added to a product and are typically more refined. Some schools of thought lump all sugar – natural and added – into one basket, but generally, sugar intake limits are placed on added sugars and don’t take into account the naturally occurring sugars in things like fruit.


Daniel Rosenthal, a personal trainer at Equinox in Toronto, says from a weight-loss perspective, natural and added sugars are the same. “However, added sugars aren’t going to do anything for hunger!”

He explains: “Take an apple, which contains natural sugar. You probably won’t feel like you want to eat another one once you’re done. But eat a small cookie, which has around the same total calories, and you’ll feel like you can keep eating more for days!”

“Natural sugars from fruit are preferred to added sugars, but they can still cause problems,” Jacobson says, “especially if they’re consumed by themselves (without fibre, protein [and] fat at the same meal).”


She says the best way to avoid overdoing it on natural sugars is to avoid dried fruits and fruit juices. “Dried fruits have concentrated sugars and can easily spike blood sugar levels,” she says, “which [can] sabotage weight loss and can drive even more cravings, and fruit juices are missing the fibre that’s normally found in whole fruits.”


“Natural sugars from fruit act more like complex carbohydrates, or ‘slow digestion sugars’ in the body,” Henri says. “They provide a slower release of energy, preventing a spike in blood sugar levels. Other natural sugar alternatives like honey or maple syrup have a variety of vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants, which contribute to lowering cholesterol and lowering blood pressure. So, while it’s important to consider how much natural sugar you’re consuming, generally speaking, they are a better alternative than refined sugars.”

Rosenthal recommends his clients get 80 per cent to 90 per cent of their calories from “nutritious food” – fruit, vegetables and lean meat, for example.

“This is the food that will make them feel healthy, full of energy, and keep appetite at bay,” he says. “The remaining 10-20 per cent of calories can come from less nutritious food – food that contains those added sugars. And maintain[s] sanity.”

For example, he says, eat three meals full of nutritious food, and then have a little ice cream for dessert after dinner. Or have a small piece of cake when it’s someone’s birthday at work.

If you’re still getting sugar cravings during the day, Rosenthal suggests trying a zero-calorie soda. “This is something that I’ve personally found useful while losing weight over the last 11 weeks,” he adds.


Figure out your why


Reducing your sugar intake can be difficult, so take it in small, manageable steps.

“While lowering your sugar consumption is very important, do not put too much pressure on yourself to cut sugar out altogether, or to drastically reduce to the daily recommended amounts,” Henri says. “Evaluate one [or] two foods that are easy to give up first. Find alternative replacements and allow your body to get used to the changes. This will make the transition less challenging.”

Jacobson also suggests working to understand the source of your sugar cravings.


“For me and my clients, when it comes to eliminating sugar it’s about understanding the role it has in our lives,” she says. “It is addictive (it stimulates pleasure centres in our brain) and influences our emotions. I find that understanding why you crave it … can be an empowering way to overcome your reliance on it.”


She explains our desire for sugar may be a physical craving that feeds into old habits and patterns we have, or we may use sugar to shift our emotions or to manage stress.


“I find when people shift their focus in this way, it becomes less about gritting through the process of ‘quitting’ and makes it a more meaningful experience.”