Skip to main content

11 Tips for Reducing and Replacing Sugar in Your Diet

Yvonne Spence loves to create healthy recipes and believes we don't have to give up enjoyment when we give up refined sugar.

You can still enjoy desserts when reducing sugar in your diet.

You can still enjoy desserts when reducing sugar in your diet.

Decreasing Our Sugar Intake

These days, almost everybody knows that sugar—and by that, I mean the white crystals that come in packets, not the sugars found naturally in many foods—isn’t good for us. But knowing something isn’t good for us and feeling able to do something about it don’t always go hand in hand, and so we sometimes just try to ignore uncomfortable feelings and carry on as before.

Or, if you try to force yourself to do without sugar, there’s a sense of deprivation, and so comes the temptation to rebel. I’m no saint, and I have my weak moments (mostly involving chocolate brownies). I do, however, find that satisfying the desire for sweetness with healthy alternatives reduces the temptation to splurge on sugared doughnuts or fairy cakes or whatever your particular indulgence may be.

The Less Refined, the Better

My rule of thumb when considering replacements is: the less refined, the better. So while natural substitutes such as agave syrup and honey are a better option (particularly honey, since it has anti-viral properties), they are still subjected to some refining, so I use them sparingly. For the same reason, the juicer I bought years ago is rarely used: I’d rather have the whole fruit than I would the juice.

Eating foods that contain fibre slows down the speed at which the starch is converted into sugar, and so sugar enters the bloodstream more steadily and provides sustained energy. For this reason, changing to whole foods such as brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and wholemeal bread is a good starting point if you want to reduce your sugar intake.

You will experience fewer dips in energy and crave sugar less. I think there’s a tendency to reach for high-sugar snacks when we are tired or busy, and so it’s good to have alternatives that are easily available and quick to prepare.

Fruits are a natural source of sugar.

Fruits are a natural source of sugar.

11 Ways to Reduce Sugar and Still Enjoy a Little Sweetness in Life

1. Just Omit It

In recipes for savoury dishes that call for sugar, just omit it. It’s never needed. Sugar doesn’t bring out the taste of tomatoes—it just makes them takes sweeter. Carrots are sweet enough without being caramelized. Even cranberry sauce can be made without sugar: Instead, add some stewed apples.

2. Make Your Own Tomato Sauce

While it’s tempting if you are short of time to use commercial pasta tomato sauces, most contain sugar. It takes very little time to prepare your own. Just chop an onion, brown it in some olive oil, add garlic (remembering to crush or chop it first) and then add a jar of passata (sieved tomatoes) and whichever herbs you enjoy – freshly chopped or dried will do fine.

You can, of course, use fresh tomatoes, which will take a little longer. You’d need around a pound or 500 grams to serve four. (I don’t recommend canned tomatoes because most cans are coated with a lining that contains the hormone disrupter bisphenol-A, even if the contents are organic. Bisphenol-A has been banned in babies’ bottles in the European Union and Canada.)

3. Cut the Sugar by Half in Recipes

For any sweet recipe, if you don’t feel ready to cut sugar completely, cut it by at least half. I can almost guarantee you won’t notice any lack of sugar!

Dates add sweetness and provide fibre. Cook dates and then puree.

Dates add sweetness and provide fibre. Cook dates and then puree.

4. Substitute Dried Dates

Substitute dried dates for the sugar in your favourite recipe. Here’s how:

  1. Weigh out the same quantity of dates as the recipe states for sugar.
  2. Put the dates in a small pan and pour over boiling water until the dates are just covered. You can either leave the dates to soak for an hour, or you can simmer them for a few minutes.
  3. Puree into a smooth paste and add to your recipe.

If the recipe requires you to cream sugar and butter, beat the butter by itself and then add the dates.

5. Use Whole Grain Flours

Use whole wheat (or other whole grain flour) instead of white when baking. This doesn’t reduce the sugar, but it slows absorption rate. If you’re not used to whole grain, start by using half whole grain and half white. You need more liquid with whole grain and it doesn’t rise as readily.

To deal with both these issues, you have a few options:

  • Add an extra egg—this gives lift and moisture. (But also calories, so if these matter to you, try one of the other suggestions.)
  • Add a little extra baking powder and some more water.
  • Add a dessert spoon of vinegar or lemon juice along with half a teaspoon of baking soda.
  • Add some yogurt.

Amounts would apply to a cake with around 180 grams or 6 ounces of flour. Do experiment with different quantities because flours vary.

6. Replace Jam With Mashed Banana

Instead of jam or marmalade on white toast for breakfast, try sliced or mashed banana on wholemeal toast. For extra protein, first spread your toast with a nut butter or soft cheese.

7. Add Flavours Like Vanilla When Reducing the Sugar in Recipes

Add vanilla or cinnamon to recipes and you’ll find you can make do with less or no sugar. Take care when buying vanilla essence, though, because many contain—you guessed it—sugar. You can buy vanilla powder from some health food stores or online.

8. Buy Good Quality Chocolate

If you really, really must have some chocolate, and you can’t get hold of a sugar-free brand, then buy good quality chocolate. It’s far easier to eat one square of chocolate made of 70% cocoa solids than it is to eat one bite of cheap chocolate, which has far more sugar in it and will have you craving more.

Or make your own chocolate with this very easy and delicious recipe!

9. Eat Slowly

Slow down to really taste the food you eat. If people feel guilty about eating sweet things, they often eat quickly, barely noticing the taste, and so want more. If you’re eating it anyway, you might as well enjoy it! Someone I know allows herself one square of good quality chocolate a day and lets it slowly melt in her mouth, savouring it for longer than it used to take to eat a whole bar.

10. Follow the 80/20 Rule

Keep in mind the 80/20 rule. Basically this just means that most of your "bad" eating comes from a few minor habits, so change will take far less effort than you think. If, for instance, you always reach for the cookie jar when you get in from work so hungry that you can’t possibly wait till you’ve prepared the evening meal, sit down and have banana on toast before you start cooking—or something similar.

Another way of applying this rule is to eat healthily 80% of the time and whatever you want the other 20%. As with the first 80/20 method, this makes it feel more manageable, and if something feels easy, you are more likely to stick to it.

11. Buy Healthier Alternatives

You may not always have time to cook and puree dates, and some much healthier natural sweeteners have become available recently.

  • Lucuma Powder: This powder is made from the Peruvian lucuma fruit, and because the entire fruit is dried and powdered, it contains fiber and nutrients. It is a powerful source of antioxidants and B vitamins, and I find it very tasty. (Not everyone agrees, so it’s down to individual taste.)
  • Baobab Powder: This is very similar to lucuma powder and is made from the African baobab fruit. Both baobab and lucuma powders are quite expensive, so use them sparingly!
  • Rapadura Sugar: This is the juice of whole cane—evaporated and either sold as a block or ground into crystals. It is more readily available than the fruit powders and much cheaper. It is also known as "jaggery" and sometimes a "whole cane sugar." Although rapadura is considerably better for you than refined sugar, since it is made from juice, it is still more refined than lucuma, baobab or dates, so use it sparingly.