How To Eliminate Sugar From Your Diet in 21 Days

Spend the next three weeks ditching the sweet stuff, rewiring your cravings, and feeling better every day.

Woman looking at food on supermarket shelves

Juan Jose Napuri/Getty Images

Most people in the United States consume more than the recommended amount of sugar. And most of those people are trying to figure out how to change that. Eight out of 10 Americans are trying to cut back on the sugar consumed.

But reducing the sugar in your diet is easier said than done, and it can be confusing to figure out how to cut back. Here are some tips, including a three-week guide to slowly transition to a reduced-sugar diet.

Added Sugar vs. Natural Sugar

Before getting into the tips, it's important to understand the difference between added sugar and the kind found naturally in whole foods, like fructose in fruit and lactose in dairy.

Naturally occurring sugars are generally considered healthy because the foods that contain them also contain nutrients and fiber. Added sugars (sweeteners put into food for flavor) have no such perks. They are the type you'll eliminate during this challenge.

The Benefits of Eliminating Sugar

Sugar itself isn't a bad thing. Our bodies need sugar. The problem is that Americans often consume too much added sugar, which can lead to health problems, such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Dementia and Alzheimer's disease
  • Colon and pancreatic cancer
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Obesity

Since most people eat too much added sugar, reducing the intake can benefit you. By reducing the sugar in your diet, you can reduce the risk of developing any health problems.

Eating too much added sugar can also cause problems with your teeth (like cavities), weight gain, and skin aging. If you cut back on added sugar, you can improve your dental health, skin, and weight.

How To Eliminate Sugar From Your Diet

The Department of Agriculture recommends limiting your added sugar intake to less than 10% of your daily calories. The average sugar consumption for people in the United States is around 17 teaspoons—more than three times the recommended amount for women and double the amount for men.

Reducing sugary drinks is a great step to eliminating sugar from your diet. The main source of added sugar comes from sugary drinks. That includes soft drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, and coffee or tea.

For more tips on cutting out sugar, follow the following weekly guide to slowly reduce the sugar in your diet and eventually eliminate it.

Week One

  • Clean the house: The more sugar you have, the more you crave it, said Mark Gold, MD, a professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville, Fla. Sleuth out and avoid common culprits.
  • Learn sugar lingo: Sound the alarm when you spot cane, syrup, nectar, words ending in "-ose," agave, and fruit juice concentrate in ingredient lists. Dining out? Skip glazed, honey-dipped, sticky, and BBQ options.
  • Purge the pantry: Throw out sugary packaged food and drinks. You can check the nutrition label to see how much added sugar is in each product—5% daily value (DV), or less, means that the product is low in added sugar while 20% DV, or more, is high in added sugar.
  • Sticker your sweeteners: Put a Post-It on items like honey and brown sugar to be a caution sign when you open the cabinet.
  • Have a backup plan: Stash an emergency snack (like a banana or low-sugar Kind bar) in your bag, advised David Katz, MD, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, Conn.

Week Two

  • Start slashing: Retrain your palate by making incremental changes. "You can lower your taste for sweetness in two weeks," said Dr. Katz.
  • Measure carefully: Scoop the sweetener you think you need—then put back half. "Half a teaspoon goes a long way," said Sally Kuzemchak, RD, founder of Real Mom Nutrition.
  • Mix it up: Combine no-sugar-added foods with the sweet versions (think a one-half cup of plain, unsweetened almond milk with a one-half cup of vanilla).
  • Drink only water: For a full week, consume water instead of soda (including diet soda) and fruit juices.

Week Three

  • Plan long-term: You've upped your sugar IQ and neutralized your sweet tooth. "After about three months, this diet overhaul will be the new familiar," said Dr. Katz.
  • Eat dessert: Going cold turkey can cause headaches and cravings for some—so have a well-portioned treat if you want it.
  • Increase healthy fat: Add a "good" fat—avocado, olive oil—to every meal, urged Mark Hyman, MD, director of the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Functional Medicine: "Healthy fats shut off receptors in your brain that stimulate sweetness cravings."
  • Stick to a schedule: Aim to eat your meals and snacks at the same time each day. "Having a routine keeps you from getting caught off guard by hunger and giving in to something that comes in a wrapper," said Maria Rodriguez, RD, program manager of the Diabetes Alliance at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York.

A Quick Review

Eliminating or reducing sugar from your diet can reduce your risk for various health problems like heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, etc. But cutting sugar isn't always the easiest thing to do.

You can take small steps, like monitoring food labels, measuring carefully, and cutting out sugary drinks. You can take your time reducing added sugar—the benefits will be worth the while.

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  1. American Heart Association. How too much added sugar affects your health infographic.

  2. American Heart Association. Sugar 101.

  3. National Institutes of Health. Sweet stuff.

  4. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025.

  5. American Heart Association. How much sugar is too much?

  6. US Food and Drug Administration. Added sugars: now listed on the nutrition facts label.

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