Sugar has been linked to diabetes, heart disease and obesity, among other illnesses; yet the average American consumes over 150 pounds of this sneaky ingredient each year. Luckily, there are plenty of delicious foods without sugar, from steak and veggies to crunchy nuts.
Choose Healthy Zero-Sugar Foods
Health organizations recommend limiting sugary foods, for good reason. This popular food ingredient affects your heart, brain, liver and hormones. In clinical trials, it has been shown to increase cancer risk by 60 to 95 percent, according to a research paper published in the August 2018 issue of Annual Reviews in Nutrition.
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High-sugar diets may affect mental health, too. A large-scale study featured in Scientific Reports in July 2017 linked sugar consumption to common mental disorders, such as depression. These findings were attributed to its addictive effects. Sugar also triggers inflammation and affects blood glucose levels, which may further contribute to mood disorders.
The problem is that most foods contain sugar. From cookies and ice cream to pizza, sauces, canned soups and deli meats, this ingredient is found in thousands of products. Spotting it on food labels can be a challenge as it's often listed under other names, such as:
- Corn sugar
- Cane sugar
- Agave sugar
- Maple syrup
- Blackstrap molasses
- Fruit juice concentrate
A single tablespoon of blackstrap molasses contains 10 grams of sugar. There are more than 12 grams of pure sugar in the same amount of maple syrup. The only way to figure out whether or not your favorite foods contain this ingredient is to check the labels.
Best Foods Without Sugar
Whether you're trying to get leaner or eat better overall, you can choose from hundreds of foods without sugar. Vegetables, meat, fish, dairy, eggs, nuts and seeds are all healthy choices. Unprocessed meats, fish and seafood contain no sugar or carbs. Another good choice is avocado, which has only 0.4 grams of sugar per serving (one-third of a medium avocado).
Salmon sugar content, for example, is zero. Not to mention that you'll get more than 21 grams of protein and just 155 calories per serving (3 ounces). The same goes for steak — one serving (3 ounces) has slightly more than 200 calories, over 24 grams of quality protein, 14 grams of fat and no carbs or sugars.
When it comes to the sugar in cheese and other dairy foods, things get a little bit tricky. Milk and its derivatives, including cheese, contain lactose, a natural sugar. Food manufacturers may also add this ingredient to cereals, lunch meat, bread and other canned or boxed products.
Whole milk, for example, provides 11 grams of sugars per cup. The same amount of fat-free skim milk contains 12.4 grams of sugars. Low-fat cottage cheese boasts 3 grams of sugar per serving (4 ounces). Other types of cheese, such as Camembert, Brie, Gruyere and soft goat cheese are sugar-free.
Leafy green vegetables are low in carbs and contain little or no sugar. Cooked spinach has less than 1 gram of sugar per serving (one cup). The same amount of cooked kale offers 1.6 grams of sugar, while iceberg lettuce has just 1.4 grams of sugar per cup.
What About Nuts and Seeds?
Rich in healthy fats, nuts and seeds are the go-to choices for low-carb dieters. Most varieties are high in fiber and low in sugar, offering both flavor and nutrition. Here are a few examples:
- Almonds — 1.2 grams of sugar per serving (1 oz)
- Walnuts — 0.7 grams of sugar per serving (1 oz)
- Dry-roasted cashews — 1.4 grams of sugar per serving (1 oz)
- Pistachios — 2.2 grams of sugar per serving (1 oz)
- Pumpkin seeds — 0.4 grams of sugar per serving (1 oz)
Peanut and almond butter are low in carbs and loaded with good fats. Just make sure you opt for natural or organic brands. Highly processed varieties often contain a lot of sugar and trans fats.
Except for meat and fish, most foods contain small amounts of sugar. The key is to choose whole foods over their processed counterparts. Fruits, for instance, are rich in fructose, a natural sugar. However, they also contain fiber, which slows the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream, points out the Joslin Diabetes Center.
Deli meats, fish sticks, chicken nuggets, breakfast cereals and other processed foods, on the other hand, often contain added sugars and have little or no nutritional value. Flavored yogurt, cream cheese and other processed dairy foods contain this sneaky ingredient too. A single serving of fruit Greek yogurt (6 ounces) boasts 20 grams of sugar.
- New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services: "How Much Sugar Do You Eat? You May Be Surprised!"
- Annual Reviews in Nutrition: "Consumption of Sugars, Sugary Foods, and Sugary Beverages in Relation to Cancer Risk: A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Studies"
- Scientific Reports: "Sugar Intake From Sweet Food and Beverages, Common Mental Disorder and Depression: Prospective Findings From the Whitehall II Study"
- British Heart Foundation: "Infographic: How to Spot Sugar on an Ingredients List"
- USDA: "Blackstrap Molasses"
- USDA: "Cooked Salmon"
- USDA: "Nutrition Facts for Skirt Steak"
- Hopkins Medicine: "Lactose Intolerance"
- USDA: "Whole Milk"
- USDA: "Fat-Free Skim Milk"
- USDA: "Low-Fat Cottage Cheese"
- USDA: "Nutrition Comparison of Camambert, Gruyere Cheese, Brie Cheese, and Soft Goat Cheese"
- USDA: "Cooked Spinach"
- USDA: "Cooked Kale"
- USDA: "Iceberg Lettuce"
- USDA: "Nutrition Comparison of Roasted Squash and Pumpkin Seeds (Unsalted), Dry-roasted Cashews, Pistachio Nuts, Almonds and Walnuts"
- Joslin Diabetes Center: "How Does Fiber Affect Blood Glucose Levels?"
- USDA: "Nutrition Facts for Avocados"
- USDA: "Fruit Greek Yogurt"
- USDA: "Maple Syrup"