Sugar is one of the worst foods for weight loss. For the calories it contributes to your diet, it offers no nutrients and it doesn't help fill you up. It also wreaks havoc on your blood sugar, which can further hinder your efforts. Just by cutting out sugar, weight loss is significantly easier to achieve. How much weight you can lose depends on how much sugar you normally eat.
If you eat a lot of sugar, you can lose a significant amount of weight by eliminating it from your diet.
Cutting Out Sugar for Weight Loss
Sodas, chocolate bars, ice cream, cookies and other sugar-laden foods all have one thing in common: They offer little nutrition relative to the calories they contain. Sugar is a carbohydrate — by itself, it doesn't contain any more calories than any other carbohydrate, gram for gram. But it doesn't offer anything else: no protein, no healthy fats and no vitamins or minerals, according to data from the USDA National Nutrient Database. It's the definition of "empty calories."
Sugar also offers no satiety. You can eat a tablespoon of sugar or a small egg for the same number of calories; however, that egg provides protein and fats that help promote a feeling of fullness. Protein and fat also digest more slowly than sugar, according to Merck Manual, which means that you retain that feeling of fullness, which can help you control your calorie intake.
Sugar wreaks havoc on your blood glucose levels. As a simple carb with a simple structure, your body digests it quickly, and it surges into your bloodstream all at once. This gives you a fast shot of energy that quickly dissipates, leaving you feeling fatigued. It can also affect your mood and make you crave more carbs, according to Dr. Mark Hyman, author and director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine.
Sugar Calories Add Up
A tablespoon of granulated sugar has 49 calories. That's not a shocking number. However, the foods and beverages that contain sugar often include way more than a tablespoon, and they also contain other high-calorie, low-nutrient ingredients.
For example, a candy bar provides 20 grams of sugar in a 1.4-ounce serving, per USDA data. That's almost double the number in 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar. A soda has 52 grams of sugar in one can — more than 4 tablespoons of sugar. Do the math, and you'll see that the candy bar and the soda have 100 to over 200 calories from sugar alone.
Creating a Calorie Deficit
Calories are energy that your body needs to carry out physiological functions, and that you need to power through your day and a workout. But when you eat more calories than required, your body can't use them and they are stored as fat, reports the Cleveland Clinic. To lose weight, you need to reverse the process; eating fewer calories than you need each day will force your body to stop storing fat and use stored fat for energy.
Most people need fewer calories than they think — especially when the goal is weight loss. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the average moderately active female between the ages of 26 and 50 needs 2,000 to maintain her weight. But to lose weight, the calorie requirements are even lower. In fact, many women will lose weight on a diet including only 1,200 to 1,500 calories a day.
That doesn't leave a lot of room — if any — for nonnutritive, sugary foods. If you are on a 1,400-calorie weight-loss diet and you drink a can of soda at lunch that provides almost 200 calories entirely from sugar, you've just consumed nearly 15 percent of your daily calorie allotment and gotten no nutrients in the bargain. It's going to be very hard to get the nutrients you need and feel full and satisfied without going over your calorie budget.
Calories per Pound of Fat
According to the Mayo Clinic, a pound of fat contains 3,500 calories. Theoretically, if you cut that many calories from your diet over a period of time, you will lose 1 pound of fat. Although fat loss is more complex and nonlinear than that, it illustrates the point of a calorie deficit.
Using this as an example, if you gave up your sugary soda at lunch and your bowl of ice cream after dinner, you could cut 500 calories from your diet each day. That's 1 pound of fat in seven days, and you didn't even have to exercise (although you should). After several weeks of creating this calorie deficit, your no-sugar-diet weight-loss results will be noticeable.
Ditching the Sugar
It's pretty clear that giving up sugar can help you achieve the calorie deficit necessary for weight loss, but it's not always clear exactly what foods contain sugar. Table sugar, sodas and sweets are the obvious culprits, but other foods and beverages — some of them unexpected — are sources of sugar. The list is long, but some to watch out for include:
- Agave nectar
- Flavored yogurts
- Fruit juice
- Jams and jellies
- Sweetened nut butter "spreads"
- Barbecue sauce
- Pasta sauce
- Salad dressing
- Flavored coffees
- Protein bars
- Cereal bars
- Canned fruit
- Bottled smoothies
- Sports drinks
Read ingredients labels for the foods you purchase. According to the University of California, San Francisco, more than 60 different names for sugar can appear on food labels, such as fructose corn syrup, barley malt, dextrose and brown rice syrup. Also, look at the nutrition facts label to check how much sugar is added.
Satisfying Your Sweet Tooth
Giving up sugar is hard, especially if you have a sweet tooth. The good news is that many foods are naturally sweet. Fruits contain sugar, but they also contain health-promoting nutrients, including fiber, vitamins and minerals. Although you shouldn't go overboard, eating a serving of fruit when you used to have a sweet treat — such as after dinner — can help you curb your sugar cravings.
You can also use sugar substitutes such as stevia and erythritol. These natural, plant-based substances provide the sweetness of sugar but without the calories. According to Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt, M.D., and Franziska Spritzler, R.D., these sugar substitutes have little effect on body weight or blood sugar.
However, Eenfeldt and Spritzler warn that consuming no-calorie sweeteners can perpetuate the craving for sweet foods: "Cravings aren't kicked to the curb, they're coddled and kept." Using these sweeteners can perpetuate old habits that caused you to gain weight in the first place. While it's OK to use them occasionally, the ultimate goal is to reduce your cravings for sweet foods and become accustomed to a low-sugar diet that you can sustain long term.
- University of Utah: How Sugar Converts to Fat
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Basic Report: 19335, Sugars, Granulated
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Basic Report: 01123, Egg, Whole, Raw, Fresh
- Merck Manual: Consumer Version: Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fats
- Dr. Hyman: How to Rewire Your Brain to End Food Cravings
- USDA Branded Food Products Database: Full Report (All Nutrients): 45263441, Chocolate Candy Bar, UPC: 070221007188
- USDA Branded Food Products Database: Full Report (All Nutrients): 45220423, Soda, UPC: 078742051369
- Cleveland Clinic: Fat and Calories
- Health.gov: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level
- Mayo Clinic: Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics
- Healthline: 18 Foods and Drinks That Are Surprisingly High in Sugar
- Diet Doctor: Keto Sweeteners – The Best and the Worst
- University of California, San Francisco: Hidden in Plain Sight