Month-long challenges can be a great way for people to adopt healthy habits — whether it’s walking your way to weight-loss or trying new produce at the farmers market. If you overindulged on sweets between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, a sugar-free January may appeal to you right now.
“[You can] reboot and recharge after holiday eating,” says Laura Rutledge, RDN. “While a small amount of refined sugar intake is acceptable, most people consume much more than is recommended, especially during the holidays.”
The American Heart Association recommends limiting your daily intake of refined sugar to 6 teaspoons (100 calories) for women or 9 teaspoons (150 calories) for men, but most Americans eat considerably more than that. Too much added sugar may increase your risk of weight gain, high-blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer.
“The biggest advantage to cutting back on sugar in January is the awareness it brings for most people,” says Beth Kitzis, RDN. “Some people also find it forces them to think more carefully about their meals and snacks because they read nutrition labels more closely.”
There are no set rules for a sugar-free January, but most people who take on this challenge typically avoid eating foods with artificial sweeteners and added sugar, which includes anything added during processing such as syrups, molasses or cane sugar. People generally continue eating foods containing natural sugar such as fruits and dairy products since they come packaged with other important nutrients like fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. This helps slow the digestion of sugar, so your blood sugar levels are less likely to spike and lead to an energy crash as they would with added refined sugars.
A useful place to start is by tracking your current sugar intake with an app like MyFitnessPal. This allows you to spot patterns and recognize where the added sugar in your diet comes from. From there, you can make a plan to slowly cut back on added sugar. For instance, “you might start by having a piece of fruit instead of a muffin as a daily snack and see how that goes. You might progress to reading more labels and changing out some of the other foods you regularly eat for less-sugary versions, like opting for oatmeal instead of sugary cereal.” Over time, these small changes help save calories and improve your overall health.
Make sure to read food labels carefully. Look for less obvious forms of sugar, including ingredients containing the word “syrup” (like corn syrup) and ingredients which end in the letters “ose” (such as sucrose). You may be surprised to find sugar lurking in unexpected places. For example, “some yogurts are marketed as healthy, when, in fact, they contain upwards of 15 grams of added sugar,” says Kitzis. “Condiments, pasta sauces, cereals and even some crackers can contain added sugar you might not be aware of.”
Remember, “it doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” she adds. If you’re curious about a sugar-free January but don’t want to fully commit to an entire month, you’ll likely still benefit from any reduction of sugar in your diet.
As you cut back on added sugar, you may find yourself naturally gravitating toward more nutrient-dense whole foods. “Avoiding refined sugar for a period of time can often help blunt cravings for sugar-filled foods,” explains Rutledge. Incorporating more vegetables, whole grains, dairy products and lean protein in your diet yields more fiber, vitamins and minerals, which can help support weight loss and overall health. “If you typically eat ice cream after dinner but are replacing your usual dessert with a bowl of sliced strawberries, not only have you now cut back on added sugar, you also have added an extra serving of antioxidants and fiber to your day that you might not have otherwise gotten,” adds Kitzis.
Similarly, avoiding artificial sweeteners, which have been linked to weight gain and could harm good gut bacteria might also help lessen cravings and improve gut health. “Eating sugar-free pudding isn’t really the point [of the challenge], in my mind,” says Kitzis. “The point is to replace sugary treats with something that adds nutrition, and to be more mindful of the amount of added sugar in the typical American diet.”
You may notice other positive changes, too, such as an increase in energy and improved mood. Science shows consuming too much added sugar can contribute to depression, so cutting back can help, especially during winter when many people experience seasonal depression. Another benefit: “When February begins, you might find the waistband on your pants doesn’t feel as snug,” says Kitzis.
With the right mindset and attitude, it’s possible to enjoy the sugar-free experience for a month (it doesn’t have to be January). “I like to look at it more as what you are gaining nutritionally, rather than what you are giving up,” says Kitzis. “This also makes it easier to feel empowered, rather than like you’re punishing yourself. [Don’t] think of what you’re missing when you reduce sugar in your diet but what healthy foods are taking its place that might be beneficial.”
Discover hundreds of healthy recipes — from high protein to low sugar— via “Recipe Discovery” in the MyFitnessPal app.