The Ultimate Guide to Low-Sugar Foods
In this guide to low-sugar foods, Caitlin Beale, RDN, reveals her top 19 low-sugar foods and explains the nutritional benefits each of them offer.
- Added sugar is found in many foods, especially packaged and processed products, and is linked to health concerns.
- Naturally occurring sugars found in foods like fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains are less likely to spike your blood sugar, especially when paired with protein and extra fiber.
- This comprehensive low-sugar foods list provides some of the top low-sugar food choices, including beverages, snacks, breakfasts, and more.
Sugar is everywhere, and it seems like it's in almost everything we eat. But there's a big difference between naturally occurring sugar and eating foods with a ton of added sugar.
Short-term, overeating added sugars can impact your energy and mood and increase food cravings. Over time, a diet high in too much added sugar can be harmful to your health.
Luckily, there are so many delicious foods you can eat that are naturally low in sugar. This article will provide you with a comprehensive low-sugar food list to help you feel your best.
What Is Sugar?
Sugar is a carbohydrate that provides energy for the body. It's found in many foods we eat every day, including fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and processed foods. There are different types of sugar, but all sugars are carbohydrates.<sup>1</sup>
Look Out for Refined Sugar
The main thing to consider when examining sugar is the source. Refined sugar is extracted from sugar cane or sugar beets, and it's a simple carbohydrate. This type of sugar is found in processed foods like cookies, cakes, candy, and soda.
If you look at a nutrition label, refined sugars are often listed as added sugar, which means they have been added to the product during processing. Consuming too many refined sugars can lead to weight gain and other health problems.<sup>2</sup>
Oppositely, complex carbohydrates are made up of multiple sugars linked together. These carbohydrates are found naturally in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, so they aren't considered added sugars. Complex carbohydrates are a healthier source of sugar than refined carbs because they provide other nutrients like fiber and antioxidants.<sup>3</sup>
A significant difference between complex and simple carbohydrates is how your body digests them. Simple carbs are quickly broken down into glucose (sugar) and are considered high glycemic because they spike your blood sugar.
Complex carbs are slowly digested and absorbed and are therefore low glycemic since they don't raise your blood sugar the same way simple carbs do. Slower absorption is critical for blood sugar balance and helps you feel full and satisfied between your meals.
<p class="pro-tip">Learn about slow-digesting (complex) carbs from an registered dietitian</p>
Top Low-Sugar Foods
Here are the top low-sugar foods you should add to your grocery list.
Highly sweetened beverages like soda, juice, or sweetened tea and coffee can be some of the most significant sources of added sugar in the average person's diet, so choosing low-sugar drinks makes it easier to cut down on sugar intake.
Water is the ideal choice, but sometimes it's fun to mix things up.
Green tea contains antioxidants and polyphenols with well-researched health benefits for cardiovascular protection, blood sugar balance, and brain health.<sup>5</sup> But green tea also has L-theanine, an amino acid that has a calming effect on the nervous system that can help with stress and anxiety reduction.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong><a href="/blog/green-tea-weight-loss">the benefits of green tea for weight loss</a></p>
Carbonated water makes hydrating more exciting without added sugar. From lime to passion fruit, sparkling water is so popular that you can experiment with many different flavors to find your favorite.
High-Fiber, Low-Sugar Foods
Fiber is a nutrient that can help offset the negative impacts of sugar.<sup>6</sup> It slows down the digestion and absorption of sugar, preventing blood sugar spikes. It's also an essential piece of weight management.
This cruciferous vegetable is low in sugar and high in fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients like vitamins C and K. Broccoli is also a source of sulforaphane, a phytonutrient that may have anti-cancer properties and is linked to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.<sup>7</sup>
Naturally low in sugar and high in fiber and protein, chickpeas are also a good source of essential nutrients like zinc and folate. Several studies show their positive impact on blood sugar balance and glycemic control, even if paired with a refined high-carb food.<sup>8</sup>
Lentils are incredibly nutrient-dense, and they are high in protein, fiber, iron, magnesium, B vitamins, and more. They’re also very inexpensive and easy to cook. One study found that replacing a higher-carb side dish like rice with lentils leads to a significantly better blood sugar response, even though lentils also contain carbs too.<sup>9</sup>
Low in sugar and high in fiber and other nutrients like vitamin C and lycopene, tomatoes are delicious and filled with antioxidants that fight back against free radical damage in the body.
The avocado toast trend makes dietitians very happy because avocados happen to be delicious and rich in healthy fats. Some studies even suggest that people who eat avocados are more likely to achieve a healthy weight.<sup>10</sup>
Low-Sugar, Low-Carb Foods
Whether you are on a low-carb diet or just being mindful of how many carbs you eat, these foods are naturally low in carbs and therefore low-sugar.
Another cruciferous veggie in the same family as broccoli, cauliflower is low in sugar, high in fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, and antioxidants.<sup>11</sup>
Poultry is naturally low carb and high in protein, which helps offset the negative impacts of sugar by slowing down digestion and absorption, and minimizing blood sugar spikes.<sup>12</sup> Chicken is also a good source of essential nutrients like zinc, niacin, and vitamin B12.<sup>13</sup>
High in fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients like vitamin A and vitamin C, kale is a superfood superstar. Leafy greens like kale are part of the brassica family, which promote detoxification and immune health plus reduce inflammation.<sup>14</sup>
High in omega-3 fatty acids, salmon is another naturally low-carb protein. Omega-3 fatty acids help balance inflammation in the body and can even support your mood.<sup>15</sup>
Popeye was on the right track with his love affair with spinach. It's a low-sugar, nutrient-dense vegetable that contains iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, and B vitamins.<sup>16</sup>
These snacks are helpful to keep on hand, so you have better choices in between meals when hunger hits.
Low in sugar and high in fiber, blueberries are also rich in antioxidants that help support brain and heart health while reducing inflammation and diabetes risk (among many other health benefits).<sup>17</sup>
Celery is high in fiber and contains antioxidants. It's also primarily made of water, which helps contribute to your daily hydration goals.<sup>18</sup>
Plain Greek Yogurt
Unsweetened yogurt, especially Greek yogurt, is an easy snack to bump up protein intake for those who tolerate dairy. You'll see that yogurt has a small number of carbohydrates, but it's from the naturally occurring sugar in dairy called lactose.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Tip from an RDN: </strong><br>Greek yogurt can be eaten as a snack, added to smoothies or bowls, or swapped for sour cream. To sweeten it up, try microwaving some frozen blueberries and mix them into your yogurt for a flavored option without the added sugar or <a href="https://www.signos.com/blog/sugar-substitutes-and-artificial-sweeteners-part-3">artificial sweeteners.</a> Read more: Does dairy (lactose) cause blood sugar spikes?</p>
High in fiber, protein, and antioxidants, walnuts are a good source of essential nutrients like vitamin E and magnesium. They are also a plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids.<sup>19</sup>
Low-Sugar Breakfast Foods
They've been called the perfect protein because they provide all the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) we need in just the right ratios. But eggs are also a source of choline, a vital nutrient for your brain and nervous system.<sup>20</sup>
Oatmeal is often the first food recommended to bump up fiber intake, and it's even recommended for cardiovascular health because intake is linked to better cholesterol levels.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Tip from an RDN: </strong><br>Some people find oatmeal spikes their blood sugar even though it contains fiber. Add even more fiber like flax or chopped pumpkin seeds, as well as nut butter and even egg white to make it a complete, blood-sugar balancing breakfast. Read more about oatmeal and weight loss.</p>
Chia seeds have gained popularity in recent years because of their health benefits and versatility in the kitchen, but they've been used by many traditional cultures for thousands of years. Tiny chia seeds are high in fiber and contain omega-3 fatty acids.<sup>21</sup>
What About Packaged Low-Sugar Foods?
In a perfect scenario, you'd eat nothing but minimally processed foods and only foods you make yourself. But life is busy, and eating this way isn't always realistic for everyone. Also, feeling guilty about eating packaged foods isn't helpful.
Instead, you can make better choices that still align with your health goals. Luckily, there are food companies that emphasize quality ingredients to make life a bit easier when you can't make everything from scratch.
Here are a few low-sugar options to consider:
- Vital Proteins Collagen Powder
- Further Foods Collagen Peptides
- RX Protein Bars
- Go Macro Bars
- Bonafide Provisions Bone Broth
- Primal Kitchen Dressing and Marinades
- True Made (No Sugar) Veggie Ketchup
- Cappello’s Almond Flour Pasta
- Banza Garbanzo Bean Pasta
Foods to Avoid (or Limit as Much as Possible)
In addition to focusing on low-sugar foods in your diet, it's also important to avoid or limit certain high-sugar foods that can spike your blood sugar and lead to more cravings, such as:
- Processed foods like packaged candy, chips, or cookies
- Refined carbohydrates made from white flour like white bread or white pasta
Putting it all Together
By adding healthy, low-sugar foods to your diet and avoiding processed foods and sugary drinks, you can feel confident about the foods you put into your body. Use this low-sugar food list for inspiration at the grocery store, or check out the Signos low-sugar, low-glycemic meal plan example if you need a little extra guidance.