The Sugar Busters diet focuses on eliminating refined carbohydrates and high glycemic index foods as a means of losing weight. As the name suggests, it cuts out sugar as well as foods (including grains, fruits, and vegetables) that could cause blood sugars to rise.
What Experts Say
"At its core, Sugar Busters! balances low-glycemic carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Experts agree the emphasis on eating a variety of unprocessed food is wise—but disagree that you need to eliminate all the 'forbidden foods,' like bananas and beets."
—Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH
This diet was first popularized in the 1995 book, "Sugar Busters! Cut Sugar to Trim Fat" by H. Leighton Steward, Sam S. Andrews, Morrison C. Bethea, and Luis A. Balart. (All but Steward are medical doctors.) The authors published a follow-up called "The New Sugar Busters! Cut Sugar to Trim Fat" in 2002. There are also cookbooks, a shopping guide, and even a kids' edition.
How It Works
The "Sugar Busters" authors recommend about 40 percent of calories in the diet come from high fiber, low glycemic carbohydrate, 30 percent from protein, and about 30 percent (but as much as 40 percent) from primarily fat (unsaturated). They also state that people may eat as much as 50 to 55 percent carbohydrate and still stay within the bounds of the diet. However, they don't say where the extra 10 to 15 percent of carbs should come from, given the protein and fat recommendations.
The books don't give specific measurements for portions, but simply recommend one plate of food, not over-full. Put reasonable portions on the plate and don’t go back for seconds.
What to Eat
Lower-glycemic fruits and vegetables
Fish and seafood
Low-fat dairy products
High-glycemic fruits and vegetables
Caffeine (in excess)
Lower-Glycemic Fruits and Vegetables
Sweet potatoes and all other fresh, canned, and frozen fruits and vegetables are included, except for the ones listed as high-glycemic. Canned fruits should not be packed in syrup.
Whole grains, such as brown rice and oatmeal, are permitted, as are products made with 100 percent whole grain flour (note that “wheat flour” is not whole grain—it has to say 100 percent whole wheat), as long as they have no added sugars.
Legumes (including many different types of beans) are a good source of protein and fiber, with lower calories. They are a "good" carbohydrate on this diet. Nuts and nut butters are also acceptable (watch ingredient lists on nut butters for added sugar).
Meats, Fish, and Eggs
The diet advises eating lean meats, removing the skin from poultry and trimming fat from lean beef, lamb, and pork. All fish and seafood allowed, as are whole eggs. However, no breading is allowed. Those on the Sugar Busters diet should also avoid meat cured in sugar (such as bacon and ham).
Low-Fat Dairy Products
Unsaturated fat is emphasized, but saturated fat is not forbidden. Butter is acceptable in moderation, for example, as are cream and cheese. Nonetheless, saturated fat should not comprise more than 10 percent of the diet. And low-fat dairy products should not contain added sugar.
High-Glycemic Fruits and Vegetables
These include bananas, raisins, pineapple, most root vegetables (potatoes, beets, parsnips), and corn, as well as potato chips and corn chips. Carrots are okay in moderation, as are fruit juices with no added sugar.
The diet has a list of carbohydrate foods that should be avoided, including white rice; pasta (unless whole grain); white flour and products made with it such as bread, cake, cookies, crackers, pretzels, doughnuts, bagels, and muffins.
Added sugar is off-limits, as are honey, syrups, and products with added sugar. These could include jams, jellies, salad dressings, sauces (like ketchup and teriyaki sauce), soft drinks, and juice drinks. Artificially sweetened soft drinks, pure fruit jams and jellies, sugar-free ice cream, and chocolate (at least 60 percent cacao) are allowed in moderation.
While beer is not permitted, one alcoholic beverage with a meal is acceptable, with dry red wine preferred.
Limit caffeine to two to three cups of caffeinated beverage per day, and fewer is better.
People on the Sugar Busters diet can divide their eating between anywhere from three to six meals per day, depending on schedule and what works best for each person. The book's authors advise no eating after 8 p.m. Fruits and juices should ideally be eaten separately from other foods, but they are not rigid about this.
Resources and Tips
The Sugar Busters books can be helpful as references as you learn which foods are considered high- and low-glycemic.
Pros and Cons
Simple and clear
High in fiber and nutrients
Low in saturated fat
Some contradictions in book
There are no phases, no counting, no measuring, and very little special knowledge needed. To follow the basic diet, you just need to be able to identify the ingredients and foods to stay away from. To be sure, those foods are everywhere, so it’s not necessarily easy. But it is simple.
Getting 40 percent of your calories from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains makes it easy to eat a nutrient-rich diet that is high in fiber and phytonutrients. That makes this diet safe to follow for most people. However, although it may seem to be ideal for those with diabetes, everyone is different. Be sure to follow your doctor's advice for managing your blood sugar with diet and insulin.
Although "Sugar Busters" doesn’t have the same emphasis on this as other low-carb diets, the authors do urge users to eat less saturated fat. Though the jury is still out on some of the ins and outs of saturated fats and low carb diets, low saturated fats are probably a good thing in a moderate-carb diet.
While you will need a copy of the book to be able to follow this diet, the foods you'll eat are readily available. You do not need specialty ingredients or supplements.
This diet has many of the elements of a healthy, balanced diet and could be useful for weight loss for some people. However, there are some drawbacks.
The book has a lot of good information in it, but it’s not that easy to zero in on the diet. Readers will probably go to the food and meal lists first. But the text contains many suggestions that contradict the lists, or at least add vital information. Examples: The lists have butter, cream, and cheese on them. Then you read that you should limit saturated fat, but guidelines aren’t given as to how to do this. The lists don’t tell you what fruit to avoid, but it’s in the text.
There is no way to adjust this diet for individual variation. This is especially an issue when it comes to carbohydrates, because different people have different tolerances to glucose. However low glycemic the carb sources, it all gets broken down to sugar in the end, and some just can’t deal with much of it.
Lack of Scientific Evidence
This diet relies totally on the glycemic index. The index itself is fraught with problems. Plus, there is no evidence that if you eat a lot of lower glycemic food that it won’t add up to a higher blood sugar. Finally, Sugar Busters does not use the glycemic index consistently. There are allowed foods whose GI range is close to or overlaps sucrose, which is the big no-no you're meant to avoid.
How It Compares
The Sugar Busters diet has some similarities with other carb-cutting (and "good carb/bad carb") diets. It also has many elements of a healthy, balanced diet.
Like the USDA, the Sugar Busters diet recommends a balanced mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fat sourced from a range of foods. The biggest difference is the way the Sugar Busters diet places an outright ban on a number of foods, rather than recommending them in moderation.
The USDA recommends a rough target of about 2000 calories per day for weight maintenance. There is no particular calorie count associated with the Sugar Busters diet. Instead, users are encouraged to look at the makeup of their calories (40 percent complex carbohydrates, 30 percent protein, 30 percent fat).
Here's how Sugar Busters compares to some other low-carb plans.
Sugar Busters Diet
- Nutrition: This diet is generally nutritionally balanced, although experts say eliminating certain foods completely isn't necessary.
- Ease of use: On this diet, most foods are a yes, a no, or a "sometimes." There's no counting carbs or calories, which makes it pretty simple to follow.
- Flexibility: The Sugar Busters diet allows some leeway on the daily percentage of carbs (from 40 to 50 or even 55 percent), so you may be able to modify it a bit. But the off-limits foods don't change, so if you love beer or potatoes or pineapple, this diet might not be right for you.
- Sustainability: Unlike some other low-carb plans, there is no maintenance phase to this diet. The idea is to keep eating this way indefinitely, which may be a challenge for some people.
- Nutrition: Especially in its first phase, the Atkins diet cuts carbs more dramatically than Sugar Busters. In its original form, the diet seemed to recommend too much saturated fat, but the diet has been modified over the years to emphasize lean protein and unsaturated fat instead.
- Ease of use: People on the Atkins diet must learn how to count carbs, which can be tricky.
- Flexibility: The Atkins diet is highly structured, with its carb-counting requirements and a four-step process to get from beginning (induction phase) to end (maintenance).
- Sustainability: The Atkins diet has a maintenance phase, so after initial weight loss and adjustment to a lower-carb lifestyle, users are meant to continue with the plan indefinitely.
South Beach Diet
- Nutrition: Like Sugar Busters, the South Beach diet is a low-carb and low-sugar plan that also uses glycemic index to help determine which carbs are okay to eat. Beyond that, it encourages a balanced mix of carbs, protein, and healthy fats.
- Ease of use: Instead of counting net carbs as on Atkins, the South Beach diet tracks carbs via portion size and number of portions. As with Sugar Busters, certain foods with added sugar are off-limits completely.
- Flexibility: When compared to Atkins, South Beach is a little more flexible. Unlike Sugar Busters, both plans have a phased approach that is stricter in the beginning and then loosens as you learn how carbs affect your body.
- Sustainability: After two phases of cutting carbs and slowly adding them back in, you reach the third or maintenance phase, which ideally continues indefinitely. If you have success in the first part of this or any low-carb diet, you may be motivated to continue. But it's hard to give up certain foods forever.
Protein Power Diet
- Nutrition: Like the other low-carb diets, Protein Power includes all major food groups, so you should be able to get all the nutrients you need. As the name suggests, the Protein Power diet is a high-protein, low-carb diet with a moderate intake of fats.
- Ease of use: This diet also relies on carb and protein counting. A revised version allows for tracking portions instead of grams, which is easier for most people.
- Flexibility: As with the other diets, the carbs on this plan are complex (vs. refined), so you need to learn to live within those limits, and to consume more protein than you are probably used to. There is no calorie counting.
- Sustainability: Like Sugar Busters, this diet does not have phases. You spend about 30 days learning how to eat differently and what level of carbohydrates is right for you, and then you keep at it.
A Word From Verywell
Sugar Busters has its positives and negatives. It's healthy to limit refined carbs and emphasize whole grains and nutrient-rich, high-fiber, low-calorie foods. But eliminating otherwise nutritious fruits and vegetables because of their glycemic index is troubling and probably unnecessary. Whether you choose Sugar Busters or another plan, it's wise to discuss your diet plans with your healthcare provider, especially if you have a condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease.