Eating less sugar can lower your risk of several health conditions, help you lose weight, and even lead to brighter, younger-looking skin. However, quitting sugar isn't easy for most people, especially at first.
"I've never had a single client who didn't have some sort of reaction to cutting out sugar," Brooke Alpert, RDN, a nutritionist and author of "The Sugar Detox: Lose Weight, Feel Great and Look Years Younger," told Health.
When you consider how powerful an ingredient sugar is, that's not too surprising. In some ways, sugar acts like a drug in the body, so eliminating it from your diet can bring on less-than-pleasant side effects.
"For those who are really dependent on sugar, they're going to feel strong withdrawal symptoms when they cut it out," explained Alpert. "That might mean they're cranky, irritable, fatigued, or experiencing headaches."
So what's the best way to break up with sugar and keep those symptoms and your dessert cravings under control? Here's what you should know about cutting sugar from your diet and easing sugar withdrawal symptoms.
Benefits of Cutting Out Sugar
Glucose, a type of sugar, is your body’s main source of energy. Your body makes glucose by breaking down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats from the foods you eat.
Natural sugar sources include fruit, vegetables, and milk, which provide many other key vitamins and minerals. Still, in the United States, people often consume foods that have added, rather than natural, sugar. In fact, nearly 15% of the average person’s diet includes added sugar. In contrast to natural sugar, added sugar provides sweet flavors without any health benefits.
Excess added sugar intake raises your risk of several health conditions, like:
- Weight gain and obesity
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Tooth decay
So, to protect your health, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) advises cutting your added sugar intake. For example, on a 2,000-calorie diet, the DGA recommends consuming no more than 48 grams, 10% of your daily calorie intake.
Cutting out added sugar can help lower your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer, cavities, and obesity.
What Is Sugar Withdrawal?
Research has found that you can become addicted to sugar. In fact, the effects of sugar on your body closely resemble those of other substances, like alcohol and nicotine.
One study published in 2021 in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found that people addicted to sugar have symptoms similar to those with substance use disorders. Those symptoms include:
- Impaired control: With sugar addiction, you may not realize how much sugar you eat. Obvious sources of added sugar include soda, candy, and cake. However, added sugar may also be in less obvious foods, like whole-grain granola, instant oatmeal, and pasta sauce.
- Social impairment: This happens when your addiction hinders your relationships with friends, family, or co-workers.
- Risky use: Regularly exceeding the DGA’s recommended added sugar intake can have physical and mental health effects. In addition to health conditions like type 2 diabetes and obesity, excess added sugar intake links to a high risk of depression.
- Pharmacological indicators: You may have withdrawal symptoms if you cut out sugar.
If you consume sugar, in response, your body releases dopamine and opioid. Those hormones induce pleasure, making you associate sugar with feeling good. If you eat too much added sugar, your body craves it. Then, when you deprive your body of added sugar, you may have withdrawal symptoms, like headaches.
Stages of Sugar Withdrawal
When you cut out sugar after excessively consuming added sugar, you may notice withdrawal symptoms lasting days to weeks.
Immediately, when you deprive your body of sugar, you may notice physical symptoms like headache and fatigue. Also, mental symptoms may include a lack of motivation, happiness, and the ability to concentrate.
Then, while fighting off the physical and mental side effects of cutting sugar, your body may kick in sugar cravings. During that time, you can satiate your cravings in other ways, explained Alpert. Opt for foods with natural sugar, like fresh fruit and vegetables.
According to Alpert, your body will eventually adjust to low levels of natural sugar, making for a successful detox.
How To Ease Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms
Once you cut your usual supply of sugar, your body will likely rebel by shifting your mood and energy level. According to Alpert, to ease sugar withdrawal symptoms, try some of the following tips:
- Eat a balanced diet: Nourishing yourself with high-quality foods can help fight moodiness and energize you when you cut back on sweets. For example, eating lots of vegetables and organic protein will keep you full and your appetite controlled. Also, to avoid feeling "hangry" throughout the day, eat snacks with fiber and good fats, like celery and guacamole.
- Satisfy your cravings with spices: If you're longing for a sweet treat, try spicing up your savory food instead. Just because you're sugar-free doesn't mean your meals have to be totally bland. Try adding onion, garlic, and lime to help you withdraw from sugar without feeling like your food tastes terrible.
- Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water, which can help fight fatigue and headaches, another side effect of cutting out sugar.
- Have an unsweetened drink: Also, fill your glass with unsweetened iced tea or cold brew, suggested Alpert: "I've found that really cold drinks help curb sugar cravings."
How To Cut Out Sugar
To reduce your added sugar intake, start by going cold turkey, suggested Alpert. Nixing sugar all at once lowers the risk of bending the rules by opting for a sweet treat as you attempt to wean yourself off the sweet stuff.
Completely eliminate sugar from your diet for three days, including natural sugars like those in fruit and dairy, said Alpert. Those three days will probably be rough. Still, that's the minimum time often needed to break old habits and establish new, healthy ones.
Then after those three days, add small amounts of natural sugar, like fruit and organic honey, back into your diet. However, when you take that first bite, expect it to taste slightly different.
"Your palate has basically been recalibrated," explained Alpert. Sugar actually diminishes the ability to taste sweetness, and briefly avoiding sugary fare will make naturally sweet foods more satisfying.
Putting sugar back into your diet slowly will ease withdrawal symptoms without making you crave added sugar, noted Alpert. For example, eat two servings of fruit daily, like an apple and a banana. Also, choose unsweetened dairy products, like plain low-fat yogurt.
However, keep in mind that you don't have to ban added sugar forever. One "intentional indulgence" every week, whether it's a sweet treat like a slice of cake at a birthday party or a hot chocolate when it's chilly outside. Depriving yourself of an entire type of food can end poorly.
"If we fully restrict ourselves long-term, we set ourselves up to make bad decisions," added Alpert.
Cutting down on added sugar can take time and effort. Try some of the following tips for reducing your added sugar intake in the long term:
Stay Mindful Without Being Strict
You don’t have to go entirely sugar-free to reduce your risk of adverse health effects. Instead of nixing added sugar altogether, occasionally enjoy your favorite sweet treats.
Then, focus on eating a balanced diet of fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. Make fruit and vegetables the centerpiece of your meals, then add one-quarter of whole grains and one-quarter of lean proteins.
The most important part is to listen to your body, eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full.
Consider Natural vs. Added Sugar
Keep in mind that natural sugar can satisfy your sweet tooth while delivering health benefits. For example, instead of sugary fruit juice, try water flavored with lemon slices and mint. Also, you can swap flavored yogurts for plain low-fat yogurt and add a handful of berries.
Another way to replace added sugar with natural sugar is to cut down on processed food, if possible. For example, make your own pasta sauce using fresh tomatoes. When you make your own food, you can control how much sugar goes into your meals and snacks.
Alter Your Cooking and Baking Habits
Also, when it comes to cooking and baking, prioritize fresh fruit and vegetables. For example, add avocado to your recipe if you're baking brownies. Also, swap instant oatmeal for whole-grain oats. You can add banana and organic honey for sweetness.
A Quick Review
Eating less added sugar can lower your risk of several health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and obesity. One of the best ways to reduce your added sugar intake is to go cold turkey for three days, then slowly add natural sugars to your diet.
Keep in mind that cutting down on added sugar doesn't mean you have to avoid sweet treats. Make time to enjoy pastries and flavored coffee but remember to be mindful.
NIH News in Health. Sweet stuff.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Be sugar smart: Limiting added sugars can improve health.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Looking to reduce your family's added sugar intake? Here's how.
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Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Forget low fat and low sugar, concentrate on a healthy eating pattern.