Most of us can agree: A little sugar here and there is part of what makes life so sweet. Its molecular form — called glucose — is your cells’ preferred fuel, and your brain’s main source of energy, so your body is well-equipped to manage moderate amounts.
So what’s the problem? Sticking to moderate amounts. It’s the opposite of what’s been happening in the Western diet over the last several decades.
Today, Americans’ diets are totally saturated with sugar. On average, we consume 66 pounds of added sugar per person per year, or about 19.5 teaspoons every day. That’s two to three times the limit of six teaspoons per day for women and nine teaspoons for men that’s recommended by the American Heart Association.
There’s nothing sweet about what that excess white stuff does to your health: Over-consuming sugar and refined carbohydrates has been linked to everything from diabetes, obesity, and heart disease to dementia and even cancer.
Before you set out to slash your sugar intake, it helps to understand more about why it’s so key, and what you’re up against (hello, cravings!).
This is your body on sugar
Excess sugar wreaks havoc on your body in a few different ways. For starters, research suggests it may contribute to inflammation in the body. In turn, chronic inflammation is linked with heart disease, arthritis, numerous types of cancer, and other serious health problems.
“We store glucose in the form of glycogen in muscles and the liver to supply energy between meals. Once glycogen stores are topped off, excess glucose is converted to fat in the liver. That fat must be transported to fat cells (adipose tissue),” explains Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., Medical Director of Vital Plan. “Fat doesn’t mix with water, so the liver forms special transport particles — called lipoproteins — to transfer the fat. These particles are made of fat, protein, and cholesterol.”
After the fat is deposited into fat cells, the leftover particle, containing protein and cholesterol, is the LDL particle — the “bad” type of cholesterol associated with heart disease.
Glycation is another harmful side effect of sugar overload. “Glycation is when glucose sticks to proteins in the body and gums up the works,” says Dr. Rawls. He explains that proteins are what make normal and necessary functions happen throughout the body, so too much glucose ends up inhibiting those functions.
“The drive to consume carbohydrates is even stronger than the drive to sleep and have sex.” – Dr. Rawls
Glycation also weakens proteins that play crucial structural roles. Take collagen, for example, which is the “scaffolding” that holds up skin and helps keep it smooth and healthy. “Glucose is a collagen cruncher — it’s one of the reasons our skin wrinkles,” Dr. Rawls says.
One more major side effect of excess sugar is its impact on the glucose-regulating hormone insulin. “Insulin is like a lock and key that allows cells to take up glucose,” Dr. Rawls says. “But if you keep pounding cells with glucose, over time they eventually start becoming resistant to insulin, so your body has to pump out more and more.”
“Because of glycation, blood glucose levels must be tightly controlled — too much and the body is poisoned; too little and the body is starved for energy,” he explains.
“The primary way that glucose is regulated is by insulin. After a meal, insulin allows the body’s cells to take up glucose, which lowers blood glucose levels. At first, only insulin levels are elevated — what’s known as insulin resistance. But once blood sugar starts to elevate, the result becomes diabetes.”
Elevated insulin and blood sugar levels can mess with hormones — including those that control appetite. In the short term, those roller coaster blood sugar and insulin levels make you feel crummy and further feed your drive to eat more sugar. Continued over time, it may lead to diabetes and cause your body to store more and more calories as fat.
If you have a hard time saying no to sweet treats, it’s not entirely your fault. Back in hunter and gatherer times, carbohydrates (aka sugar) were hard to come by, but vital for survival. So humans developed an incredibly strong drive to find and consume them. “It’s even stronger than the drive to sleep and have sex,” Dr. Rawls says.
Research shows consuming sugar-laden foods triggers the release of feel-good opioids in the brain, similar to the effect of drugs like heroin. Over time, changes to gene expression and other functions also dull the response to those opioids, meaning that the more often you eat excess sugar, the more you’ll feel the need to keep experiencing the same feeling.
That’s why it can be difficult for some people to eat just one piece of candy. Not to mention, sweet foods are revered by modern society — they’ve become synonymous with reward and celebration. Given all that, it’s no wonder many experts say sugar addiction is very real. The good news is, you can break free from the habit. Here’s how:
10 steps to quitting sugar
First, know that you don’t have to cut out all forms of carbohydrates to beat sugar addiction. Instead, focus on eliminating sweets (candy, pastries, sugar-sweetened drinks, etc.) as well as packaged foods with added sugar. It’s often hidden, so look for its pseudonyms on labels, which include high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, fructose, or other words ending in -ose.
Also, avoid heavily processed white bread and pasta. You might also opt to cut out natural forms of sugar, such as honey, maple syrup, and high-sugar fruits like dates.
Whether you should go cold turkey or simply cut back depends on how much sugar you eat, and whether you feel as if you’re truly addicted. “You wouldn’t tell an alcoholic to just cut back on drinking,” says Brooke Alpert, R.D., founder of B Nutritious nutritional counseling and author of The Sugar Detox: Lose Weight, Feel Great and Look Years Younger. “With true sugar addicts, the cravings are so strong that moderation doesn’t work.”
On the other hand, if you generally eat well but your sweet tooth has gotten a little out of control, you can probably reduce your intake by cutting out or limiting sweets, packaged foods, and simple carbs.
Either way, the truth is, it’s not going to be easy — but it is doable, Alpert says. Here are ten strategies that she and Dr. Rawls say will help you manage cravings and sugar withdrawal, so you can get your sugar intake under control.
1. Plan ahead
If you’re truly hooked on sugar, quitting abruptly can make you feel like you have a hangover, Alpert says, complete with fatigue, brain fog, headaches, and irritability. Fortunately, sugar withdrawal symptoms typically only last about three days, so to up your odds of successfully navigating those three days, Alpert recommends carefully choosing when you start your sugar detox.
“Make sure you’re not doing it during three days you know will be high-stress,” Alpert says, which makes it easier to succumb to sugar cravings. Instead, pick days when you can practice more self-care and better plan meals, snacks, and distractions. “Know that there’s an end to it, and you will be okay,” Alpert says.
Food will also start tasting better when you avoid sugar, which helps. “Your taste buds will begin to recalibrate, and you’ll be able to taste sugar again in its natural form,” Alpert says. “You’ll notice that foods like almonds and onions actually have some natural sweetness.”
2. Fill up on healthy fats
Fat tastes good and is satisfying, both mentally and physically. It also helps stabilize blood sugar, Alpert says. That’s key, since dips in blood sugar were shown to activate areas in the brain that produce a greater desire for high-calorie food in study subjects who were shown images of tasty treats, reports the Journal of Clinical Investigation. So making sure every meal contains some healthy fat from foods such as avocados, nuts, olives, fish, or cheese can help you enjoy your food and feel less deprived.
3. Get plenty of sleep
“Being sleep-deprived sets you up for poor food choices,” Alpert says. “When you’re tired, you’re always looking for that quick fix of energy.” Levels of ghrelin, aka the “hunger hormone,” also rise if you haven’t had a good night’s sleep, which makes it extra hard to fight cravings.
Research shows sleep deprivation actually increases your desire for high-calorie foods while also decreasing activity in the regions of the brain that deal with evaluating food choices. For instance, one study in the journal Sleep found that sleep restriction boosts a chemical signal in the body that makes junk food taste extra delicious (similar to the “munchies” effect of marijuana) — and keeps it elevated when it would otherwise dip in the evening. What’s more, the sleep-deprived study participants binged on cookies, candy, and chips, even after eating a big meal two hours prior, eating twice the amount they did after a good night’s sleep.
4. Stay hydrated
“Adequate hydration keeps up energy levels and helps stabilize hunger,” Alpert says, adding that it can also affect blood sugar levels. On the flip side, being thirsty could mess with your ability to make healthy decisions and resist sweets. It turns out that even mild dehydration (1 to 2 percent less water than your body needs to function optimally) seems to impair cognitive performance, which includes attentiveness and critical thinking skills, according to a study in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal.
For this reason, both Dr. Rawls and Alpert advise sipping zero-calorie sparkling or mineral water when you crave something sweet to help deter indulgence. These drinks come in a variety of flavors, or you could add your own flavor. “I grew up in the south where everyone drinks sweet tea; I don’t enjoy plain water unless I’m really thirsty,” Dr. Rawls says. “So I drink mineral water with a little vanilla extract or tart cherry concentrate, and it tastes better than anything.”
Another option is to add 1-2 teaspoons of stevia or honey to your drink to help make the taste more pleasant. But stay away from artificial sweeteners — they’re linked to serious health concerns and can worsen sugar cravings.
5. Write down what you’re going to eat
Every morning, think about your meals and snacks for the day, and jot them down. “It puts you in a positive mindset, and helps hold you accountable for your goals and what you’re going to do,” Alpert says.
To help reduce sudden cravings, get rid of the candy bowl in your office at work and the cookie jar at home. “You’ll eat what’s available,” says Dr. Rawls. “Keeping your home and workplace free of carb-loaded foods is the best way to avoid them.”
If you feel like you’re about to give in to cravings, call or text a friend for support. Alpert says quitting sugar with a pal, or at least talking to someone about your plans and asking them to help keep you on track, can be a lifeline. A few words of encouragement from someone else are sometimes all you need to stay the course.
6. Be mindful, then distract yourself
It’s easy to mindlessly grab a handful of sweets when you pass a candy bowl, or automatically reach for the breadbasket when out for dinner. The trick is to think about everything you eat before it goes in your mouth. Do you really want it? Do you really need it? If you find that the answer to both questions is “no,” and that instead you’re responding to a craving, take a moment to acknowledge the feeling: Inhale a slow, deep breath, and then remind yourself of your goals and that cravings always pass.
Once you’ve tuned back in to the present, distract yourself. You might read a good book, listen to a podcast, or scroll through social media. Even better, take a short, brisk walk: A study in the journal PLoS One found that a 15-minute walk significantly reduced participants’ urge to eat a sugary snack compared to a control group.
7. Fight sweet cravings with bitters
Bitter taste receptors aren’t only on your tongue; they’re found throughout your digestive system and on other organs. They largely go unused if you eat a traditional Western diet, but stimulating those receptors with bitter foods and herbs positively affects hormones involved in controlling hunger and appetite, which could help keep cravings in check.
Bitter herbs and aromatic bitters (bitter herb extracts in an alcohol base) are also commonly used in traditional medicine to help stabilize and maintain healthy blood sugar levels. The pancreas, which makes insulin, actually contains bitter taste receptors.
To stimulate your bitter receptors, try adding a dropperful or two of aromatic bitters on the back of your tongue before meals and at your usual snack time. In terms of other herbal therapy, many herbs such as burdock root and dandelion root are naturally bitter, having been derived from bark and roots. Some bitter herbs also help support healthy blood glucose levels, such as andrographis, Dr. Rawls says.
8. Sniff essential oils
Research has shown that several scents help tame an overactive appetite. When study subjects sniffed peppermint every two hours for five days, for example, they consumed fewer calories and less sugar than when they weren’t exposed to the aroma, reports a study by researchers at Wheeling Jesuit University.
Studies also show that the scent of jasmine and grapefruit may also help control cravings and hunger. Try diffusing any of these essential oils around your home or office, or look for the scents in natural, essential oil-based perfumes and body lotions or oils.
9. Exercise regularly
“Regular exercise and being active decreases appetite and carb cravings better than anything else,” says Dr. Rawls. “You cannot break free from your sugar addiction without increasing your activity level.”
Find an activity you enjoy — whether it’s hiking, biking, tennis, yoga, kayaking or another form of exercise — and make time to move your body each day. “Physical activity also mobilizes glucose and fat stores in the body,” says Dr. Rawls. “This has the effect of normalizing blood sugar, an important factor in decreasing the incidence of insulin resistance and diabetes.”
10. Indulge wisely
If you do decide to go the cold turkey route, Alpert suggests waiting at least a week, but possibly even longer before indulging in sweets again. “Once you feel like you’ve got the day-to-day under control, it’s okay to have something sweet,” she says. “Life is short and there’s a place for a slice of cake.”
But, she says, it’s key that you eat it without guilt. If you’re going to binge and feel bad, it often leads you to make more poor choices and fall off the wagon altogether.
So make sure your indulgences are intentional, thought-out, and enjoyable. Keep avoiding processed junk, simple carbs, low-quality candy, and packaged foods with hidden sugars. Instead, treat yourself to, say, a piece of dark chocolate or a small cup of ice cream every now and then. And when you do, be sure to savor every bite.
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