9 Steps to Breaking up with Sugar
By Maribeth Evezich, MS, RD
Sugar. Here’s what we know for sure. As a country we eat too much. It’s everywhere. And it’s possibly addictive. But how do you know if sugar is a problem for you? If in doubt, simply ask yourself who is in control—sugar or you? If you’re not sure if you or sugar is in charge, ask yourself if these situations sound familiar:
- I consume some form of sugar each morning (think sweetened coffee, juice, pastry, jam, etc.)
- In the midafternoon I tend to be distracted by sugar cravings
- A meal isn’t a meal without dessert!
- I have a secret stash (chocolate at my desk, candy in my purse or glovebox)
- You might call me a carboholic
- Portion control is a challenge once I start eating sweet items
- My sugar habits often leave me with a headache or feeling lethargic, depressed, or anxious
If one or more of these statements apply to you, your relationship with sugar may be unhealthy. Most people find that avoiding sugar completely, ideally for several weeks, helps them reclaim control over sugar. Follow these 10 steps to help make it happen.
Pick your approach.
- Go gradual or cold turkey? While there is no single best approach to reclaiming control over sugar, minimal consumption or complete avoidance is recommended.
- Cold turkey: It’s not easy, but 100% avoidance is likely the most efficient way for most people to conquer their cravings and let their taste buds adapt to a less sweet diet. This approach requires planning and diligent label reading, which will likely create improved dietary patterns in the long run. However, stopping sugar suddenly may trigger symptoms of withdrawal ranging from headaches and mood changes, to bloating, diarrhea, hunger, and nausea, as well as chills, muscle aches, and tiredness. These symptoms generally only last a few days for most people.
- Gradual reduction: To gradually reduce sugar intake, first eliminate the most sugar-concentrated foods you most commonly consume, then those you consume occasionally, then start eliminating the “hidden” sources (yogurt, ketchup, etc.) by carefully reading labels. This is a much longer, more gentle process and less likely to provoke withdrawal symptoms. However, consuming even small amounts of sugar may continue to feed the cycle of cravings.
Don’t drink it.
- Soda and energy and sports drinks are the largest “food group” source of added sugars (34.4%) in America.1 Drinking sugar is even more problematic than eating it because it enters your system much more quickly. And, without significant fiber to slow down digestion, sugar-filled beverages are likely to cause unhealthy blood sugar spikes. If you don’t think you can eliminate juices or sugary beverages completely, start diluting them with water (mineral or tap), decreasing the ratio of sugar to water over time, thereby weaning off these empty-calorie beverages.
Read labels carefully every time.
- Eating a diet of whole, minimally processed foods makes sugar avoidance easier. If consuming packaged foods, read labels carefully.
- Buyer beware: Be particularly cautious of foods you might consider healthy, such as yogurt or energy bars and any items marketed as “low-fat.” Typically, when fat is removed, sugar is added.
- Repeat purchases: Manufacturers often change their product formulas, so read labels every time you buy a product.
Don’t get hangry!
- Feed and snack smart. That means not going too long without eating and considering the needs of the brain. While the brain accounts for only 2% of our body weight, it is responsible for about 60% of the body’s glucose utilization in the resting state.2 Further, the frontal cortex (in charge of movement, behavior, and emotional control) is particularly sensitive to falling glucose levels. Remember, the brain needs to be fed with consistency and relative frequency—and may have a “tantrum” if it doesn’t get its way.
Know your sugars.
- Although considered healthier due to mineral or phytonutrient content, when it comes to cravings, “natural” forms, such as agave, coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup, and molasses are still forms of sugar that can fuel sugar cravings and feelings of addiction.
- Natural versus added sugars: The naturally occurring sugars in fruits, certain vegetables (tomatoes, carrots, peas, etc.), and dairy products are not an issue.
- Alternate forms and names for sugar: There are over 60 different forms of added sugars (including juices and syrups). Some of the most common end in -ose (sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, glucose, galactose, high fructose corn syrup) or -ol (erythritol, glycol, isomalt(ol), lacitol, maltitol, mannitol, ribotol, sorbitol, xylitol).
- Alternative noncaloric sweeteners: Stevia, an herb, and monk fruit (Luo Han Guo) are considered safe alternatives to artificial sweeteners. However, they should be used sparingly to preserve taste bud and insulin receptor function. This helps reduce sugar cravings and maintain even energy levels.
- Artificial sweeteners: ALWAYS avoid artificial sweeteners because of their many known side effects. Some examples of common artificial sweeteners include aspartame, acesulfame k, saccharin, and sucralose. Recent studies of diet soda beverages have linked them with a higher incidence of stroke.3 They are also known to confuse taste buds and insulin receptors, which may make reducing or eliminating sugar challenging.
Baking without sugar.
- Sugar is added for more than just sweetness in baked goods. It provides moisture, texture, and structural support.
- Experiment: While sugar can’t be eliminated in all recipes, it can be reduced in most. Test with a 10% reduction, then 25%. Many pastry chefs regularly cut the recommended amount of sugar. Less sugar gives the other flavors more prominence.
- Quick breads: In quick breads (no yeast), the sugar can be replaced with fresh fruit, such as apple sauce, ripe banana, or crushed pineapple as appropriate to the flavor profile.
Keep it balanced with glycemic control.
- Stick with whole, minimally processed foods (moderate amounts of complex carbohydrates along with adequate protein, plant fiber, and healthy fats). This “glycemic controlled” way of eating helps maintain stable blood sugar levels, which in turns helps reduce sugar cravings.
Plant fiber (prebiotics) and probiotics.
- Ditching sugar helps eliminate cravings, in part by helping control the “bad bacteria” in the gastrointestinal tract.4 These microbes thrive on a diet of refined sugar and processed food, so eliminating sugar cuts off their food supply.
- In contrast, eating plenty of plant fiber and fermented foods, as well as taking probiotic supplements, helps increase the amount of beneficial gut bacteria. Just like us, the beneficial bacteria thrive on a diet of fiber-rich plant foods, especially certain components of fiber, known as prebiotics.
- Plus, research shows that improving the amount and diversity of healthy microbes can also reduce cravings.5 Examples of prebiotic foods include asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, leeks, onions, bananas, oatmeal, and legumes.
Get your Zzzzs.
- Adequate sleep plays an important role in your hunger and cravings by balancing leptin, known as the satiety hormone, and ghrelin, known as the hunger hormone. In contrast, sleep deprivation can tip the hormonal balance away from satiety toward hunger.
- Drewnowski A et al. Consumption of added sugars among US children and adults by food purchase location and food source. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100(3):901-907.
- Berg JM et al. Biochemistry. 5th edition. New York: W H Freeman; 2002. Section 30.2, Each Organ Has a Unique Metabolic Profile. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK22436/
- Bernstein AM et al. Soda consumption and the risk of stroke in men and women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012;95(5):1190-1199.
- Conlin MA et al. The impact of diet and lifestyle on gut microbiota and human health. Nutrients. 2015;7(1):17-44.
- Alcock J et al. Is eating behavior manipulated by the gastrointestinal microbiota? Evolutionary pressures and potential mechanisms. Bioessays. 2014;36(10):940-949.