Sugar consumption, per person, has slowly doubled over the last century. The average American consumes about 20 teaspoons of added sugar per day—way off the recommended amount of six for women and nine for men. One way to fight the insidious sugar creep is to do a sugar detox, which helps your palette recalibrate its reliance on overly sweet foods.
But if you have a sweet tooth, you are not alone. All humans are biologically hardwired as infants to like sugar. Sugar intake literally changes biochemical pathways to the brain. Sugar releases beta-endorphins, dopamine and serotonin—making us happy, albeit briefly. When you eat processed foods full of sugar or refined flour, they release energy (in the form of glucose) quickly and spike your blood sugar. The immediate pick me up is followed by a crash—feelings of fatigue, hunger and irritation. All too often, so many of us think that the cure for a sugar crash is more sugar. The nagging, persistent sugar cravings often get the better of us.
Sugar withdrawal is real
Cutting out sugar is harder than it seems. Many people begin to feel sugar cravings and withdrawal symptoms a few days into a detox, much like the craving and withdrawal cycles seen in those quitting smoking. Sugar releases dopamine and opioids in the brain, both of which have addictive potential. Receptors in the brain are rewired to compensate for the release of these extra neurotransmitters. It’s possible when you reduce your sugar intake, your brain craves the extra opioids and dopamine, which is the root cause of persistent withdrawal symptoms.
So how do you break the cycle?
You might think of detoxes as a short-term mission, but the goal of a sugar detox is to help you re-assess your relationship to sugar in the long term. For some, that means cutting added sugar out of their diets indefinitely, and for others, it may mean re-introducing it in small amounts post-detox. Think of it as a reset, a way to re-sensitize your palette, and perhaps even a lifestyle change. Over time, reducing your added sugar intake can lead to multiple health benefits.
While it can seem daunting to give up sugar, if you approach it tactically it’s often easier than you might imagine. To embark on a sugar detox, it’s smart to set a specific amount of time. There is no clear recommendation for how long you should detox whether that be 7, 21 or 30 days. Aim for a minimum of one or two weeks without eating added sugar. Before you detox, get rid of tempting, sugary foods.
Sugar detox: A one-month guide
Go cold turkey for three days
Many experts suggest that for a sugar detox to be successful, there are no halfway measures, at least right out of the gate. That means the first three days of your detox, not only no added sugars, but also no fruits, no starchy vegetables (such as corn, peas, sweet potatoes and butternut squash), no dairy, no grains and no alcohol. That means initially, your diet consists mainly of protein, vegetables and healthy fats.
A generous, fresh breakfast, with proteins, complex carbohydrates, fiber-rich foods and healthy fats is the ticket to keeping blood sugar balanced. It also will help reduce sugar cravings throughout the day.
Load up on healthy fats
Nuts are a sugarholic’s best friend. A spoonful of nut butter with no added sugar will soon taste like a dessert and keep you able to endure your sugar cravings. You can also try adding half of an avocado at lunch, which can also satisfy a sweet tooth.
And on the fourth day, let there be apples
Add in an apple on the fourth day. It should taste like candy. Once you take sugar away from your diet, your palate readjusts and you start really tasting natural sugars again.
Reintroduce one serving of dairy from day 4 on
Yes, you can have dairy, if its full-fat and unsweetened. The three angels of a sugar detox are fat, fiber and protein. They slow the absorption of sugar, so if you take out the fat from dairy it will make you absorb sugar faster. Plus, it’s the fat that gives dairy a natural sweetness.
Give peas a chance
Once you hit day four, you can also add some higher-sugar vegetables such as carrots and snow peas, as well as a daily serving of high-fiber crackers. Three glasses of red wine in that first week can be added, too.
Yam it up
During week two, you can add a serving of antioxidant-rich berries and an extra serving of dairy. You can also add back starchy vegetables such as yams and winter squash.
When in doubt, add protein
Adding extra protein keeps you full and subsequently reduces food cravings. A 2017 study of people with type two diabetes found a low carbohydrate, high fiber, fat, and protein diet increased feelings of fullness and reduced sugar cravings.
Go with the grain
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Dehydration exacerbates sugar cravings. Try to drink 3.7 liters of water per day for men, or 2.7 liters for women.
Take it home
Week four and you are in the home stretch. In this final week you can enjoy two starches per day, including bread and rice, in addition to high-fiber crackers.
Deciding to do a longer detox or adopting a low-sugar diet could help you improve your health beyond simply reducing sugar. You may realize that you finally need to correct other lifestyle choices that can be at the root of your fatigue, such as sleep and screen habits. You may be pleasantly surprised to find yourself having more energy, less brain fog, better immunity, glowy skin and a bevy of other benefits.