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Sugar consumption is a huge health issue today. Even a little bit can have negative effects on the body. But quitting sugar can be tough (especially considering that it’s everywhere). That’s where a sugar detox comes in.
The Harmful Effects of (Processed) Sugar
I often hear the argument that sugar is fine in moderation and that we shouldn’t eliminate any one food group. Obviously eliminating a macronutrient like protein, carbohydrates, or fat would be incredibly unhealthy. But sugar isn’t a macronutrient. It’s not a food group. Sugar is present in many foods (like fruit), but on its own, sugar is only a simple carbohydrate.
Sugar provides quickly digested, empty calories but doesn’t offer any nutrients. In fact, sugar actually pulls minerals (like calcium and magnesium) from the rest of the body for digestion. So sugar is, in some ways, an anti-nutrient.
Processed sugar causes these effects on the body:
- stresses the liver (excess intake of fructose can cause the liver to create a lot of extra fat, some of which is stored in the liver)
- increases bad cholesterol and triglycerides
- can contribute to leptin resistance, which can then cause many other issues like sleep problems and weight gain
- creates an addictive sugar response in the brain
Additionally, sugar doesn’t fill you up and instead encourages you to eat more (often because of a blood sugar crash).
Are Natural Sugars OK?
Sugars that come from foods like fruits and vegetables have minerals as well as fiber, vitamins, and enzymes that help the body cope with the sugar. They are ideal sources of sugar. Natural sweeteners like maple syrup or coconut sugar are better options than refined sugar but they can still cause some of the issues associated with refined sugar (especially when consumed in large amounts).
At the end of the day, sugar is sugar in some ways. But getting your sugars from better sources is always a good first step to breaking a sugar habit. In other words, ideally we would eat zero processed sugar and only occasional natural sugars (like maple syrup).
Most people are fine with sugar from fruit but some have to be careful there too.
What Is a Sugar Detox Diet?
There are many sugar detox diets out there that you could try. They’re all essentially the same in that they remove sugar from the diet. The problem is some don’t focus on a whole foods diet, which I think is a huge mistake. A nutrient-dense, whole foods diet is the best way to reset the body and heal.
How to Get Started
For some people, going cold turkey is the only way to do a sugar detox. Because sugar can be addictive, removing it altogether is sometimes the only way to go. Some of us just simply can’t do moderation (at least at first).
Here are some tips for going cold turkey:
- Remove all sugar and sweeteners from your home.
- Remove artificial sweeteners too. Some research says that artificial sweeteners may cause issues similar to those caused by sugar, like blood sugar dysregulation.
- Stock the fridge with low-sugar fruits (berries are especially good; skip the grapes and pineapple).
- Try to keep sugars from all sources (including fruit) to a reasonable amount.
Remember, it may not be forever. The point of a sugar detox is to break the addictive habit to let the body heal. Once in balance, the body may be able to handle small amounts of natural sugars (like raw honey) in the future.
How Much Sugar Is Too Much?
The answer is: It depends on who you ask.
In 2002, the World Health Organization polled European countries with dietary guidelines on sugar intake. Some countries said about 10% of calories can be from sugar. Other countries ranged from 15 grams per day to 90 or 100.
The World Health Organization recommends people eat no more than 25 grams of sugar per day.
Additionally, if you have autoimmune disease, some experts recommend limiting fructose to between 10 and 20 grams per day (that includes from fruit).
Obviously, all of these recommendations are different and they don’t always specify whether these limits should include sugar from fruit. But the majority of them fall in the 20-50 grams per day area and I think that makes sense as a good starting point. Everyone’s individual body chemistry is different so each of us is going to have a different upper limit for sugar intake. It may be a matter of trial and error to find the best sugar intake for your body.
A Gentler Sugar “Weaning”
If you feel like cold turkey won’t work for you, there is another option. It’s a slower transition that looks like this:
- Replace all refined sugar with natural ones (raw honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, fruit, and organic cane sugar).
- Replace any packaged foods you’re eating (check condiments and dressings too!) with organic varieties.
- Ditch the organic packaged and processed foods and make all treats from scratch using natural sugars.
- Cut back to the above guidelines of total sugars for the day.
If your addiction won’t let you do that…
- Begin the cold turkey sugar detox above.
This approach works for some people because refined sugar is more problematic than natural sugars. Refined sugar breaks down very quickly, while natural sugars have minerals and other compounds that make it easier to digest and not spike the blood sugar quite as much. However, I want to caution not to use a slower approach as a crutch or an excuse to continue to eat too much sugar. Use it as a tool for better health!
How to Do a Sugar Detox (and Survive)
A sugar detox is a great way to eat a healthier diet. Just a couple of weeks will help reset hormones and neurotransmitters. Of course as we all know even with that noble goal in mind (and a busy life/kids/work), it can be super tough.
Here are some tips for making a sugar detox doable and bearable:
Deal With Cravings
Sugar cravings are the hardest part of dealing with a sugar detox. The body experiences legitimate withdrawals.
To put things in perspective, sugar is more addictive than cocaine. A 2007 study on rats found that sugar was much more addictive than cocaine! Researchers gave cocaine to rats until they became addicted, and then they gave the rats a choice between cocaine and sugar. Ninety-four percent of them chose to switch to sugar!
Understanding that the cravings are just a symptom of withdrawal and will subside within a week or two can be helpful in getting through. Many of the other tips in this post will help with cravings, but a few supplements you may want to consider are:
- L-glutamine – A deficiency in neurotransmitters and amino acids can be the cause of sugar cravings. As Food Renegade explains, any of us with severe amino acid deficiencies and neurotransmitter imbalances can’t overcome sugar addiction with willpower alone. L-glutamine supplementation can help reverse this deficiency and eliminate cravings.
- Chromium – Your doctor may recommend supplementing with this nutrient to improve blood sugar regulation. But I would be cautious about taking chromium without the direction of a doctor.
- B-vitamins – B-vitamins are said to help with carbohydrate metabolism (among other things).
Here are some other simple, natural ways to stop cravings when they strike. And remember, they will pass! Cravings often don’t last past a week or two. From then on, foregoing sugar will be much easier.
Thirst often causes sugar cravings. The reason is that the liver needs glucose and water to produce glycogen (energy stores). If the body is dehydrated, it’s much harder for it to produce glycogen, so sugar cravings set in.
Remove All Junk Foods
Eliminating sugar but continuing to eat unhealthy fats and other junk food may cause another addiction or dependence to form. The best way to approach a sugar detox is as a healthy lifestyle change, not an arbitrary rule for a few weeks. A cookbook with low-sugar, nutrient-dense recipes will help, or I often use Real Plans, a real-food meal planning app that does the planning for you.
Eat a Nutrient-Dense Breakfast
Ideally, we would eat nutrient-dense meals all day, but breakfast is especially important. Breakfast cereals, bagels, donuts, and muffins are a staple of American breakfast. But they’re loaded with sugar and just begging for a blood sugar spike and crash. High-quality protein, fat, and vegetables for breakfast will give the body what it needs to function. It will also help you stay full longer (reducing mid-morning sugar cravings).
Another thing to consider is eating enough food at breakfast time. Remember, breakfast is the first meal you’re eating in well over 8 hours, so try to make it count.
Also, wait to drink your coffee until after breakfast. As Alisa Vitti mentioned in this podcast, drinking coffee before eating in the morning messes up blood sugar for the entire day. Wait until after breakfast!
Planning to eat every meal at home during the sugar detox would be easiest, but I know that’s not always possible. The next best thing is to pack meals and snacks that are healthy and filling. Paleo meat sticks or a handful of nuts are great protein snacks when you’re out and about.
If you need to go out to a restaurant plan ahead. Research what meals would be best to order at the restaurant you’re going to (try to avoid sauces, as they almost certainly have sugar in them).
If you’re invited to a party you know will have sugary treats, be sure to eat ahead of time so you’re not hungry. Be prepared to politely decline treats (and be strong!).
Get Quality Sleep
Sleep matters more than diet or exercise! That’s how important it is to our health. Sleep is a time when the body rebuilds and renews. Not getting enough sleep can result in a higher than normal blood sugar level. Additionally, an abnormal blood sugar level can cause poor sleep and the cycle continues.
Many of the ideas in this list will help with better sleep. Some supplements that can help too are:
- Magnesium – Many people are deficient in magnesium and this particular deficiency can have a big impact on sleep quality. Some people find that taking magnesium about 30 minutes before bedtime can really improve sleep. I use magnesium oil and apply it to the bottoms of my feet before bed.
- Gelatin – Many of us eat a disproportionate amount of animal muscle meat compared to bone broths, organ meats, and marrow. Muscle meats are higher in stress hormones and can cause problems in the sleep cycle. Homemade bone broth is a great choice but a powdered collagen or gelatin can be added to other foods or drinks too.
- Herbs for sleep – After a healthy diet and lifestyle, herbs can be helpful to relax the body and prepare for sleep. Try my sleep tincture, or a chamomile tea to help with relaxation.
Inflammation is widely known to be a common contributing factor in many diseases including metabolic syndrome, dementia, heart and lung diseases, and cancer. Inflammation can also contribute to blood sugar issues and diabetes.
According to Dr. Hyman, foods that we’re sensitive to can also cause blood sugar issues. The most common sensitivities are dairy and gluten. The reason this happens is simple: inflammation is the body’s way of protecting itself from foreign invaders. When we eat something we’re sensitive to, the body sees it as an enemy and creates inflammation to fight it. This inflammation then causes blood sugar issues.
Ways to reduce inflammation:
- Kick the sugar habit (but you’re already doing that!)
- Reduce other inflammatory foods like vegetable oils and grains (preferably to zero)
- Do an elimination diet to find out if you’re sensitive to certain foods (like dairy and gluten)
Also, increase anti-inflammatory foods like oily fish and leafy greens to fight inflammation and improve overall health.
Final Thoughts on How to Do a Sugar Detox
A sugar detox is a great way to reset the body and improve health. It can be tough (but it’s totally do-able) and will get easier after the addiction is gone.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Terry Wahls, a clinical professor of medicine and clinical research and has published over 60 peer-reviewed scientific abstracts, posters, and papers. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you tried a sugar detox? What helped with the cravings the most?