Sugar is everywhere. From break-room doughnuts to healthy-looking packaged foods, the sweet stuff is all around us, and it’s all too easy to indulge. But sugar could be wrecking your health, whether you realize it or not. Sugar contributes to the development of a number of diseases, and some researchers consider any amount of sugar toxic to human health.
Sugar is typically associated with weight gain, but the problems don’t stop there. Even if your daily sugar consumption fits into your caloric needs, a high-sugar diet puts you at increased risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease. It also increases your odds of developing mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
That’s not all. If you’ve ever felt like you’re addicted to your daily sugar fix, it’s probably because you are. Studies have found that sugar stimulates the same reward circuits in the brain that are activated by cocaine and opioid drugs. Like in those addictions, your body gets accustomed to having sugar in your system, so you must eat more and more of it to get the same effect.
Clearly, it’s not a good idea to make a habit of eating sugar. And if you’re looking for ways to improve your overall well-being, cutting sugar from your diet is a major step. But what if you’re already hooked on chocolate or ice cream?
It’s possible to quit your sugar habit – in fact, it’s possible to start quitting right now. Let’s look at two approaches to kicking sugar that work for many people, as well as eight essential tips when it comes to navigating your sugar-free journey.
The Pros and Cons of Going Cold Turkey
A cold-turkey approach is the quickest way to quit the sugar habit, but it may not be the easiest. If you’ve built up a dependence, you’ll probably have some withdrawal symptoms, and that can make for a rough couple of weeks. Strong cravings are the most common symptom. You might also get headaches or feel fatigued and irritable.
The upside? Most people’s cravings subside within a few weeks. If you can ride out the withdrawals, quitting cold turkey is the fastest and most efficient way to get the sweet stuff out of your system.
The downside? Sticking to the plan is essential – a single dessert can undo all your sugar-free progress, and you’ll have to start over from day one.
The Pros and Cons of Slowly Cutting Back
If cravings tend to get the better of you, you might prefer to slowly wean yourself off sugar.
The upside? This method takes longer, but it lets you avoid the worst of the withdrawal symptoms. You’ll still have cravings, but they’ll typically be more manageable.
The downside? If you choose this approach, it’s important to measure your sugar intake accurately. Figure out how much sugar you’re eating every day, and cut back a little bit every day or every week. If you’re not sure how to pace yourself, try cutting back by one teaspoon (or four grams) a day, the equivalent of one packet of sugar.
Here’s how it works:
- Let’s imagine you currently eat 22 teaspoons of sugar a day (the U.S. average for adults).
- Take a look at your eating habits to see where those 22 teaspoons are coming from. For example, a small Dove chocolate bar contains 5.5 teaspoons of sugar, a typical sweetened yogurt packs 4.5 teaspoons, and one tablespoon of ketchup can contain a whole teaspoon of sugar.
- Pick 1 teaspoon’s worth of sugar to eliminate each day – and do it.
- At the end of three weeks, you will have completely kicked your sugar habit.
By examining your eating habits, measuring your intake, and strategically cutting back a teaspoon at a time, you could be completely clear of processed sugar in just over three weeks.
8 Things You Can Do Right Now to Kick Your Sugar Habit
Ready to get started? Whether you’re quitting sugar cold turkey or cutting back gradually, these tips will help you adjust to a healthier lifestyle.
1. Take a positive attitude.
If you feel like quitting sugar is going to make you miserable, you probably won’t stick with your commitment to give it up. Instead, adopt a positive attitude from the get-go.
Focus on all the upsides of quitting sugar: you’ll have more energy, your mind will be clearer, and you won’t have to deal with sweet cravings anymore. You also won’t have to worry about all the scary health problems sugar can cause.
2. Read nutrition labels.
Sugar lurks in some surprising places. Jarred sauces, frozen foods, condiments, canned soup – a lot of these foods are shockingly high in sugar, even if they don’t taste sweet.
The best way to avoid hidden sugar is to cook at home using unprocessed ingredients like vegetables and lean meats. If you can’t avoid eating packaged food sometimes, make sure to check the labels first, so you can avoid the worst offenders.
3. Watch your intake of simple carbs.
Refined carbohydrates, like white bread and pasta, can spike your blood sugar and cause cravings, just like sugar. Two good rules of thumb: avoid foods that are highly processed and replace refined grains with their whole-grain counterparts.
For example, choose brown rice instead of white rice, and swap your white bread and pasta for the whole-wheat versions. Whole grains take longer to digest than refined grains, so they don’t cause such severe blood sugar swings. While you may eventually choose to go completely grain free, if you want to transition slowly, whole grains can be a good start.
4. Eat plenty of protein and healthy fats.
Detoxing from sugar almost always causes some cravings. But you can keep your hunger pangs at bay by filling up on protein and good-for-you fats. They’ll balance your blood sugar, keep you feeling full for hours, and provide a slow release of energy. Good choices include lean meats, almonds, eggs, avocados, and fatty fish.
5. Stay hydrated.
Drink plenty of water throughout the day, even if you don’t feel like it. Staying well-hydrated makes you less likely to get withdrawal headaches and can help curb cravings. If you don’t like drinking plain water, go for herbal tea or seltzer with a squeeze of lemon.
6. Try a healthier sweetener.
Cravings getting out of hand? Look for a healthy way to get your sweet fix instead. Stevia and monk fruit extract are two calorie-free herbal sweeteners that won’t mess with your blood sugar. Stir a little of either into a cup of tea or coffee for an easy pick-me-up.
7. Switch up your morning coffee.
Speaking of coffee, there are lots of natural ways to make your morning cup of java taste great besides sugar. Herbs and spices can add a subtle flavor without overpowering the taste of your coffee itself.
Here are some ideas:
- Add some cinnamon powder to your coffee grounds or stir a quarter-teaspoon directly into your coffee for a spicy, sweet taste.
- Mix a couple of ground cardamom pods into your coffee grounds for a Middle Eastern twist.
- Stir cocoa powder into freshly brewed coffee for an extra dose of antioxidants.
- Add a few drops of pure vanilla extract for a slightly sweet, creamy fragrance.
- Spice up your coffee with your favorite chai tea blend.
8. Eat foods that contain probiotics.
Sugar changes the balance of your gut bacteria, and not for the better. A high-sugar diet feeds the bad bacteria in your gut. And once those critters get a foothold, they can actually make you crave more sugar, creating a vicious cycle. To return a healthy balance to your gut, you have to starve those bacteria of the sugar they crave.
You can speed up the process by eating fermented foods that are high in probiotics. This will give your healthy bacteria a boost and cut down on your sugar cravings. Kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha can all be good sources of probiotics. You can also look into taking a probiotic supplement.
You Can Quit Your Sugar Habit
Quitting sugar is one of the best things you can do for yourself. You’ll feel better, slash your risk of developing many diseases, and make room in your diet for more nutritious and satisfying foods. So why not get started right now?
It won’t necessarily be easy, but it’s not complicated with these tips at hand. Approach quitting your sugar habit one day at a time, and before you know it, you won’t even want to eat those sweet treats anymore. (Crazy, but true.)