Sugar. We eat it, we love it and we know that it’s really not that great for us, health-wise. But if you’ve ever toyed with the idea of cutting back on sugar, you know that it can be a little overwhelming. Between the horror stories of withdrawal symptoms and the thought of turning down a slice of your favorite chocolate cake at your friend’s birthday party, the prospect of weaning yourself off of sugar seems almost too difficult to try.
But trust us, once you recalibrate your relationship with the sweet stuff, it’s totally worth it. Here’s everything you need to know about what happens when you scale back on sugar consumption—and how to do it right to minimize said withdrawal symptoms.
7 Ways to Start Eating Less Sugar
1. Take Baby Steps
Going cold turkey is great in theory but almost impossible in reality. According to Dr. Jim LaValle, R.Ph., C.C.N., a clinical pharmacist, author and board-certified clinical nutritionist, taking a slower approach could be the key to long-term success. “If you normally take two teaspoons of sugar in your coffee, cut down to one for a week, then one-half the next week,” he said. “Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you won’t need sugar at all.”
2. Watch Out for Hidden Sugar
Just because you aren’t stuffing your face with cookies and candy and syrupy Starbucks drinks doesn’t mean you aren’t consuming sugar. “Cough syrups, chewing gum, tomato sauce, baked beans, soups, salad dressings and lunch meats often contain hidden sugar,” Dr. LaValle says. Some of the biggest culprits, he added, are fresh fruit smoothies, sports drinks and bars. Read those ingredient lists, friends. Unfortunately, the sweet stuff goes by a lot more names than just sugar. Familiarize yourself with this list of common aliases (hint: anything with the word “syrup”) to ensure you're not unknowingly eating more of it.
3. Find Ways to De-Stress
This one’s a little unexpected, but per Dr. LaValle, stress can make you crave sugar, since eating sweets can help increase production of serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter. To avoid a stress-induced candy binge, Dr. LaValle suggests taking “stress-balancing supplements that contain ingredients like rhodiola, ashwagandha or B vitamins and GABA, which can help counteract stress hormones and support better serotonin production without having to resort to sweets.” Beyond supplements, here are some more easy ways to de-stress your life. From starting your day by meditating and practicing gratitude to making more of an effort to spend time with friends and getting outside more often.
4. Be Wary of Low-Fat Products
Sneaky sugars strike again. Low-fat products seem like they would be healthy, but oftentimes they’re worse for you than their full-fat alternatives. That’s because these foods replace fat with sugar for the sake of taste. Instead of falling into this sugar trap, enjoy full-fat foods in moderation. They’ll likely contain less sugar and taste a hell of a lot better. And again, if you’re not sure how much sugar you’re consuming, a quick scan of the ingredient list will raise any red flags.
5. Eat More Naturally Found Healthy Fats
In addition to steering clear of low-fat products, we’ll take it one step further to say that you should actually eat more fat. Healthy fats found in nuts, avocados and whole eggs work to stabilize blood sugar and keep you fuller longer (meaning you’re less likely to reach for a quick sugar fix when your energy dips).
6. Train Yourself to Like Black Coffee
Yes, Mocha Frappuccinos are delicious, but they, like many coffee drinks, are loaded with sugar. It might take a little getting used to, but try to train yourself to drink coffee black—or with a little whole or unsweetened almond milk, if you must. Just stay away from sugar, artificial sweeteners (which come with a host of their own issues) or packaged creamers. It might take some getting used to, but in our experience, you’ll learn to love the pure coffee taste. Worst case scenario, you can pivot from coffee to caffeinated tea if you just can’t get the hang of the taste.
7. Stick to the Perimeter of the Grocery Store
We’ve already established that a little strategy when grocery shopping pays off (both for your waistline and your wallet). By spending the majority of your time in the store on its perimeters, where most of the whole foods are, you aren’t subjecting yourself to walking down aisles of cookies and chips and other stuff you probably shouldn’t be eating. Out of sight, out of mind. And besides, you’ll feel way more satisfied after snacking on a handful of gorgeous cherries than you would’ve shoveling a bunch of Oreos into your mouth.
Why You Should Consider a Sugar Detox
As much as we wish we could ignore it, the scientific case for eating less sugar is a strong one. A recent article in The New York Times cited an April 2019 study published in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association. It looked at the causes of death among 37,716 men and 80,647 women initially free of heart disease who were followed for 28 and 34 years, respectively. Cardiovascular mortality was 31 percent higher, and the total death rate 28 percent higher, among those who consumed two or more sugar-sweetened drinks a day when compared with people who rarely (if ever) drank them. Excessive sugar consumption has also been linked to weight gain, teeth problems, increased risk of certain medical conditions (like obesity and diabetes) and more.
Besides helping you live longer, there are also benefits that could help you live better:
1. Your energy levels might be more consistent
The sugar rush you get after eating a handful of gummy worms might help you stay productive for a few minutes, but a drop in energy will quickly follow. Instead, stick with natural sources of energy, like fruits and veggies, which will help your sugar levels stay consistent, so you can finish that spin class and still have enough energy to make dinner.
2. You might get fewer headaches
Eating foods with lots of sugar causes your blood sugar to spike rapidly, then shoot back down again. For some people, this can cause headaches. After cutting out refined sugar, your blood sugar will stay relatively stable all day long.
3. When you eat it again, you’ll really appreciate it
After giving up sugar—even for a week—you’ll look at it in a new light when you eat it again. Instead of scarfing down an entire bag of M&Ms in five seconds, you’ll be more likely to savor every bite. Also, the longer you go without sugar, your taste buds will actually adapt, so you’ll start to taste the natural sweetness in whole foods like fruits and veggies.
What Does Sugar Withdrawal Feel Like?
According to researchers at the University of Michigan, sugar can be addictive in a similar way to drugs and alcohol. You might even experience symptoms of withdrawal when you try to cut back. A 2008 study at Princeton University examined sugar's effect on rats, finding that, when their sugar supply was taken away, "the rats’ brain levels of dopamine dropped and, as a result, they exhibited anxiety as a sign of withdrawal. The rats’ teeth chattered, and the creatures were unwilling to venture forth into the open arm of their maze, preferring to stay in a tunnel area. Normally rats like to explore their environment, but the rats in sugar withdrawal were too anxious to explore."
In humans, sugar withdrawal can take on a few different forms. Lots of people experience persistent headaches when they stop eating sugar. (These, for the record, can last up to a few weeks.) Other withdrawal symptoms include sluggishness and really intense cravings.