If You Want to Cut Back (or Cut Out!) Sugar, These 13 Tips Will Make a World of Difference

Get ready for a surprisingly easy post-holiday cleanse.

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For those with an insatiable sweet tooth, sugar is a love-hate relationship. You love that strawberry sprinkled doughnut in the moment (who doesn't?) and then hate the crushing fatigue that follows—not to mention the other negative effects on the body, including increased risk of obesity, heart disease and inflammation. If you have decided to break up with sugar, it’s important to have a sugar detox plan so that you can minimize the symptoms of sugar withdrawal and pave the way for long-lasting healthy habits.

Donald Hensrud, executive director and author of The Mayo Clinic Diet helped put our nation's obsession with sugar into perspective. Dr. Hensrud refers to sugar as a "quadruple whammy" because it:

  1. Adds extra calories, especially in drinks

  2. Provides no nutritional value and our bodies use vitamins and nutrients to process

  3. May displace other foods in our diets that are healthier and have beneficial effects

  4. Has negative health effects, including tooth decay and some evidence that it’s mildly toxic and mildly inflammatory

Since private consultations at the Mayo Clinic for health and lifestyle evaluations are hard to come by, one of their top doctors also offered advice on how to cut down on sugar and stress. Here's everything you need to know.

Discover: The benefits of a no sugar diet

What Are the Symptoms of Sugar Withdrawal?

Because of the harmful effects of sugar on the body, cutting back on the sweet stuff can cause many physical and mental symptoms, including depressed mood, anxiety, difficulty concentrating and sleeping, sluggishness and headaches.

The symptoms of sugar withdrawal and how long they last can vary from person to person, but these 13 tips can help you create a sugar detox plan that works for you. Be sure to consult your healthcare provider before making any dietary or lifestyle changes to ensure they are safe and appropriate for you.

Headaches are one of the key signs of sugar withdrawal
Headaches are one of the key signs of sugar withdrawal

How to Detox From Sugar

1. First of all, know who the real enemy is

We’re looking at you, added sugar. Sugar is a carbohydrate—your body’s main source of energy—that occurs naturally in many foods that are part of a healthy diet, including fruit, vegetables, milk and whole grains. Added sugar generally refers to sugar that’s added when foods or beverages are processed or packaged, such as sugar from syrups, honey and concentrated fruit or vegetable juices. It also refers to sugar that you add yourself, like what you sprinkle on your oatmeal or into your morning coffee.

The problem with added sugar is that it adds calories without providing any essential nutritive value. The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 100 calories per day from added sugar (for men, 150 calories per day). That’s about 25 grams or 6 teaspoons. Keep in mind, one 12-oz can of cola contains nearly 40 grams of added sugar!

While Hensrud doesn't quite view sugar as addictive, he believes "it exhibits some of the traits and it can become a habit." So part of cutting down on sugar is breaking the habit. He suggests easing into the process by cutting down on any added sugar or using healthier sugars like pureed fruit. As for sugar substitutes, there really isn't a free pass. "Some of the substitutes might trick the brain into consuming more sugar at other times."

2. Become a food label detective

Soda, candy and goodies in the bakery aisle are obvious culprits of added sugar, but it also lurks in surprising places, including bottled sauces and condiments, low-fat and flavored yogurts, packaged breads and sports drinks. The good news is that most nutrition labels list Added Sugars separately under the Total Carbohydrate or Total Sugars line, which include naturally occurring sugars, so that you can see how many grams of added sugar that product contains.

And beware—added sugar takes on many names, so when you’re reading through a food label’s list of ingredients, look for these terms for sugar in disguise: corn sweetener, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, malt sugar, molasses, syrup and any sugar molecules ending in “ose” (like dextrose, fructose, glucose, maltose and sucrose).

In short: watch products, read labels, move as much as you sit. "Low fat doesn't mean low cal either," says Hensrud. But don't despair that you'll never kick the sugar habit. "People should realize that their taste patterns can change. Think of foods you didn’t like years ago or vice versa. Be conscience of choices. Sudden choices can kick start gradual long-term changes."

3. Take it slowly

It can be overwhelming once you’ve identified the major sources of sugar in your diet, but going cold turkey isn’t for everyone. You can help lessen the intensity of sugar withdrawal symptoms—and increase your chances of sticking with healthy habits—by focusing on eliminating or cutting back on one source of added sugar at a time.

Do this by looking for opportunities to make simple swaps and substitutions throughout your day. For example:

  • Enjoy a smaller size of your favorite sweetened coffee drink

  • Replace 1 soda per day with water or unsweetened iced tea

  • Add only 1 packet of sugar to your tea instead of two

  • Swap ice cream for unsweetened Greek yogurt topped with fresh berries

"I hear a lot from patients. 'I need to avoid fruit,'" says Dr. Hensrud. "I look at that a little bit differently. Fruit doesn’t have as much sugar as people perceive—it's also water and fiber. A small piece of fruit has 60 calories, a Snickers bar has about 260 calories and much of it is sugar. Also, there’s evidence that because of the water and fiber content, increasing fruit and vegetables will help with weight." And don't just add the healthier foods to your diet, kick the sugary ones to the curb while you're at it. "There’s room in most people’s diets for more fruit and veg—but displace the existing foods."

Related: 20 Healthy Snacks to Pack in Your Travel Bag

4. Fuel up on protein and fiber

Stop cravings in their tracks by filling up on protein and fiber to help you feel fuller and longer and stabilize your blood sugar. At mealtime, opt for lean sources of protein and fiber, including meats, eggs, wholewheat grains, beans, peas, nuts, seeds and green vegetables. And to satisfy dessert cravings, choose fresh fruit, such as berries, pears, and apples (with skin), bananas and oranges.

5. Outsmart your craving triggers

Research shows that the addictive quality of consuming sugar is strongly associated with a surge of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that creates feelings of pleasure, reward and motivation. It’s why we want to dig into a pint of ice cream after a bad breakup, or toast with a cocktail after a big job promotion. But cravings are also linked with some kinds of repeated or so-called mindless behaviors, such as driving and watching television. So, begin to notice when your body begs for sugar—is it when you’re stressed, happy, bored, depressed or anxious? Then, ask yourself whether there are other ways to satisfy those needs and emotions that don’t involve food or drink.

Related: 92 Ways to Stress Less This Week

6. Make a self-care plan

Just as consuming too much sugar can negatively affect your emotions, causing stress, depression and anxiety, so too can sugar withdrawal at first. You can thank the sudden drop in the feel-good hormone dopamine for that. Be prepared for the sudden mood swings of sugar detox and have a self-care plan that includes activities that make you feel happy and calm, such as spending time with friends and family, enjoying a warm bubble bath or cozying up with a favorite book or TV show. It could also be as simple as a daily walk outside since exercise and sun exposure are known to improve mood by lowering levels of stress hormones and increased levels of dopamine and serotonin. For more inspiration, check out these 156 self-care tips.

7. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

We’ve all been taught the importance of proper hydration for overall health and wellness, but did you know that water can be a powerful way to steady the ups and downs of your energy levels that lead to sugary cravings? This is often because many people mistake hunger for thirst, and the symptoms of mild dehydration include tiredness, headache and anxiety, all of which can make a mood-boosting sugary snack even more appealing. To minimize cravings, keep a water bottle handy to sip from throughout the day, and when your belly is gurgling, try drinking a full glass of water before eating. If you’re still hungry after that, make sure you have nutritious, sugar-free snacks at the ready.

Also note that soda is the real killer according to Hensrud. "In a 20-ounce bottle of soda, there are 17 teaspoons of sugar—for an exercise, people can line up 17 teaspoons and see how much sugar they’re getting." And in case you're wondering, fruit juice isn't that much better. "Fruit juice is perceived in many cases to be better than soda. It’s all liquid with no fiber and no solids. Apple juice is basically sugar water. Instead, choose orange juice or others that contain pulp."

Related: Eat Your Way to Better Hydration! 20+ Hydrating Foods

8. Avoid artificial sweeteners

It may sound like a good way to enjoy sweetness without the calories, but artificial sweeteners can be counterproductive to your sugar detox goals. Research suggests that some types of artificial sweeteners cause metabolic changes that can increase cravings and lead to weight gain. Experts suggest that because artificial sweeteners, such as stevia and aspartame (found in diet soda), are far sweeter than real sugar, they may overstimulate your tastebuds’ sugar receptors, making naturally sweet nutritious foods, such as fruit, less appealing. You might also confuse your brain from relating sweetness with caloric intake, leading to an increased intake of sugary foods later.

9. Spice it up!

To help you cope with cravings during the sugar withdrawal period, retrain your brain and “fake” sweetness in some of your favorite dishes with spices and herbs. Try a pinch of allspice, ground clove, cinnamon and nutmeg on fresh fruit, sprinkling in tea or coffee or adding to sauces for sweetness and warmth. Vanilla bean is another option that is virtually calorie and sugar-free and can mimic the sweetness of sugar (beware of added sugar in some brands of vanilla extracts). Plus, many of these natural flavors have other health benefits, including antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties and may help control blood sugar levels.

Related: 18 Easy No-Bake Sugar-Free Dessert Recipes

10. Tame sweet with bitter

If you’ve ever noticed feeling more satisfied by dark chocolate than milk chocolate, there’s a reason for that. Studies show that bitter-tasting foods can stifle your brain’s drive to consume sugar and make you feel fuller sooner. A bitter taste may be described as sharp, tart or sour, and can include foods and drinks such as coffee, green tea, cranberries, unsweetened cocoa powder, citrus fruit and cruciferous vegetables, such as radishes and arugula.

11. Have sweet dreams

The science is clear: lack of sleep and poor sleep quality has a big impact on the hormones that increase next-day hunger, especially for sweets and junk food. When you’re sleep-deprived, the hunger-stimulating hormones ghrelin and cortisol increase, while leptin, the appetite-controlling hormone, decreases. So set your body up for sleep success by creating a sleep schedule routine to ensure you’re getting enough hours of high-quality z’s.

Related: What’s Causing Your Insomnia? Here’s the Real Reason You’re Up All Night

12. Treat headaches with a natural remedy

Headaches are one of the most common side effects during sugar detox, and they can worsen the intensity of other symptoms, such as fatigue and difficulty concentrating. Get ahead of your headaches by drinking water and limiting your consumption of alcohol. And to relieve headaches when they strike, try wearing a cold compress on your neck or forehead or doing low-impact exercises, such as walking or yoga.

13. Reach for a magnesium-rich snack

Magnesium has many important jobs in the body, some of which can help you conquer sugar cravings and the unpleasant effects of withdrawal. Unfortunately, most Americans aren’t getting their recommended daily amount. This essential mineral has been shown to help regulate blood sugar, fight depression, boost energy and prevent and treat migraines and headaches.

Try these nutritious snacks high in magnesium:

  • An avocado on whole grain toast topped with chia or pumpkin seeds

  • Sliced banana with a tablespoon of peanut butter, sprinkled with cinnamon

  • A square of dark chocolate with a handful of almonds or cashews

Don't despair if it all seems a bit overwhelming to begin with. "People underestimate their ability to change," Hensrud says. "If they have a good strategy, people can change what they eat and enjoy it and make it a lifestyle more than they realize."

For even more nutritious snack ideas, check out these 27 fabulous low-carb and sugar-free recipes.


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