Everyone knows that sugar isn’t healthy, and some people may even argue that it’s nearly toxic for the body, especially in large quantities.
However, unfortunately, sugar is pervasive in the foods lining the grocery shelves, so unless you’re consciously working hard to avoid added sugars in the foods you eat, you’re likely consuming quite a bit of sugar in all of its various forms.
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average adult, teenager, and child in the United States consumes 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day, yet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025 recommends limiting the intake of added sugars to less than 10% of your total daily calories.
A 2,000-calorie diet would entail eating, at most, 200 calories from added sugars, which is about 12 teaspoons.
One of the best ways to lower your sugar intake and reduce your sugar cravings is to do a sugar detox.
However, many people aren’t sure how to detox from sugar, and it’s not a particularly easy process, so we’ve put together this guide for best practices and tips for how to detox from sugar.
We will cover:
- Is Sugar Addictive?
- Benefits of Doing a Sugar Detox
- How Long Does It Take to Sugar Detox?
- How to Do Sugar Detox the Right Way
- 11 Tips for Sugar Detoxing
Let’s jump in!
Is Sugar Addictive?
Many people feel like they are addicted to sugar: they crave their afternoon soda, they can’t stop at just one piece of chocolate, and they may even get a headache or feel irritable if they don’t have something sweet in the morning.
As it turns out, sugar addiction isn’t all in your head.
Studies show that sugar is indeed an addictive substance, eliciting even more of a potent response in the reward centers of the brain than drugs like cocaine.
These reward systems serve a biological role in survival, but they also can contribute to the addictiveness of a behavior.
Any type of food activates the reward centers of the brain, as otherwise, the species would not be motivated to seek more food, and survival would be at risk.
With that said, according to research studies, sweet foods are especially triggering because they elicit a more dramatic rise in dopamine—a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure—in the area of the brain stimulated by addictive recreational drugs (the nucleus accumbens).
Furthermore, eating sweet food stimulates the release of endogenous opioids in the brain, which are natural pain relievers that also add to feelings of a natural high or pleasure.
This, in turn, causes a rush that can trigger future sugar cravings to replicate the feeling.
Lastly, as with the case of substances like caffeine and alcohol, evidence suggests that the brain can develop a tolerance to sugar, requiring you to eat more sugar to enjoy the same spike in good feelings.
Benefits of Doing a Sugar Detox
The most important benefit of doing a sugar detox is that it can be a great way to reduce your intake of sugar.
Research studies have linked diets high in added sugars (not those found naturally in foods like fruits) with adverse medical conditions such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and poor oral health, all of which we would like to avoid.
Additionally, despite the fact that people often turn to sugar for a quick pick-me-up boost of energy, studies suggest that sugar can actually reduce your energy levels and alertness, causing fatigue and symptoms of depression.
How Long Does It Take to Sugar Detox?
Before you embark on a sugar detox, it helps to know what you are in store for.
How long does a sugar detox take?
As you might imagine, your sugar detox process will be individualized, as we all have unique biochemistry, and your current dependency on sugar might be very different from someone else’s.
However, if you are accustomed to eating some amount of added sugar every day, there’s a good chance that a sugar detox will come with some withdrawal symptoms.
Because various studies have found that added sugars can elicit biochemical changes in the brain that alter the neurochemistry and behavior in ways that are similar to other addictive drugs, a sugar detox can cause similar withdrawal symptoms.
Some people who start a sugar detox experience cravings, headaches, nausea, depression, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, moodiness, shakiness, and fatigue, among other symptoms.
The severity of your symptoms and how long the sugar detox process lasts for you depends on your individual biochemistry, how much sugar you’re eating, and how you choose to sugar detox (cold turkey, slowly cut back, etc.).
With that said, most people can expect a sugar detox to last from 3 days to 3 weeks, with highly-dependent people potentially taking significantly longer.
Essentially, there’s a trade-off: the more drastic you cut your sugar intake (i.e., going cold turkey rather than gradually scaling back), the quicker you can detox from sugar but the more prominent your sugar withdrawal symptoms will be.
How to Do a Sugar Detox the Right Way
How to do a sugar detox is really up to you. Some people try to cut out all types of added sugar immediately, taking the “cold turkey“ approach, whereas other people try to gradually reduce their intake of added sugar.
Neither approach is necessarily “right“ or “wrong,” and the best choice for you will largely depend on your preferences.
With that said, the gradual and progressive approach is generally much more sustainable because it allows you to retrain your palate and be more mindful of the foods that you are eating.
Studies suggest that depriving yourself of sugar may actually result in significantly more intense rebound cravings.
Therefore, instead of thinking of sugar as a hard-and-fast off-limits food, eating a small amount of natural sugar per day may help satisfy the drive for it and quiet the cravings.
Enjoy plenty of fruit, such as berries, citrus, melon, apples, and pears, sweet vegetables like peas, yams, and squash, or allow yourself a small drizzle of raw honey in some plain Greek yogurt.
Oftentimes, when something doesn’t feel taboo, its allure becomes less distractingly magnetic.
No matter which approach you take, here are a few things you will need to do for your sugar detox:
- Cut out all sweetened drinks and swap them for water or seltzer. You can add water flavorings if you’re struggling to wean off juice, soda, or energy drinks. Avoid diet sodas as well.
- Read ingredient labels on all packaged foods. Anything with added sugar should be avoided or minimized. Look at the ingredients label for terms like “high-fructose corn syrup,” and “brown rice syrup,” “date syrup.”
- Anything that ends in “-ose” (maltose, sucrose, etc.) is a sugar and anything that ends in “-ol” (sorbitol, etc.) is a sugar alcohol.
- Focus on eating whole, natural foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, lean protein, unsweetened dairy, seeds, nuts, eggs, etc.
11 Tips for Sugar Detoxing
Here are some tips to reduce your sugar cravings and ease the difficulties of detoxing from sugar:
#1: Drink More Water
It may seem like an overprescribed tip, but it’s a classic for a reason—drinking water often works.
Many people walk around in a state of chronic dehydration, which can lead to low energy levels and imbalances in the hormones that regulate appetite.
When you are overly tired or hungry, your brain may crave a quick boost of energy and fuel—often in the form of sugar.
#2: Reset Your Palate
Our taste buds and brains get used to certain levels of sweetness, saltiness, spiciness, and other flavors.
A tolerance is built up as we get accustomed to foods we regularly consume, such that perhaps at one point, soda or your favorite granola bar felt almost sickly sweet, and now you can polish them off quickly, barely registering how sweet they are.
On the flip side, at one time, sweet fruit like blueberries probably tasted like the sweetest natural candy.
Now, they may hardly taste sugary at all—perhaps you only notice their tartness.
If you want to take a gradual approach to a sugar detox, you can wean off foods with added sugars to retrain or reset your “sugar barometer.”
This will help you learn to appreciate and detect natural sweetness in foods again.
#3: Increase Your Protein Intake
Protein has been shown to contribute to satiety and may reduce sugar cravings.
Aim for at least 20 grams per meal to keep sugar cravings at bay.
#4: Eat Regularly
Oftentimes, the urge to grab the nearest sugar-laden snack is triggered because your blood sugar is low due to the fact that it’s been too long since your last meal.
Although there may be benefits to intermittent fasting, many people feel better and function better when they eat balanced, small meals every few hours.
#5: Take a Walk
Moving your body, breathing in fresh air, and getting your blood flowing can give you a burst of energy, elevate your mood, and ease stress, all of which can tick the boxes that are causing sugar cravings.
#6: Sip Herbal Tea
Certain herbal teas, such as licorice, fruit teas, and marshmallow root, have a natural, calorie-free sweetness to them.
A warm cup of tea may satisfy your sweet tooth and soothe your body and mind.
#7: Eat Natural Sugars
Fruits and certain vegetables like peas, carrots, and sweet potatoes are high in natural sugars.
As you do your sugar detox, include lots of these foods in the first couple of days to help you “step down” to a lower-sugar diet while satisfying your sugar cravings.
#8: Use Cinnamon
Some people find that cinnamon can trick their brain into thinking something sweet has been eaten, even in the absence of sugar.
Try sprinkling oatmeal or yogurt with just cinnamon instead of honey or brown sugar.
#9: Don’t Go Artificial
Just because artificial sweeteners don’t contain calories doesn’t mean that they are better for you than sugar or that they will help you detox from sugar.
Artificial sweeteners and high-fructose corn syrup have been shown to elicit even more of a hedonistic response in the brain than glucose and sucrose.
#10: Get More Sleep
We often have sugar cravings when our energy levels are low because sugar can provide a quick boost of energy.
Consistently getting enough sleep is the best way to have sustained energy levels through the day and prevent crashes.
Research shows that adequate sleep can reduce food cravings, regulate appetite hormones, and may limit the tendency to overeat.
#11: Turn to Other Rewards
If you go on a sugar detox, your brain won’t be getting its usual hit of dopamine.
Rather than treating yourself with something sweet, find a non-food-based reward like treating yourself to a massage, taking a bubble bath, or enjoying your favorite TV show.
As with any behavioral change, certain sugar detox tips may work more effectively for you than others, but try them all—you never know what may silence that internal sugar monster.
Finally, strive for progress, not perfection. Even if you cut back your sugar intake just a little, you’re improving your health, and that’s something to feel good about.
Looking for an all around healthy diet to follow? Check out our diets for runners for some nutritious ideas.