Research shows that consuming sugar in excess is often linked to poor health outcomes, such as increased inflammation, altered gut health, and the risk of other chronic diseases1, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cognitive decline. As a result, many folks opt to cut back on sugar consumption—but not altogether, which can also be harmful—to reduce health risks. “Artificial sweeteners can be a simple way to limit added sugar in your diet while balancing your blood sugars—but they’re not for everyone,” says Bianca Tamburello, RDN at FRESH Communications.
To learn more about the effects of cutting back on sugar, we caught up with experts within the field that shared what are some of the common sugar withdrawal symptoms you may experience and how to reduce sugar intake in the most well-balanced way possible.
What is the healthiest way to reduce sugar intake?
First things first: Let's debunk some common sugar myths. According to Ian K. Smith, MD, a doctor and the author of the book Blast the Sugar Out, no one can—or should—“quit” sugar since it’s the fuel our bodies need to function. This simple carbohydrate is present in lots of healthy foods, including naturally-occurring sugar in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Instead, it’s about learning how to eat sweet stuff in moderation. That said, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 6 percent of calories each day. (For most American women, that’s no more than 100 calories per day or about 6 teaspoons of sugar. For men, it’s 150 calories per day or about 9 teaspoons.)
It's also worth noting the difference between natural and added sugar. The AHA defines "naturally occurring sugars" as sugar found naturally in foods such as fruit (fructose and glucose) and milk (lactose). Meanwhile, added sugars are sugars and syrups put in foods. Namely, ingredients such as maltose, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane sugar, corn sweetener, raw sugar, syrup, honey, or fruit juice concentrate. Common sources of high-sugar foods worth consuming in moderation include sugary beverages (like soda and energy drinks), candy, desserts, breakfast cereals, and some dairy products, to name a few.
Best sugar options, according to a registered dietitian:
Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LD, CLEC, CPT, a registered dietitian based in Charleston, also agrees that sugar can have its place in a balanced and healthy diet. "The concern comes into play when people consume too much sugar. Most Americans are exceeding the recommended amount of added sugar in their diets," Manaker says. As such, Manaker explains that there are pros to reducing sugar, which doesn't include going added-sugar-free cold turkey, either. "Reducing sugar intake may help reduce the risk of developing chronic conditions and may also help people manage blood sugars—if that is a concern—help manage chronic low-grade inflammation, and help manage their weight," she says.
That said, Mankaer says it's also worth noting that an extreme desire for sugar might be linked to other underlying causes, such as a magnesium deficiency or as a side effect of not getting enough restful sleep. Thus, it's important to check with a healthcare provider or a dietitian before making any drastic changes to your dietary habits.
However, if reducing added sugar intake is the objective, Manaker offers several easy tips to do so. First, she says it's important to focus on reducing added sugars instead of total sugars. "Fruit and some veggies contain natural sugars, but they also contain a slew of nutrients that support overall health. On the other hand, added sugar doesn't offer much in the nutrition department. Because of this, I don't target fruit as food to eliminate if a person is trying to reduce their sugar intake," Manaker says.
As you embark on reducing sugar consumption, Manaker says to be mindful of the foods you pick up at the store. "I focus on reducing the added sugar intake that's not only be found in unsurprising foods like candy and soda, but also surprising sources like jarred pasta sauce, some types of peanut butter, and many dried fruits," she says. Manaker also recommends paying attention to what is in the foods you're already eating as you start reducing your sugar intake. "Your Starbucks drink may be delish, but it may also be loaded with added sugar, while the dried fruit that you are enjoying may be coated with added sugar. Read your food labels and be aware of hidden sources of added sugar," Manaker says.
That said, Dr. Smith acknowledges that although phasing out many sweet foods might be an overall good idea, the prospect of making such a massive dietary change can be intimidating for many, especially during week one. However, according to Dr. Smith, there's no need to stress. He says breaking up with added sweeteners isn’t as torturous as it sounds, even for the most hardcore dessert-lover. “The truth is, if you’re able to gradually reduce your sugar intake and replace it with something else—like more fiber and more protein—you can stay off of it [indefinitely],” says Dr. Smith, if that's your goal.
What happens to your body when you stop eating sugar?
While there are lots of ways to approach eating less sugar—like a three-day method—Dr. Smith recommends reducing intake over course of five weeks, decreasing your consumption by around 20 percent every seven days. By the end, you’ll have shaved off about two-thirds of your average sugar intake from when you get started. And as long as you stay under the recommended daily intake of 25 grams on most days, you can still enjoy ice cream every now and then. Not so bad, right?
What happens if you stop eating sugar for a week?
Week 1: Expect less energy and 'withdrawal' (but it's temporary!)
Like adopting a new exercise routine, Dr. Smith says sugar withdrawal symptoms will be most prevalent during the first three to five days of reducing intake. “The first thing people notice is they typically get headaches, similar to caffeine withdrawal,” he says. “They also report having decreased energy levels and mental acuity, as well as gastrointestinal distress.”
It’s not totally clear why this happens from a biochemical standpoint, but research shows that giving up sugar creates a similar reaction in the body as ditching drugs2. Dopamine levels fall, while acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that regulates pain perception, rises—and this chemical combination is said to be linked to withdrawal symptoms. Science aside, it’s important to remember this phase is only temporary. Dr. Smith says, “Not everyone experiences it, and if you do, you have to believe that it’s going to get better."
If it all becomes too much to bear, he recommends eating some fruit to take the edge off—some options are lower in sugar than others, so stock up on options that won't give you a glycemic spike.
What happens after two weeks of no sugar?
Week 2: Your energy returns, but you won't be fully accustomed to the change
By the time your second week starts, your brain fog has probably lifted, and you've likely got a lot of your energy back. But your body might still be wondering where all the sucrose went. To combat this, he says, make sure you’re eating plenty of protein, healthy fats, and fiber with each meal, which will help you feel fuller, longer. Healthy snacks will also help—like the smoothie Karlie Kloss swears by when she’s in the mood for something sweet.
What happens beyond three weeks of no sugar?
Week 3: Your body starts adapting to the changes in sugar intake
You’re halfway through the game, which means you’ve likely become more accustomed to the change in sugar intake. Maybe you’ve given up rosé for LaCroix, switched to unsweetened almond milk, or stocked up on plain Greek yogurt rather than fruity flavors. Week three is when you really start reaping the benefits of cutting sugar. “People usually have no symptoms [of reduced sugar intake],” Dr. Smith says. “They feel energized and encouraged that they can actually do this,” he says. You may also find your taste buds are hyper-sensitized to anything sweet at this point, as they've grown more accustomed to less sugar by then.
Week 4: Your sugar levels are low, but you've never felt better
After a month, the game you're playing with glucose is more mental than physical. “This is a psychological week—that final push,” Dr. Smith says. “While you’re still having some sugar, the amount you’re having is less than any of the previous weeks,” he says. For this week, you should consume low-glycemic fruits and opt for zero-added-sugar meals as much as possible. Also, make sure to check nutrition labels for sneaky, hidden sources of sugar to ensure you're not inadvertently eating added sugars. You might want to start by checking your stash of salad dressings, juices, and instant oatmeal.
Week 5+: Maintaining your low-sugar habits
By now, you’ll probably find that consuming less sugar is much easier than it was when you started. “From a psychological standpoint, you realize you don’t need sugar anymore,” says Dr. Smith. “You also understand the effect sugar once had on your body because you feel so reinvigorated in week five.” Going forward, it’s okay to have some sugar here and there, rather than a mainstay of your diet.
- Rippe, James M, and Theodore J Angelopoulos. “Relationship between Added Sugars Consumption and Chronic Disease Risk Factors: Current Understanding.” Nutrients vol. 8,11 697. 4 Nov. 2016, doi:10.3390/nu8110697
- Wiss, David A et al. “Sugar Addiction: From Evolution to Revolution.” Frontiers in psychiatry vol. 9 545. 7 Nov. 2018, doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00545
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