How and Why You Should Try a Sugar Detox
While some people jokingly refer to themselves as sugar addicts, the truth is no laughing matter. Refined sugar causes real, clinically verifiable addictive patterns in your brain and ruinous effects on your body. The average American consumes between 22 and 30 teaspoons of added sugar every day. That’s sugar that you could easily cut from your diet entirely by making intelligent dietary decisions—or you could if sugar didn’t have you hooked. A sugar detox is a way to break the hold sugar has over you.
Basically, a sugar detox is when you cut all sugar out of your diet for a set period of time. ALL sugar. That means no honey, no maple syrup, no agave syrup, no white bread, no alcohol, no natural sweeteners, no artificial sweeteners, no high fructose corn syrup. You’ll be amazed by how much better you’ll feel when you cut the added sugar.
Natural Sugars vs. Added Sugars
It’s important to make the distinction between natural sugars and added sugars. Natural sugars are those found naturally in fruits and vegetables. Bound to other nutrients like protein and dietary fiber, these sugars are broken down more slowly and provide a healthier source of energy.
Added sugars are often refined and stripped of these nutrients, leaving only empty calories. These refined sugars are then added to processed foods and beverages. You may feel a temporary surge in energy from these refined sugars, but they burn fast, and you’ll crash hard afterward. These sugars are absorbed very quickly, which leads to a spike in blood sugar, followed by a sharp increase in insulin, which is in turn followed by a steep drop in blood sugar. Low blood sugar causes hunger, and the whole process repeats in a vicious cycle.
When combined with a sedentary lifestyle, refined sugars lead to weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and increased oxidative stress throughout the body.
How Is Refined Sugar Addictive?
Most people will accuse you of exaggerating if you liken sugar addiction to drug addiction, but studies have found the comparison to be spot on. When you eat sugar, your body releases opioids and dopamine. These compounds stimulate the pleasure centers of your brain, much like addictive drugs. What’s worse, studies have found that cutting off your sugar intake causes withdrawal symptoms. The effects of withdrawal are less intense than that of hard drugs like heroin, but the process is essentially the same.
Health Effects of Refined Sugar
Refined sugar is one of the most harmful things you can put in your body that isn’t outright classified as a narcotic or poison. We now know that sugar is one of the top contributors to metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Two out of every three Americans are overweight, and one-third of the country’s population is considered obese. Diabetes now affects 26 million Americans and heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.[5, 6]
Emerging research implicates sugar in a growing list of serious health conditions. Sugar causes our cells to degrade faster, leading to DNA damage and accelerated aging. It’s linked to Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, and other detrimental cognitive effects. Excess sugar consumption even increases your risk of certain types of cancer, including colon cancer.[5, 7]
Benefits of a Sugar Detox
You may not feel like you consume too much sugar, but I urge everyone to try a sugar detox at least once. The results may astonish you. You’ll lose weight, have fewer headaches, have more energy, and generally feel loads better.
A 2015 study found that cutting sugar for as few as ten days significantly improved virtually all aspects of metabolic health in obese children. It reduced diastolic blood pressure, triglyceride levels, blood glucose, and LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol). Restricting sugar intake improves heart health, cholesterol profile, liver function, and longevity.
One of the more unusual effects of a sugar detox is that your palate will become more attuned to the natural sweetness of fruits and vegetables.There’s a reason foods like sweet onions and sweet potatoes have the word “sweet” right in their names. If you can’t taste it, it’s because your taste buds are seriously desensitized.
With your sugar tolerance back in balance, foods you never thought of as particularly sweet, like bell peppers, carrots, and beets, will start tasting very sweet. An apple will taste like candy.
Once you’ve broken the cycle of sugar dependency and cleansed your system of its effects, sugary snacks like donuts and cake won’t have the same irresistible appeal they once had. I’m not saying that you’ll never want a cookie ever again, but outside of the stranglehold of sugar dependency, you should be able to make clear-headed decisions and enjoy those type of treats in the extreme moderation they deserve.
How to Do a Sugar Detox
The worst part of sugar dependency is that the more you eat, the more you crave. A sugar detox can help break this vicious cycle. Here’s how to do it.
Decide ahead of time how long your sugar detox will last. It takes about four weeks to see the full benefits of the cleanse, so I recommend you try it for at least a month. If this seems too daunting, you can try a short week-long cleanse first. You won’t reap the full benefits of a month-long detox, but it’s a good place to start if this is your first sugar cleanse.
Generally speaking, restaurant food is loaded with added sugar, and many eateries don’t provide nutrition facts for their food. This means that you’ll need to prepare your own food during this cleanse. Plan your meals ahead of time. An easy way to do this is to sit down on Sunday and plan out all your meals for the week. After you set a meal plan, shop for all the ingredients you’ll need. Try to add a little variety to keep things interesting.
What Not to Eat on a Sugar Detox
So what shouldn’t you eat during a sugar detox? Avoid foods with a high glycemic index (GI). Let’s start with the obvious stuff. Sugar is clearly off the menu, along with any candy, syrups, cookies, pastries, ice cream, and other obvious sugary foods and drinks.
Get Rid of Soda and Energy Drinks
This may seem like one of the obvious ones, but soft drinks bear special mention as they are the number one source of added sugar in the American diet. Soft drinks are often peddled as a thirst-quenching beverage, but the truth is that they’re little more than liquid candy with added chemicals. Energy drinks can be even worse. The American Heart Association attributes 25,000 deaths every year to sugary sodas in the U.S. alone. Get rid of all of them!
Watch Out for Hidden Sugars
What may surprise you are some of the hidden sources of added sugar. Salad dressing, pasta sauce, granola bars, yogurt, instant oatmeal, breakfast cereals, canned fruit, fruit juice, sweet tea, smoothies, and processed foods all frequently have added sugar.
Watch out for condiments, as many have a very high sugar content. Ketchup, for example, is nothing more than reconstituted tomato paste mixed with high fructose corn syrup. Salad dressing and Sriracha are also loaded with added sugar. Condiments can be especially tricky as we often don’t factor them in when counting calories, and restaurants typically don’t include them in nutritional data. A salad may have only 400 calories and no sugar, but that changes as soon as you add half a cup of honey mustard.
While avoiding refined sugar is the main part of a sugar detox, it’s also important to remove other refined carbs. This means cutting out everything that’s made from bleached white flour. That includes white bread, bagels, cereal, pasta, and crackers.
Cut Natural Sugars, Too
There are also some foods you shouldn’t eat on a sugar detox because of their high carb content, including starchy vegetables like corn, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, and pumpkin.
While fruits are normally healthy, you should avoid fruits with a high glycemic index like bananas, pineapple, and watermelon during the first two weeks of a cleanse. Cut out dried fruit entirely. The sugar content is concentrated and many fruits sold as “dried” are actually candied, which means they were boiled in sugar syrup to make them sweeter.
If you are doing a month-long detox, you can slowly add in naturally sweet fruits after the first two weeks. For a shorter cleanse, avoid them entirely.
Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
“Why no artificial sweeteners?” you may ask. Well, aside from their known harmful effects, this isn’t just a cleanse for your body, it’s also a cleanse for your palette. The chemicals that make up artificial sweeteners can be many hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. Just like a drug addict builds up a tolerance for drugs, our taste buds become desensitized to sweetness. This creates an artificially inflated standard of sweetness, and we require greater and greater amounts of sweeteners just so that our food “tastes right” to us.
Worse, studies indicate that artificial sweeteners can ruin your body’s ability to regulate caloric intake. In other words, they make you feel hungrier, and consume more calories than you normally would, leading to weight gain and obesity.
Read the Ingredients!
Always read the ingredients on any food product you buy. You’d be surprised how often a product whose label boldly states “No Added Sugar” lists sugar as a main ingredient. Food manufacturers often just call sugar by a different name. Other names for added sugar that may appear on a food label include:
- Anhydrous dextrose
- Cane juice
- Corn syrup
- Corn syrup solids
- Crystal dextrose
- Evaporated corn sweetener
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Nectars (e.g., peach nectar, pear nectar, fruit nectar)
- Pancake syrup
What You Should Eat During Your Sugar Detox
Though it might first appear that this is a very restrictive diet, consider a sugar detox an opportunity to expand your culinary horizons. Here are some of the best foods to eat during your cleanse.
Eat plenty of low glycemic index vegetables, especially dark leafy greens and cruciferous veggies. Kale, spinach, chard, mustard greens, dandelion greens, arugula, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower are all good options. Eat them roasted, sauteed in sunflower oil, or raw in salads.
Include plenty of plant-based protein in your diet. That means legumes, seeds, and nuts. You’ll likely be eating a lot of lentils during your detox, so look up some recipes. I recommend batch prepping some chili or black bean soup for an easy meal. If you find yourself craving an afternoon snack, skip the sweets, and have a handful of walnuts instead. Pumpkin, sunflower, flax, and chia seeds are a nutritious addition to salads.
An important part of a sugar detox is to add healthy fats back into your diet. Many so-called “fat-free” foods often just add extra sugar to make up for how bland they taste when fat is removed. Your body needs fat to function, and fats help slow the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream. However, this isn’t an excuse to eat fried chicken and pizza. Add healthy fats like olives, avocados, coconut oil, seeds, and unsweetened nuts.
Since white flour and white rice are out of the picture, you’ll need an alternative source of healthy grains. Look for complete grains. These are grains that still have their full fiber content, which slows the impact that carbs have on blood sugar. With its high protein and fiber content, quinoa is a wonderful option. Buckwheat, which is unrelated to conventional wheat and thus gluten-free, is another. Millet, amaranth, and kamut are all solid choices.
After Your Sugar Detox
Once you’ve completed this cleanse, it’s important not to go back to old, bad habits. Don’t binge at the bakery or chug a celebratory soda. A detox can help reset your system, but it’s only a temporary respite unless you incorporate healthy habits on a permanent basis.
If you do find yourself craving a sweet treat, look to natural alternatives. While you avoided these foods during the detox, they can, in moderation, be safely added to your long-term dietary plans. Reintroduce raw fruits into your diet; you’ll be astounded at the depth of flavor. When you need to add some sweetness to your coffee or tea, reach for raw organic honey, blackstrap molasses, stevia, maple syrup, or natural fruit sugars.
You’ll feel better, look better, and have fewer sugar cravings. These effects will be all the more noticeable the longer your cleanse lasts. If you did a week-long sugar detox, try a month next. If you can do a month, then work on making these changes a lifelong commitment. Ultimately, a sugar detox shouldn’t be a one-week gimmick, but a new, healthier way to live your life.
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