It’s no big news that too much sugar can lead to unwanted health problems. From obesity to fueling cancerous cells, overdoing it on sugar does not do your body any favors. But cutting sugar out of your diet is no easy feat. Not only is the sweet stuff addictive, but it’s in just about everything.
“The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugars to less than 10 percent of your daily calories,” says Alexandra Miller, RDN, LDN Corporate Dietician at Medifast. For a 2,000 calorie diet, that equates to 200 or less calories per day. To clarify, Miller explains that added sugars are sugars and syrups added to foods or beverages during processing. Naturally sweet foods like fruit don’t fall into this category, as they provide energy along with essential vitamins, minerals and fiber. Added sugar, on the other hand, offers nothing more than a sweet taste, a sugar high and a handful of empty calories.
“The brain sees sugar as a reward,” says Miller. “When we eat a lot of sugar, we reinforce that reward. Therefore, the more sugar we eat, the more our body craves it.” Miller also notes that some studies have found that sugar and sweetness can induce reward and craving in a manner comparable to addictive drugs, though she says more research is needed.
If you’ve decided to wean yourself off sugar, Miller suggests starting slowly, as our bodies can take time to adjust to dietary changes. “Start by eliminating or reducing one or two main sources of added sugar in your diet,” she says, noting the importance of setting small realistic goals—like nixing your post-lunch can of Coke. Miller also suggests adding protein and fiber to every meal, to help keep yourself full and satisfied.
So what exactly can you expect as you slowly wean yourself off the sweet stuff? Miller lays it out.
Headaches. Going through withdrawal from sugar can be similar to coming off of caffeine. Depending on how much sugar you were consuming, headaches may surface as your body aches for its sweet fix.
Fatigue. In addition to being a calorie bomb, sugar offers an energizing pick me up, followed by a crash that leaves you craving—yep—more sugar. When cutting sugar out, you may feel sluggish and sleepy. This is just your body missing sugar. Stay hydrated and rested to battle the urge to nap under your desk.
Irritability. When ditching sugar, you may find yourself crankier than a two-year-old who missed his nap time. “This is a normal reaction to the body adjusting to the change in diet,” says Miller. Drink lots of water, and warn your friends and partner in case you get a little snappy.
Cravings. As soon as your body realizes it’s not getting a sugar fix, it will begin to demand it. You may crave the normal sweet contenders, like cookies and cake, but some find themselves craving things like french fries covered in sweet, heavenly ketchup. “Keep yourself busy, especially the first few days as your body adjusts,” suggests Miller. “It may also help to have smaller more frequent meals throughout the day to help keep blood sugar levels stable.”
If you’re in the throes of ditching sugar, there are a few things can you do to keep yourself placated.
Eat natural sweets. Craving candy? Munch an apple. Sure it’s not the same, but it can help to curb that craving—and you will get a vitamin and fiber boost, too.
Watch portions. If you do decide to eat something with added sugar, make sure it’s portion controlled. When you’ve been restricting something, your brain may tell you to binge once that taboo item enters your system again—so try and stay away from that sheet cake. “Purchase single servings so leftovers do not linger in the house and become a temptation,” Miller suggests.
Exercise. Working up a sweat can hit you with the same endorphins you get from a sugar rush, while doubling as a stress reliever. “Find an exercise that you enjoy so you’re more likely to stay committed,” says Miller. You don’t need to jail yourself in a gym—go skiing, sign up for swing dance or splash in an indoor pool. “Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box,” Miller notes.
Find a hobby. To keep your mind off your sugar cravings, dive into something new. “Whether it’s joining a local rec sports team or philanthropic club, volunteering at a local non-profit organization, such as food bank of pet shelter, or trying your hand in the arts, occupying the hands and mind can be a helpful tool in combating cravings,” says Miller.
Have a support system. Letting your friends and family know what’s going on will be helpful. Not only will they cease inviting you out for ice cream, but they can also hold you accountable and keep you encouraged.