Here's the bitter truth about what can happen when you first cut sweets from your diet, plus the best ways to ride out the detox.
Eating less sugar can lower your risk of diabetes, help you lose weight, and even lead to brighter, younger-looking skin. But for most people, quitting the sweet stuff isn't easy—especially at first. "I've never had a single client who didn't have some sort of reaction to cutting out sugar," says Brooke Alpert, RD, nutritionist and author of The Sugar Detox ($14; amazon.com)
When you consider how powerful an ingredient sugar is, that's not too surprising. In some ways, sugar acts like a drug in the body, says Alpert, which is why eliminating it from your diet can bring on less-than-pleasant side effects. "For those who are really dependent on sugar, they’re going to feel strong withdrawal symptoms when they cut it out," she explains. "That might mean they’re cranky, irritable, fatigued, or experiencing headaches."
So what's the best way to break up with sugar so you keep those symptoms—and your dessert cravings—under control? Read on for Alpert's expert tips.
Cut it all out at once
"I've always found that going cold turkey is the best way to cut out sugar," says Alpert. "Telling a true sugar addict to slowly reduce the amount of sugar they eat each day is like telling an alcoholic to drink less." Nixing it all at once lowers the risk that you'll bend the rules, such as by opting for a cookie here or a doughnut hole there as you attempt to wean yourself off the sweet stuff.
Alpert suggests completely eliminating sugar from your diet for a full three days—and yes, you also need to KO natural sugars like those found in fruit and dairy, at least initially. Those three days will probably be rough, she admits, but that's the minimum time often needed to break old habits and establish new, healthier ones.
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Eat well to feel well
Once your usual supply of sugar gets cut, your body will likely rebel by messing with your moods and energy level. Alpert stresses the importance of nourishing yourself with high-quality foods that can help fight moodiness and energize you when you cut back on sweets. "Keep yourself satisfied, especially with foods that are high in healthy fat," she says.
Alpert also recommends drinking plenty of water, which can help fight fatigue and headaches, another side effect of cold turkeying sugar. Eating lots of vegetables and organic protein will keep you feeling full and your appetite under control. To avoid feeling hangry throughout the day, nosh on snacks that deliver fiber and good fats, such as celery and guacamole.
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Combat cravings the right way
While you're fighting off a host of physical and emotional side effects of cutting out sugar, your body is going to play a mean trick on you by kicking in sugar cravings hard. If you're hankering for a hot fudge sundae, try spicing up your savory food instead. Just because you're going sugar-free doesn't mean your meals need to be totally bland. "Using lots of herbs and spices, as well as ingredients like onion, garlic, and lime, will help you withdraw from sugar without feeling like your food tastes terrible," Alpert says.
Another strategy is to fill your glass with unsweetened iced tea or cold brew. "I’ve found that really cold drinks help curb sugar cravings,” she says. "It just kind of chills the mouth in a way."
Add back natural sugar—slowly
After three days, it's okay to start incorporating small amounts of foods that contain natural sugar (such as organic honey and maple syrup) back into your diet. But when you take that first bite, expect it to taste a little different. "Your palate has basically been re-calibrated," says Alpert. The reason: Sugar actually diminishes the ability to taste sweetness, and briefly avoiding sugary fare will make naturally sweet foods more satisfying.
Alpert recommends adding natural sugar back in slowly, such as two servings of fruit (think: an apple and a banana) per day and choosing unsweetened dairy products, like plain yogurt. Putting them back in your diet slowly will ease withdrawal symptoms without making you crave the added sugar you gave up only days earlier. Soon, your body will adjust to lower levels of natural sugar only—and you'll have successfully detoxed.
And here's the best news: You don't have to ban brownies forever. Alpert tells us she lets herself have one "intentional indulgence" every week, whether it's a sweet treat like cupcakes or savory snack like French fries. Depriving yourself of an entire type of food can end poorly, research shows. Says Alpert: "If we fully restrict ourselves long-term, we set ourselves up to make bad decisions."