You may want to skip that 21-day "sugar detox."

By Christine Byrne
March 05, 2021
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There's an unspoken rule in nutrition (and life in general): If it sounds too good (or easy) to be true, it probably is—and that definitely goes for diet advice, as well.

Information about sugar detoxes abounds on the Web—specifically on health and wellness websites—claiming that just nixing that one ingredient can drastically overhaul your diet. Influencers take you along for the ride during their sugar detoxes, and then show you their before-and-after photos once they're completely off the stuff (and have seen their sought-after results).

While, yes, it's certainly beneficial to eat sugar in moderation and as part of a balanced diet, there's one super important detail that not everyone's telling you: It's near impossible to truly stop eating sugar entirely, and much of what you've heard about sugar "detoxes" is possibly wrong. Here's what you need to know, according to nutritionists, about what really happens when you "stop" eating sugar—and why it's not necessarily a foolproof idea.

First, the truth: Excessive sugar consumption is linked to an increased risk of poor health outcomes.

Right off the bat, it's not helpful or accurate to think of sugar as the enemy, but it also wouldn't be fair to completely dismiss the evidence showing that eating excessive amounts of sugar consistently over the long-term is can increase your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic conditions.

But the evidence doesn't suggest that you cut sugar out completely. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend getting no more than ten percent of your daily calories from added sugar, or sugars that are added to foods or drinks when they're being processed or prepared. You probably know added sugars by a few different names, like corn syrup, brown sugar, and molasses, among others, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Note that those recommended limits don't apply to naturally-occurring sugars, like those in carbohydrates like fruit or milk. Going further, expert-backed guidelines also recommend getting between 45 and 65 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates, which can include added sugars, along with naturally occurring sugars and starches.

Basically, even when you "stop" eating sugar, you're still....eating sugar

It's pretty impossible to cut all sugar out of your diet completely. "All carbohydrates break down into sugar once we eat them," Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, author of Unapologetic Eating and founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, tells Health. "Our bodies digest and break down the carbohydrates into glucose, a simple sugar, that can be transported throughout the body and brain to provide energy."

To be fair, not all carbohydrates are exactly the same from the get-go. Various sugar molecules have slightly different molecular structures, while starches are made of several glucose molecules strung together. And in carbohydrate-rich foods that contain fiber, protein, and/or fat, the glucose gets digested and absorbed more slowly than in foods that are 100 percent carbohydrate. But still, all carbohydrates are made of sugar molecules that get broken down into glucose.

All of this to say: When you go on a "sugar detox" and cut out added sugars and high-sugar fruits and whatever else, you're not actually cutting out sugar. You're still getting it, just in a different form.

But let's say you do completely stop eating carbohydrates and get all of your calories from protein and fat (again, only for example because if you were to do this, you'd have to cut out plant-based foods entirely). Even then, your body would still not be without sugar. That's because your body would use metabolic pathways to convert protein and fat into glucose in order to fuel your body and brain. This is an oversimplification of very complex biochemistry, and of course the process of using protein and fat as fuel is different than the default process of using glucose. Still, it's worth noting that your body is never without sugar.

The rules of sugar detoxes can be super vague and vary from person to person

Most advocates for "quitting sugar" sidestep all of this complexity—that you're never really "off" sugar for good—by making arbitrary rules around which foods are OK and which ones aren't. "There's no standard for what a 'sugar detox' entails or what foods you must cut out when you say you're going to 'stop eating sugar,'" Rumsey says. "Some people cut out all sweets or dessert type foods; others will cut out sweets and packaged foods that contain sugar; while other people go even more extreme and stop eating most carbohydrates (in addition to sweets and packaged foods)."

This vagueness isn't a good thing, because it can be a slippery slope. The lack of an agreed-upon definition of a sugar detox can lead to an increasingly extreme interpretation as time goes on. For example, your sugar detox might start out as cutting back on sugars, then progress into a more extreme version where you try to avoid carbohydrates altogether.

If you feel addicted to sugar, a sugar detox won’t help—but it may hurt

The idea of sugar addiction gets tossed around often, but it's still up for debate whether or not it's actually possible to be addicted to food. Yes, sugar lights up pleasure centers in your brain the same way addictive drugs do, but so do other benign things like playing with puppies or listening to great music.

A 2016 review published in the European Journal of Nutrition looked at the existing research on sugar addiction—most of which has been done in rodents—and found that sugar just doesn't meet the criteria for being a truly addictive substance. That's because, while rodents eat sugar when it's available, they don't seek it out when it's paired with an unpleasant stimulus like a shock (which is not the case with addictive drugs), and their tolerance for it doesn't seem to increase when they eat it regularly. Of course, findings from rodent studies don't really apply to humans, but there hasn't been enough human research done to form any kind of conclusion.

Still, it's absolutely possible that you might feel addicted to food. "When people describe feeling 'addicted' to food, what they are usually describing is a mix of intense cravings, a feeling of being out of control around food, and frequent overeating or bingeing on certain highly palatable foods," Alissa Rumsey, RD, CDN, CSCS, a registered dietitian and nutrition therapist, and founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, tells Health. "The experience of being out of control around food is a very real one, and the language of addiction, 'this is a biological drive that I can't control,' fits with this feeling."

In fact, that feeling is more likely a result of restriction than addiction. "When we demonize foods and make them 'off limits,' we tend to increase our desire to have them," Sovinsky says. Eventually you'll reach for that off-limits food, and you'll feel out of control because you've been denying yourself of it for so long, and because you tell yourself that you won't be able to eat it again afterwards. "This can at times explain why people feel addicted to certain types of foods, including sweet foods."

But that "withdrawl" you might feel when you give up sugar isn't proof of addiction, nor is it something you should just "power through" for a few days. "Depending on how people define sugar and the foods they are cutting out, it is quite possible that people are experiencing low blood sugars," Josée Sovinsky, RD, RP, a dietitian and psychotherapist at Blossom Counseling Center, tells Health. "Our brain in particular requires high amounts of sugar in the form of glucose. When it doesn't get enough, side effects can include headaches, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, irritability, anxiety, and an increase in thoughts about food." You're not detoxing, you're just under-fueled.

There's a better approach that quitting sugar: eating it when you want to.

Anyone who's heard of intuitive eating is probably familiar with the idea that letting yourself eat what you want can lead to a better relationship with food. Here's why: "Through a process called 'habituation,' the more you allow yourself to consume the foods that feel addictive, the more they tend to lose their excitement," Sovinsky says.

While it's true that you might eat more of these foods than you're used to at first, eventually they'll lose their luster. Rumsey agrees, and even recommends keeping sugary foods in the house instead of banning them, saying that can actually lessen your desire for them over time.

If you're still just not ready to give yourself unconditional permission to eat sugar when you want it, try to shift your focus from "I have to cut back on sugar," to, "I will eat consistently eat filling meals and snacks throughout the day." You might feel like you have to consciously break your habit of reaching for sugar at a certain time every day, but there's a better way to do it than just telling yourself you can't have the sweet treat.

Eating meals that contain all three macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat) will help dull your constant cravings for sugar. And having an arsenal of snacks you actually like—cheese and crackers, avocado toast, hummus with pita and/or veggie sticks, etc.—means that you always have the option of reaching for something besides a sugary treat between meals.

The bottom line here though, is that what really happens to your body when you stop eating sugar is that you feel intense and out-of-control cravings for sugar. "If you work on adopting a flexible mindset around sugar, as well as eating consistent meals and enough calories and carbohydrates, you will build back trust with your body," Rumsey says. That certainly sounds more doable (and better for you) than yet another 21-day "detox."

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