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February 10, 2021 / Jennifer Husson, RDN

How to Detox from Sugar: The Complete Guide

Woman slicing cucumbers on a wooden cutting board in a kitchen next to lettuce, olives, tomatoes, and lemons.

We all know we should eat less added sugar, but how much less? It’s recommended to consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day for women, and less than 35 grams for men. For perspective, the average American consumes 77 grams of added sugar per day.

Why the disparity between these numbers? For one thing, sugar can be addicting. When you consume too much added sugar at once, blood sugar levels rise and fall quickly. This leaves you feeling hungry and lethargic shortly after consumption, which leads to a craving for more sugar. Plus, sugar isn’t only found in candy, sodas, and sweet desserts. There is hidden sugar in foods that you may not generally associate with containing sugar. Studies have shown that consuming a higher intake of added sugar increases the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, weight gain, and diabetes.

If you're thinking about cutting back your sugar intake, read on about why a sugar detox may be beneficial and how to detox from sugar.

What Are the Benefits of a Sugar Detox?

When you eat sugar, your brain’s reward system is activated and dopamine is released. Dopamine, also known as the “feel good neurotransmitter,” is a brain chemical that signals an event as positive. The behavior that caused the dopamine release is reinforced.

When the reward system is activated repeatedly, by something like drugs or sugar, the brain adapts and a tolerance is created. So, you end up needing more to get the same rewarding feeling.

The good news is that the brain is capable of rewiring itself through a process called neuroplasticity. You can rewire your brain by greatly reducing sugar content in your diet and doing a sugar detox.

The benefits of a sugar detox include:

You may be wondering how blood sugar affects weight loss. A sugar detox creates a more stable blood sugar level. By choosing to avoid overconsumption of sugar, you avoid the blood sugar spike, the crash that occurs afterwards and the fatigue and hunger that coincide. A recent review of studies showed a positive correlation between obesity and overconsumption of sugar. While it’s important to recognize other contributing factors to obesity, sugar intake plays a role.

What Happens to Your Body When You Cut Out Sugar?

A sugar detox can be compared to detoxing off a drug. Your body can actually experience some significant withdrawal symptoms.

In addition to dopamine, endogenous opioids are released when sugar is consumed, which points to the very real addictive potential of sugar. So, when you cut sugar out of your diet, you can experience opiate-like withdrawal signs like anxiety and depression, an increase in craving, and general irritability.

You also may be wondering why you crave sugar. Things like consuming artificial sweeteners, eating an imbalanced diet, and emotional stress can impact cravings.

Changes in mentality

When choosing to do a sugar detox, it’s important to focus on your overall wellness and take care of your entire body, which includes your mental health. Be prepared to experience mental symptoms when cutting sugar out. These symptoms include:

If you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional to help as you work through these changes.

Changes in your physical body

A sugar detox can result in some significant physical symptoms as well. You may find you experience:

Take care of your body and remind yourself why you’re doing this. These symptoms are only temporary, but the benefits are long-term.

How Long Does a Sugar Detox Take?

You can choose to cut sugar out of your diet for any length of time. Common sugar detox lengths include three- or seven-days, and they can be as long as a month. Whichever detox length you choose, you can expect to experience varying outcomes. The longer you eliminate sugar from your diet, the more significant your benefit.

Three-day detox: You may experience a reduction in carbohydrate cravings after three days.

Seven-day detox: After a week, you may feel like you have improved energy.

Month long detox: If you've committed to cutting added sugar for 30-days, you will experience all the benefits mentioned above, as well as the potential to lose weight if you haven't replaced the sugar with other sources of calories.

It’s important to keep in mind that after your sugar detox, you cannot return to over consuming sugar and expect to continue seeing a benefit from the detox. You may gradually incorporate added sugar into your diet in moderation, and be sure not to exceed the recommended amount: 25g a day for women and 35g for men.

Tips for a Successful and Healthy Detox from Sugar

Eliminating adding sugar from your diet can feel difficult. To help, we have compiled a list of helpful and practical tips to help support you in completing a successful sugar detox.

Tip #1: Properly hydrate

First, remember to stay hydrated. Staying hydrated helps to manage the sugar cravings, helps the digestive system function properly and is beneficial for overall health and wellness. If you’re used to consuming sugary drinks throughout the day, you may find it helpful to identify some alternatives to sugary drinks to help you stay on track with your hydration.

Tip #2: Enjoy nutrient-dense foods

Choosing nutrient dense foods helps support your body through any withdrawal symptoms you may be experiencing from the sugar detox. Nutrient dense foods are rich in nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fiber, but are not excessive in calories. Be sure to include foods like dark leafy greens, whole grains, lean meats, strawberries, blueberries, and fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon.

Tip #3: Focus on protein and fiber

Protein and fiber are key to maintaining energy levels and satiety throughout the day. They both slow the absorption of carbohydrates, which helps keep blood sugar levels stable. Some good sources of protein include lean meats, low fat dairy, beans, nuts and seeds and tofu. Increase fiber in your diet by focusing on whole grains, vegetables, whole fruits, and legumes.

Tip #4: Prepare meal plans

If you’re thinking about how to sugar detox, planning ahead can really help the detox to be more successful. It’s easier to stick to your goals if you have a solid plan in place, which makes healthy meal planning a vital component to the process.

Tip #5: Get adequate sleep

Finally, be sure to get enough sleep. Aim for at least 8 hours a night. This may mean changing your nighttime routine a bit and getting to bed earlier. It’s worth it though, since getting adequate sleep helps to improve mood and increase energy levels. Sleep deprivation can also be another reason your body craves sugar, so getting to bed earlier can help with those nighttime cravings.

Foods to Cut Out During a Sugar Detox

There are two different types of sugar: natural sugar and added sugar. Natural sugars are sugars that are naturally present in foods, like fruit.

When you’re cutting back on sugar, it’s okay to include certain natural sugars like those from fruit in your diet. However, some high glycemic fruits are best to avoid because they raise blood sugar levels quickly, like watermelon, dates, pineapple, prunes and raisins.

Of course, during a sugar detox it’s important to avoid added sugars. To find out if a product contains added sugars, take a look at it’s ingredient list. Added sugar goes by many different names. Here are some common ways you may see added sugar on your packaging:

Artificial sweeteners

It may seem like replacing added sugar with artificial sweeteners is a good idea. However, evidence shows that artificial sweeteners actually cause metabolic abnormalities that may ultimately lead to weight gain and an increase in food intake. As with anything, it’s best to consume artificial sweeteners in moderation. You may find it helpful to avoid completely until after your detox is complete.

Honey and maple syrup

You may be wondering about honey and maple syrup, since they are considered natural sweeteners. While these are a better alternative to processed sugar, they are still high in sugar content, so it’s best to avoid them throughout the length of the detox.

Pasta sauces

Pasta sauce often contains a large amount of sugar, which can be surprising since sauce is not normally something we consider as sweet. As an alternative, you can make your own sauce, or try other pasta toppings like basil pesto and sundried tomato.

Sweetened yogurt

Many of the yogurts you see at the supermarket contain added sugar. When shopping, look for plain, unsweetened yogurt. Greek yogurt will be higher in protein. You can add a few berries and chopped nuts to add flavor.

Granola bars

Granola bars have a reputation for being healthy. However, take a look at the label and you’ll likely notice most have quite a bit of added sugar. Be sure to check your labels before purchasing, or plan ahead by making your own.

Certain salad dressings

Another food that often hides sugar is salad dressing. Instead of purchasing one off the shelf, try making your own with olive oil, vinegar and some seasonings.

Breakfast cereal

Even though they are often marketed as healthy, breakfast items like packaged cereal and oatmeal can contain up to 12 grams of sugar per serving - that’s equal to 3 teaspoons of sugar.

Energy drinks and snack bars

Energy drinks and snack bars typically contain a high amount of sugar, so they are best to avoid while completing your sugar detox, and only in moderation later on.

Dried or packaged fruits

Many dried or packaged fruits, including canned fruits, have sugars added to them. When choosing fruit, aim for whole, fresh fruit.

Foods to Eat While Detoxing from Sugar

Now that you know what foods to avoid, here’s a breakdown of what foods you can enjoy when detoxing from sugar, and some example meal ideas to help you start your meal planning process.

Breakfast

If you love oats for breakfast, avoid the pre-packaged oatmeal containing adding sugars. Instead, prepare unsweetened oats and add your own topping, like sliced apples and cinnamon.

Eggs are a great choice for breakfast. Scramble with some vegetables and pair with a slice of whole grain toast for a balanced, nutritious breakfast.

This PlateJoy recipe for sugar-free coconut macadamia granola is delicious on it’s own, or as a topping to unsweetened yogurt.

coconut-macadamia-granola-in-a-white-bowl

Lunch

A balanced lunch that contains plenty of vegetables and protein helps fuel your body to prevent that dreaded afternoon crash.

A vegetable salad topped with protein is a very versatile lunch choice, and is easily prepared in advance for busy workdays. Start with a large green salad full of some favorite vegetables. Add proteins such as lean meats, hard boiled egg, nuts and seeds. For inspiration, see our shrimp scampi spinach salad.

Shrimp-scampi-spinach-salad-in-a-blue-bowl

Dinner

Even though you’re avoiding sugar, you can still enjoy whole grains like sweet potato, quinoa, and whole wheat pasta into your diet. Dinner ideas on a sugar detox are endless. You can stick with some of your family’s favorite dinner recipes and make minor adjustments to ingredients if need-be. Or, flex your culinary skills and try a new recipe like our grilled swordfish with sweet potatoes and side salad.

Grilled-swordfish-with-sweet-potatoes-&-side-salad

Snacks

If you feel hungry in-between meals, you can include snacks into your plan and still adhere to the sugar detox. Make sure your snack contains some protein to help with satiety. Some easy snack choices: a piece of whole fruit and a serving of almonds, greek yogurt, home-made trail mix, or sugar-free chocolate shakes.

Sugar-free-chocolate-shakes-with-banana-and-dates

The Takeaway

Completing a sugar detox not only breaks the dependence we have on sugar, but the benefits of avoiding sugar promote an improved overall health and wellness.

It has been shown that planning ahead is a huge factor in a successful sugar detox. PlateJoy meal planner takes the work out of it for you and uses all your preferences to create a balanced meal plan designed just for you.

It may seem like a lot to handle at first, but you’ll be so glad you took this step towards a healthier, and lower sugar, version of you.

Jennifer Husson, RDN
Registered Dietitian and Health Coach @ PlateJoy

Jennifer is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) with the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). She holds a Bachelor of Science in Health Science degree from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and an associate from the State University of New York at Morrisville. Her love of nutrition and helping others led her to work as a registered dietetic technician, and after relocating to Colorado with her husband, she worked as a dietitian for a behavioral health hospital. Jennifer is now settled in Charlotte, NC with her husband and three young children. She enjoys spending quality time with her family, attending bootcamp classes, and going for family hikes.

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