With all the debate over sugar lately, chances are you’ve tried—or at least considered trying—to give it up. The World Health Organization recommends that added sugar consumption should be less than 10% of total energy intake [source]. With its links to obesity and diabetes, inflammation [source], and high blood pressure [source], no wonder everyone is scrambling to reduce their sugar intake.
In the past, researchers were hesitant to say that people can be truly addicted to sugar [source], but more recent examination of the data shows that sugar cravings meet all of the criteria for addiction [source]. In fact, sugar intake stimulates the brain’s reward pathways like any other addictive substance [source]. Excessive sugar intake has also been shown to lead to compulsive overeating [source].
To be sure, many of us know we’d definitely be better off with less of the sweet stuff in our lives. Some people do fine with just cutting back a bit, but for others, doing a cold-turkey no-sugar period seems to be the way to go.
That’s easier said than done, given that sugar is in just about every food we buy, from pasta sauce to meat products, because it sells. That’s why a sugar detox may be necessary to help get your body off the “sauce” (syrup?) and reset itself, but it’s not always easy.
How to Survive Sugar Withdrawal
As anyone who has tried completely cutting out sugar can tell you, it can be really tough! When you’re used to grabbing sugary snacks and your brain is accustomed to that quick fix of simple carbohydrates, not eating sugar can really make you feel as if you’re in withdrawal.
Worry not, though, because we’ve got allllll the tips for surviving your sugar-free withdrawal and cravings.
1. Wean yourself off slowly.
Going cold turkey might be okay for some, but for others, not so much. If you normally consume a lot of sugar, plan ahead.
A week or two leading up to your detox, start eliminating it wherever you can: cut down the amount of sugar you use in your coffee, switch from soda to sparkling water, and buy unsweetened nut butters and nut milks for your smoothies.
2. Prepare for side effects.
Even if you didn’t have a raging sweet tooth before, you’d probably experience some headaches once you give up sugar. Many people abandon a detox when they get to this point, but if you can prepare yourself mentally and work past it, it gets much easier.
Make sure to support your liver and other elimination organs in the meantime by drinking plenty of water, eating nutrient-rich foods like leafy greens and fresh fruits and veggies, getting enough sleep, taking relaxing detox baths, and dry brushing.
3. Be smart about substitutes.
Marketing maneuvers have led many to believe that sugar substitutes are safe and can solve all of the problems related to increased sugar intake. Although they may be free of sugar and calories, artificial sweeteners have their own laundry list of health risks [source]. In addition to altering our gut microbes [source], researchers have shown an association between the intake of low-calorie sweeteners and weight gain [source] and increased mortality risk [source].
Artificial sweeteners are also to blame for altering our taste buds (training us to seek out sweeter foods) [source].
However, after an extensive literature review, experts are now recommending a limited use of low-calorie sweeteners as a temporary bridge to cutting down on the intake of sweets [source].
Opt instead for naturally sugar-free (as in, there was never sugar in it to begin with) products. Stick to whole foods that aren’t marketed as “light” or “diet,” and keep an eye on food labels for artificial sweeteners.
4. Watch for hidden sources.
Pasta sauces, juices and smoothies [source], yogurt and kefir, non-dairy milks, cereals, energy bars, protein powders, and salad dressings can all be sources of unbelievable amounts of added sugar [source]. Many low-fat or low-calorie foods add sugar to trick your brain into thinking it tastes good.
Always buy unsweetened, or make your own. Look at food labels for sugar synonyms like corn syrup, maltose, fructose, and evaporated cane juice.
5. Don’t buy it anymore.
The easiest way to keep from thinking about or using sugar is not to have it in the house—no excuses! So what if the kids love sugary fruit snacks? They can deal with eating real fruit or other non-sugary snacks for a week, and they’ll probably be better for it.
Make sure to anticipate cravings, so you don’t cave and hit the post-Halloween candy sales, though. I used to believe my life wasn’t complete until I had a glass of orange juice in the morning. But now, I make sure to keep clementines and carrot juice (both of which contain natural sugar but not just empty calories) in the house to fill that void.
Replace the fun-size candy bars with expensive high-cacao dark chocolate, so you don’t eat as much and get tons of antioxidants when you do. Grab a green juice instead of a soda when you’re tired.
6. Replace sugar with protein.
When cutting out sugar, many people report headaches, moodiness, stomach discomfort, and sleeping problems. One way to calm these symptoms is to eat or drink something with protein because it helps to make you feel full, which may reduce the cravings.
Good sugar-free protein snacks include greens, sunflower seeds, nuts, and lean meat (not cold cuts, which are often processed with sugar).
7. Satisfy cravings with whole fruits, nuts, seeds, and spices.
You need some complex carbs in your diet, and fruit is a great way to get them. Whole fruit does contain a natural form of fructose, but it is encased in fiber, so it absorbs into the bloodstream slowly and doesn’t cause the rapid blood sugar elevations that processed sugar does. In addition, you’re also getting phytonutrients, such as vitamins, and phytochemicals like antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.
Be smart about your fruit consumption, though. Make sure to eat the fruit as whole as you can: leave the skin on your apple or pear, and opt for a real orange or tangerine rather than a glass of orange juice (even fresh-squeezed—it’s processed), so you get the fiber with the fruit sugar [source].
Adding a little cinnamon or nutmeg (like in these cinnamon apple chips) adds sweetness without cheating. A handful of nuts and seeds can also help calm cravings.
8. Distract yourself.
Sometimes all it takes is a little distraction to get over the sugar withdrawal hump! Do something you really enjoy. Whether it’s taking a nap, going for a walk to clear your head, playing a game, or reading a book to pretend you’re not having that craving, doing something with your mind or body can really make a big difference.
Many of the symptoms people get when eliminating sugar from their diets can mimic the signs of dehydration. And the truth is, you may just need some water! Always remember to stay well hydrated, especially when you’re making a major change to your usual diet and activity level.
If you feel up to it, doing some exercise can help with sugar withdrawal. Going for a short run or a class at the gym can be a helpful distraction and is great for your body in general.
Taking a yoga class or practicing at home can have the added benefit of reducing headaches and some stomach discomfort. Just remember tip 3, and be sure to hydrate!
Mindfulness and deep breathing are wonderful stress relievers, and many people swear by them as part of their daily routine. Even if you’re generally pretty chill, making sudden changes to your diet can put stress on your body and mind.
Take some time to either clear your mind of plans and unhealthy thought patterns and just be present. Or use the practice to focus on the reason you’re eliminating sugar in the first place and what you hope to get out of the experience.
12. Pay attention to food combinations.
Even if what you’re eating doesn’t include refined sugar, the way you pair foods may have an impact on you.
According to the Ayurvedic practice of food combining, fruit should be eaten by itself [source], and certain vegetables and starches should be paired with protein, but not necessarily with each other. Following these principles may work for some people, so it’s worth a try if you are experiencing digestive issues.
13. Try a castor oil pack.
Many people swear by a castor oil pack when bloated. It involves putting a castor oil-soaked piece of cloth over the affected area with a heating pad or hot water bottle over it for about 45 minutes.
(Special note: this is not recommended while pregnant or menstruating, and it’s for external use only. Always talk to your doctor about this if you’ve never tried one before.)
14. Take Epsom salt baths.
If a castor oil pack seems too intense, most people feel comfortable detoxing with an Epsom salt bath. It’s relaxing, and Epsom salts contain magnesium, which is a vital mineral that many people lack [source] but can become even more deficient when not properly hydrated.
15. Be patient with yourself.
In the end, the uncomfortable symptoms associated with cutting sugar from your diet usually don’t last very long. Headaches tend to subside after a day or two, and moodiness and other symptoms fall away soon after.
Once your sugar detox is over, don’t think of it as license to jump right back in; your blood sugar levels will not be happy if you overload your system suddenly. Ask yourself if those store-bought cookies sitting out at the office are really worth falling off the wagon for.
Most often, you’ll find that everything tastes too sweet, and you don’t even like sugary cereals or granola bars anymore [source]. You will also become more aware of how you feel afterward. The more you make those seemingly little choices, the more your tastes will change, and the less you’ll want sugar going forward.
If you find you’ve made your way back to sugar (it happens!), just try to minimize the damage and do another detox when you feel mentally prepared. With the knowledge you’ll gain about how it feels to be free of sugar cravings and the benefits, you’ll be phasing unnecessary sugar out of your life in no time.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Gina Jansheski, a licensed, board-certified physician who has been practicing for more than 20 years. Learn more about Hello Glow’s medical reviewers here. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.130