With all the debate over sugar lately, chances are you’ve tried—or at least considered trying—to give it up. With its links to obesity and diabetes, inflammation and high blood pressure, as well as new research that shows it stimulates the same pleasure centers in the brain as heroin or cocaine, no wonder everyone’s scrambling to reduce their sugar intake.
While all sugar isn’t inherently bad, we could all stand to consume less of it. That’s easier said than done given that sugar is in just about every food we buy, from pasta sauce to meat products. For many of us, simply reducing our intake isn’t just a matter of willpower, it’s an addiction (a stronger one than cocaine, in fact) that needs to be managed. A sugar detox can help get your body off the “sauce” (syrup?) and reset itself, but it’s not always easy. When your Halloween binge is behind you, here’s a no-fail plan for detoxing the sugar from your diet.
10 Ways To Do a Sugar Detox
1. Wean Yourself Off
Going cold turkey might be 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: Stop putting sugar in your coffee, switch from soda to sparkling water, buy unsweetened nut butters and nut milks for your smoothies.
2. Be Realistic
Consuming zero sugar is just about impossible and isn’t really good for you because your body needs glucose (a.k.a. sugar) for fuel. The source and the amount matters, though. Whereas refined sugar-laden candy, cookies and drinks all convert to glucose in the body quickly, causing your blood sugar levels to spike, other glucose-providing simple carbs like fruit still raise your blood sugar—but digest more slowly—and provide fiber, antioxidants and nutrients while they’re at it.
Complex carbs like whole grains and veggies digest even more slowly, helping to store glucose for later. So the point isn’t to eliminate all sugar, just to reduce the extra, non-beneficial sugar that you’re taking in.
3. Prepare for Side Effects
Even if you didn’t have a raging sweet tooth before, you’ll probably experience some headaches once you start detoxing. If you normally consume a lot of sugar, even in things like yogurts, coffee drinks or alcohol, then give it up, you could experience what’s known as the Herxheimer response. The yeast in your body have been thriving on sugar. When you starve them, they die off and overwhelm your systems with toxins, including ammonia and ethanol. This die-off—and the compounds released by it—can result in yeast infections, rashes, flu-like symptoms, sinus infections, headaches, nausea, chills, and a general sense of “I can’t do this anymore.”
Many people abandon a detox when they get to this point, but if you can 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 lots of nutrient-rich foods like leafy greens, getting enough sleep, taking relaxing detox baths, and dry brushing.
4. Don’t Do Sugar-Free or Diet Foods
Diet soda might be free of sugar and calories, but it’s got its own laundry list of risks. In addition to altering our gut microbes and contributing to diabetes, researchers have attributed soda to weight gain (especially around the waist) stemming from aspartame’s effect on blood glucose levels. Artificial sweeteners are also to blame for altering our taste buds (training us to seek out sweeter foods) and triggering insulin resistance and headaches. At that point you’d probably be better off with sugar! Stick to whole foods that aren’t marketed as “light” or “diet,” and keep an eye on labels for artificial sweeteners.
5. Be Smart About Substitutes
So-called “natural” sweeteners like stevia or xylitol, which are in everything from natural teas to gums, can cause some of the same physiological reactions as artificial sweeteners like aspartame, including but not limited to increased cravings and digestive upset. Katie Trant, the resident nutritionist at The Muffin Myth, puts it this way: “The reality is there is no magic bullet, and if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Opt instead for naturally sugar-free (as in, there was never sugar in it to begin with) products.
6. Fruit is Dessert!
You need some simple carbs in your diet, and fruit—which contains sugar—is a great way to get them because you’re also getting nutrients such as fiber, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory benefits. Be smart about your fruit consumption, though. While detoxing, it’s a good idea to stick to just 1-2 servings a day. And make to sure to eat the fruit as whole as you can: leave the skin on your apple or pear, and opt for a small orange or tangerine rather than a glass of orange juice (even fresh-squeezed), so you get the fiber.
Make fruit your special-occasion dessert while you’re on a sugar detox, and you’ll get a new appreciation for apples, bananas and pears! If you love fruit smoothies, tweak it to make sure it’s not a sugar bomb.
7. Watch for Hidden Sources
Pasta sauces, yogurt and kefir, non-dairy milks, cereals, energy bars, protein powders and salad dressings can all be sources of unbelievable amounts of sugar, some of it naturally occurring, but some of it added in. (Many low-fat or low-calorie foods add in sugar to trick your brain into thinking it tastes good.) Always buy unsweetened, or make your own. Look for sugar synonyms like corn syrup, maltose, fructose and evaporated cane juice, too.
8. Don’t Buy It
The easiest way to not think about sugar is to not 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 not believe my life was complete until I had a glass of orange juice in the morning, but after detoxing I make sure to keep clementines and carrot juice (both of which have sugar, but aren’t 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.
9. Proceed with Caution
Once your 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, and you may experience physical symptoms similar to die-off. Sugar is addictive, so ask yourself if those store-bought cookies sitting out at the office are really worth falling off the wagon for. Maybe you find you don’t even like sugary cereals or granola bars anymore, either because the flavor is too much, or because of how you feel afterwards. 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. I know I tend to falter over the summer and over the holidays, so I try to do a week-long sugar detox in the spring and fall. Get back on that horse, and you’ll be phasing unnecessary sugar out of your life in no time.5