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Doctors reveal the absolute best way to quit sugar

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Jonathan Pielmayer | Unsplash

Ashley Jonkman - published on 03/16/17 - updated on 01/12/24

Trying to cut out the sweets from your diet? Experts say there's only really one effective way to go. Here's how it works ...

We all know it by now—sugar just isn’t good for our bodies. (Added sugar, that is; natural sugars like the ones that occur in fruits and vegetables are perfectly healthy.) And yet … plenty of Americans are dependent on excess amounts of sugar, consuming it every day, often compulsively.

One 2009 study estimated that the average American consumes about 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day. That’s well over the amount recommended by the American Heart Association, which specifies that women should consume no more than 100 calories or 6 teaspoons of sugar per day (for men, it’s 150 calories or 9 teaspoons). Sure, we know we probably shouldn’t eat that bowl of ice cream after dinner or hit up the vending machine for a pick-me-up between lunch and quitting time, but so many of us are, quite literally, addicted to sugar.

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If you’re like me, your social media feeds may be jam-packed with people swearing off sugar. Whether it’s for Lent or for weight loss or just better physical and mental health, it seems like everywhere I look people are singing the praises of going sugar-free. And from the constant promotions I see for healthy shakes, cleanses and diet programs promising to eliminate sugar cravings, it’s pretty clear we all have a collective problem with wanting more sugar.

So where did all this sugar come from, and why are we so dependent on it?

American Board of Obesity Medicine-Certified physician Dr. Mark Walker affirms that sugar addiction is indeed real. He says that “our bodies were not designed for the highly processed foods that are in the current market. Sugar consumption has drastically increased starting in the 1970s.” He continues that around that time, “the food pyramid recommended low fat diets, with a replacement of carbohydrates. Unfortunately, we replaced the fat with highly processed high fructose corn syrup and the rates of obesity dramatically increased as a result of this.” Down the road, the effects of too much sugar can be devastating for our health. An excess of sugar can cause weight gain and obesity, as well as lead to diabetes, fatty liver disease and even cancer.  

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Indeed, it’s pretty shocking if you go into a grocery store and grab a box of cereal or a jar of tomato sauce—you’ll quickly see there’s added sugar lurking in almost everything that comes packaged in a carton or can. It’s no wonder we’re addicted.

The science behind sugar addiction

You’re probably thinking, ‘I get it — the stuff has little to no redeeming value.’ But if you’re trying to quit, it helps to understand why it’s so hard to cut the sweetness out of our diets.

Believe it or not, sugar hijacks the brain chemistry much like drugs such as nicotine, cocaine and heroin do. Sugar, just like certain drugs, makes our brains release dopamine — which signals that something is pleasurable. Each time we eat it, sugar activates a “reward” pathway in our brain that leaves us feeling as if we always need more. So regular sugar consumption can actually change the gene expression and availability of dopamine receptors inboth the midbrain and frontal cortex.Simply put, our brains become tolerant to sugar, thus the increasing need for more.

How to quit sugar

So let’s say the stats and science have convinced you and you’re really ready to quit this time. Where do you start?

Well, it might sound more doable to cut out a teeny bit at a time; to simply ease off the stuff, in the hopes of tricking those darn dopamine receptors into craving less and less sugar. But, alas, that’s probably not the best strategy because, like any addiction, sugar cravings are difficult to curb and you’re likely to fail. Dr. Joel Fuhrman, nutrition expert and author of the informative book Eat to Live, says the best way to kick the habit is actually to quit sugar altogether. Cold turkey. 

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So, if you’re truly addicted to sugar (and let’s face it, according to the research you, like me, probably are), it’s time to hit the brakes and let it all go.

Still skeptical? Here’s a little test: People addicted to sugar will notice these four major behaviors:

1. Binge eating: The act of overeating a lot of sugar in a small time frame. So, for example, finishing that whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s in one evening qualifies.

2. Withdrawal: Simply put, your body gets frustrated without a regular dose. So try to go without sugar for just a day. Does it make you cranky? Tired? Do you have a headache? Those are all physical signs of withdrawal.

3. Craving: You know how this one goes. You can’t stop thinking about those sugary treats. If there’s a brownie in a display case, you’re staring at it. If you normally have a sugary snack at 3 p.m., your body is asking for it right as the clock chimes.

4. Cross-sensitization: The idea that being addicted to one substance predisposes a person to becoming addicted to another. Essentially, sugar is your gateway food to other unhealthy junk and processed stuff. Having a sugary cereal at breakfast, for example, may predispose you to wanting “fries with that” at lunch.

Not surprisingly, all of these components have been observed in animal studies of addiction – to sugar, as well as other abused drugs.

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If you want to quit your sugar habit once and for all, cold turkey is the best way to go, but it won’t be easy (for a lot of the same reasons I just listed above). In studies, many people report feeling foggy, queasy, having headaches and intense cravings once they decide to give up sugar completely. Dr. Fuhrman calls these feelings during the first few days of quitting “toxic hunger.” Rather than actual hunger (as many people misconstrue it to be) it is a combination of withdrawal symptoms that make us sick when we try to quit.

Fuhrman suggests, “These symptoms come on quickly, as soon as digestion is finished. You can feel queasy, tired and headachy, so you assume you are hungry again, eat more, your digestion restarts and the bad feelings go away. Then the cycle repeats itself, keeping you sick and overweight. If you can let these mild uncomfortable sensations come and go over a few days, you will find it’s much easier to control your food cravings and desire to overeat and eat sweets.”

Fuhrman says it’s important to completely give up sugar for the first three days because of the nature of sugar addiction — even just a bit will cause you to want more, so he stresses that cold turkey is the only way to truly kick it. After about 3 days of eating absolutely no sugar except fresh fruit, Fuhrman says the intense cravings, toxic hunger and feeling sluggish will dissipate.

Dr. Fuhrman has a wealth of tips on consuming “slow foods” to regulate blood sugar, as well as other strategies to ward off cravings and other unsavory feelings, at his website. The key, he says, is to eat whole, unprocessed foods that keep you full and prevent insulin spikes.

The first few days of going cold turkey may be tough, but the benefits of being sugar-free (or at least not sugar-dependent!) are countless.

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