Question: Hello Dr. Jen, I heard that doing a sugar detox is great for losing weight, increasing energy, and burning fat. Is that true, and if so how would I go about it? Because I crave sugar all the time!
Answer: First, I’m thrilled that you are taking steps to get in shape. Also you heard right, sugar –or rather lack of sugar – plays a key role in losing weight and melting away unwanted fat. Not to mention getting rid of any cellulite you may have. So you are on the right track, and now we just need to lay out a plan to get you to your goal.
Also, as a doctor I want thank you for bringing up such an important topic, because sugar has become like the plague … especially in the U.S. Even with all the documentaries and news about sugar and its addictive effects, there are still millions of people who can’t seem to limit their sugar intake.
Everything about sugar draws us in. Besides it’s delicious taste, it’s packaged into the most appealing looking desserts and candy. Then it’s carefully displayed in restaurants and grocery stores, so you can’t even exit the building without seeing something that catches your eye.
Then if fighting off the sight of it isn’t bad enough, your brain is literally prompting you to have something sweet. The reason this is happening is because sugar causes dopamine to be released in the brain. Dopamine is associated with our bodies’ reward mechanism. Essentially your brain remembers the behavior that previously led to the reward and signals you to perform the act again. 1
Sugar has also been found to mimic the effects of opiates in the body. Opiates are potentially addictive chemicals that are widely used for pain treatment. When a person is addicted to opiates, and then tries to stop; the body goes into withdrawal. 1
Sugar can also cause withdrawals in a similar fashion. The symptoms can present as irritability, fatigue, mood swings, headaches, dizziness, anger, anxiety, and depression. 2
It’s no wonder it’s hard to lose weight. How are you going to get your exercise routine in when you feel zapped of energy, down in the dumps, and too sad to find any motivation or inspiration?
So yes, the struggle is real. Many people who experience these withdrawal symptoms blame something other than sugar … like external stress. They have no idea sugar withdrawal is the real culprit. All they know is when they have ice cream, soda, or chocolate they feel better … at least temporarily.
As if having our biochemistry stacked against us wasn’t enough, we’ve yet to reach the tip of the iceberg so to speak until we talk about hidden sugars.
Unfortunately the downside of living in a capitalistic society is that companies love to make the foods you eat addictive so you’ll buy more of it. That means you’ll find hidden sugar in foods on practically every aisle in the grocery store. The worst part is that even so called healthy foods are loaded with it. So even if you turn down that morning donut, you may unknowingly fill up on sugar from your favorite protein bar or sports drink.
Later you’ll think to yourself … Why am I craving sugar so much when I’ve been cutting back? Shouldn’t the cycle be broken?
No the cycle wasn’t broken, because you still had sugar somewhere; and the cascade began. First your blood sugar was elevated and then insulin came in and cleaned it up causing a sharp decrease in blood sugar. Then the decrease in blood sugar prompted other hormones like Ghrelin to signal your body that you were hungry again. Then your brain said … hey I really liked the high I had from that sugar earlier … can you get me some more of that?
So you can see why it’s hard to lose weight when you are constantly hungry and craving sugar. Plus the more sugar you have in your body, the more it will be stored as fat. You want the opposite! You want your body to burn fat for energy which it won’t do if you have a surplus of sugar readily available for use. So it’s wise to know where all your sugar intake is coming from including the hidden sources.
Here is a list of hidden sugars you might find listed in your favorite foods. So be on the look out!
- Barley Malt
This list is by no means complete. If you want a more extensive list you can easily find more information on sugarscience.org.
Also, as mentioned before, check your snack, breakfast, or protein bars. Most of those are packed with sugar. Sports and energy drinks are too. Fruit smoothies can also contain more sugar than you want all at once. So if you have one, you may be fighting off sugar cravings for the rest of the day.
With all that going on it’s like you’ll literally have to swim upstream against the forces of nature just to find a balance, much less have the energy and stamina it takes to reach your fitness goals.
Okay, okay. So I’ve shown you what you’re up against so what can you do about it? Is there any good news?
Fortunately yes. You can stop this cycle rather quickly, get back on track, and start making your body perform up to its greatest potential. There are just a few easy steps you need take to get off the sweet stuff and onto a better, healthier you.
So let’s get started…
Upfront, there are two paths you can take. One path is to quit cold turkey and the other way is to gradually reduce or limit your sugar intake. There’s no right way to do it, but one way is certainly more sustainable in my opinion.
I recommend limiting your sugar intake instead of going cold turkey. Remember the withdrawals that I listed earlier? Well you can lessen those if you gradually reduce your sugar intake. If you can get your sugar intake down to 100 calories a day (25 grams), you’ve made a vast improvement towards your overall health.
Overtime if you maintain that goal, you will find it easier to say no to sugar on a regular basis. Then you can decide if you want to cut back even more.
Now that that’s been decided… what do you do when you just can’t control those intense sugar cravings?
I’ll get to that, but first, something worth clearing up here is that it takes a healthy person about two hours for insulin to regulate your blood sugar. So the word detoxification is kind of a misnomer. It’s not as if it takes weeks of work to rid your body of sugar. What we are really talking about when we say sugar detox is not dumping more sugar into your body when you don’t need it. And that is accomplished by training yourself to not give in to your sugar craving and making that your new lifestyle choice.
Now you may be thinking, if insulin is doing such a great job of regulating my blood sugar, then why do I get such intense cravings and withdrawals.
Good question …
Sometimes we eat foods that have what’s called a high Gylcemic Index. Meaning these foods cause higher increases in insulin … especially when we eat too much of them.
An example of high Gylcemic Index foods would be candy for sure but there are also other good foods like pineapple that have a high (GI). That’s why it’s important not to fill up on too much fruit in this high GI category. There needs to be a balance. So it’s not just candy you need to be concerned about when trying to lose weight.
To further explain Glycemic Index, when more insulin is shuttled into the blood stream the more likely it becomes that you’ll experience that sharp decrease in blood sugar that we talked about earlier. That’s when you get the withdrawals and sugar cravings. (For more about Glycemic Index go to health.harvard.edu)
To ride out these cravings, you have to fight off the withdrawal symptoms and the brain’s reward mechanism that prompts you to have more sugar.
So I’ve compiled a helpful list that truly works wonders to do just that!
These are tricks I’ve tried myself and have lost weight as a result.
Here Are 14 Ways to Stop Sugar Cravings:
1. Keep sweets out of the kitchen:
This may be hard especially if you have other members in the household who ask for sweets. If this is the case you might be tempted to share their sweet treat when you see them with it. I recommend having a small treat that’s only for you … like dark chocolate. Only take a small bite and relish the taste. That way you can turn away from sharing.
2. Reach for fruit instead:
When your sugar craving hits, fruit may not seem like it’s going to do the trick; but it will. It’s just your brain telling you that a sugar high would be better, when in actuality, the fruit will slowly and more effectively satisfy your body’s request for sugar.
3. Retrain your taste buds:
When you are accustomed to eating sugar your brain remembers that flavor which adds to the problem. When you start eating more bitter, sour, or salty flavored foods, you retrain your taste buds and slowly calm your sugar cravings.
Drinking teas with no sugar is a great way to retrain your taste buds as well. You can drink non- caffeinated tea to head off cravings at the pass, or immediately fix a cup of tea right when the craving hits. Other helpful foods would be lemons, strawberries, celery, limes, and salted nuts.
Coffee is not really that useful for retraining your taste buds even though without sugar it’s very bitter. The reason being, caffeine is a stimulate and once your body has its reward mechanism going it wants to continue the high. Chances are that you will crave sugar more when you are caffeinated. Still if you want to have coffee it’s best to keep it sugar-free. Just be aware of this cause and effect relationship.
4. Combine Foods:
Say you’re at the office and you see a box of donuts. We all know that’s hard to resist. If you want to just have a taste, cut a donut in half and then eat something healthy with it. For instance, bring plain oatmeal with you to work so you can fix a bowl on the fly.
A half donut is probably 15 grams of sugar, but the oatmeal will mix with the donut and reduce the high and low levels of blood sugar. It will also help prevent you from going back for more.
Half Donut with Oatmeal? Or just the Oatmeal?
5. Eat Regularly:
If you wait until you are famished, your body is going to say … quick … give me a sugary or fat food. To avoid this, stay on top of your hunger. Eat a healthy breakfast and carry a healthy snack with you in your bag. As soon as you have a craving for sugar eat your healthy snack first no matter how unappealing it may seem at the time.
6. Put on Blinders:
When you are walking past the candy aisle or a window full of candy and ice cream, immediately turn away. Look somewhere else, because just like shopping for clothes, the longer you look, the more likely you’ll find something you want.
7. Set Boundaries:
In the morning when you wake up you want to immediately set your boundaries for the day. You need to clearly visualize your plan. Tell yourself today I am only going to allow myself 25 grams of sugar. When you forget to do this you haven’t made that commitment for the day and are more likely to be forgetful with your sugar intake. Performing this daily affirmation will keep you on track. Say it out loud as well so you can hear yourself make the commitment.
8. Keep good food available:
Stock your refrigerator with fruits and vegetables. Make them readily available by storing them in highly visible containers.
For instance, create a party platter like you’d get from a caterer. Also keep nuts, beans, and meats (if you like) ready and waiting to go. Most people grab easy food like crackers, chips, and bread when there’s no healthy food readily available.
If you are on the go, bring a wide assortment of healthy foods with you. This will keep you from stopping off at the coffee shop for a bagel or donut.
9. Stay away from Carbs as quick snacks:
Foods that break down into sugar quickly can also increase your sugar cravings. Bread for example has sugar in it … 1.4 grams per slice. It’s better to have a salad than a sandwich.
10. Chew Gum:
Gum can satisfy the urge to eat and curb your sugar cravings. I recommend buying gum that is sugar-free without aspartame or artificial sweeteners. You can purchase it from Amazon.com.
11. Stay Away from Artificial Sweeteners:
It may still be unclear if artificial sweeteners increase insulin in the body, but one thing seems to be certain … it doesn’t help retrain your taste buds.
12. Wait for your Reward:
Reducing your sugar intake is an on-going commitment, but once in a while you can treat yourself. For instance, if you are at a birthday party or out at a fancy restaurant, there’s no need to pass on dessert … unless you have diabetes and your doctor says it’s not a good idea. The key is to wait for these special moments. If you eat out a lot, then skip dessert until it’s been at least a week or longer.
At parties, stay near the good food and limit your dessert to a small plate with one serving.
13. Check all food labels:
Becoming aware is the first step to cutting back on sugar. When you suddenly realize how much sugar is in something, you’ll want to put it back. Some places have been forced to tell you how many calories are in foods, but the sugar content you may have to look up on the internet. Any package that you pick up will have the sugar listed, so make sure you calculate how much is in there based on the serving size.
14. Get Support:
If you still want some extra support call a friend, doctor, family member, or personal trainer, and tell them your goals. Get some feedback and celebrate your achievements.
Eating sugar is definitely an addictive habit, but just like any other habit … it can be broken.
With that said, I urge you to go shopping, get some good food. Buy some tea and gum. Commit to a daily plan and stick to it.
Not only will you curb your cravings, you’ll end up slimmer with all sorts of health improvements.
Again thank you for bringing this topic up. I hope that you and everyone reading this commit these tips to memory. I’d really love to be part of the solution to this overwhelming complex problem.
1. Nicole M. Avena et al. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2009 Jan 1 Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008; 32(1): 20–39. Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Published online 2007 May 18. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019