Dream Big: Quit Sugar

by Beth Shapouri Health Writer

We aren't going to lie--sugar tastes good. But when consumed in excess, it also comes with a host of health risks, including obesity, insulin resistance and inflammation. Quitting (or at least, cutting back) on your sugar intake could completely overhaul your health. Easier said than done, right? Resetting your tastebuds and kicking cravings to the curb is a major challenge, we know. But, it's one you can handle.

Instead of quitting sugar cold turkey, try this 4-week success plan that slowly sneaks the sweet stuff out of your diet. Enjoy!

Week 1: Cut It in Half

Here’s the science: We don’t need to tell you—excessive sugar intake rocks your insulin levels, can trigger type 2 diabetes, and may even give you heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, now a new study in Evolution and Human Behavior suggests that sugar also plays a role in behavioral disorders like bipolar and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and can lead to general aggression (road rage, anyone?). Save your heart and stabilize your mood by cutting back on the sweet stuff? You can do it—here’s how.

Move-the-Needle Monday: Giving up sugar cold turkey is hard. The stuff is literally addictive (so says a 2018 research review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine)—and it’s in virtually everything that comes in a pre-sealed bag or box. That’s why we turned to Carmen Roberts, M.S., a registered dietitian and adjunct faculty instructor for Excelsior College in Washington, D.C., to find out the easiest way to get there. She suggests beginning by simply lowering the amount of sweetener in your food. The goal is to cut just enough to notice, but not to care. “It’s like going from whole milk to skim milk,” says Roberts. “Doing it gradually really helps your taste buds acclimate.” That’ll make the coming weeks easier and less jarring—and you won’t be as tempted to fall off the wagon due to cravings. PSA: Always check with your doctor before making big dietary shifts, especially if you’re diabetic.

The plan: This week, every other day, try to find one thing in your routine where you cut the amount of sugar in half—and then keep it that way. For example, on Monday, use one sugar instead of two in your coffee or tea; on Wednesday, replace your afternoon cookie treat or after-dinner dessert with a piece of your favorite fruit and a cup of herbal tea; on Friday, blend ½ a cup of your usual sweetened yogurt with ½ a cup unsweetened yogurt. On Sunday, if you’re a soda drinker—especially if you love those artificial sweeteners which have been shown to trigger cravings—start to wean yourself off by swapping in soda water with lemon or lime slices. Soda water is also a clutch substitute for alcoholic bevvies that can monkey with your willpower (and are also loaded with sugar). By the end of the week, as your body adjusts, you should start to notice all foods taste a little sweeter and you don’t need as much to feel a sugar high. Virtual high-five.

Top tip: To help distract from the lack of sweet, “find some other flavor alternatives to help you feel satisfied,” says Roberts. “For example, a few drops of an extract like cinnamon or cardamom can really help you when it comes to coffee. Or, adding vanilla to a lower-sugar yogurt can help make it more pleasurable.” These little add-ins make cutting sugar feel less like a chore and more like a fancy treat.

Week 2: Learn to Read Labels

Here’s the science: You might hit some hardcore cravings this week as your body attempts to keep you on the sauce (so to speak)—people who go off sugar have shown symptoms of withdrawal similar to that seen with drugs, according to a research review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. But the rewards will be big: Once you get out on the other side, it will significantly help your mood (research links excessive sugar intake with depression). And the health benefits, including a decrease in liver fat, will start appearing in as little as nine days of slashing sugar intake, according to a study in Gastroenterology. Know that you’re already doing good for yourself if you’ve made it this far.

Move-the-Needle Monday: Your mission this week is to seek out hidden sources of sugar in your life (marinades, ketchup, dressings, tomato sauces…), as well as “healthy” foods that are really sugar bombs (looking at you, granola bars), and find alternatives. That means learning to read the ingredients list. “Get ready to be surprised,” says Carmen Roberts, M.S., a registered dietitian and adjunct faculty instructor for Excelsior College in Washington, D.C. Next, dream up swaps that don’t have sugar added. For example, grab a handful of nuts rather than a nut bar containing ingredients like brown rice syrup. (Not fooled: We see you, sugar).

The plan: Start the week off by going through your cabinet and putting a sticky note on anything you don’t think of as a treat that contains sugar as one of the first four ingredients (including white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and brown rice syrup). Starting Tuesday, we’re tasking you with finding alternative recipes or ready-made options you can swap instead. Pinterest is full of great ideas.

Later in the week (when your sweet tooth starts to kick in), stash a fruit salad in the fridge or grapes in the freezer (pop ’em in your mouth like you would hard candy). Also, frozen bananas in the freezer blend easily into “nice cream” as an after-dinner snack. (Literally drop the bananas into a blender with plain low-fat or Greek yogurt and a splash of vanilla.) By Saturday, you could be feeling a little cranky (that’s normal), so plan a few chill activities like meditation, shown to enhance mood, according to a study in Behavior Brain Research. (Plus, if you’re meditating, you can’t really be snacking on sugar, now, can you?)

Top tip: Wrestling with visions of cake? It’s time to look at your H2O consumption. “Make sure you’re keeping your water intake up—I’ve found with my clients that dehydration can actually trigger sugar cravings,” says Roberts.

Week 3: Spot the Faux Health Halos

Here’s the science: You might start to feel low energy as you detox from the sweet stuff, but the good news is that once you acclimate, you will no longer be a slave to the rollercoaster of sugar highs and crashes, says Carmen Roberts, M.S., a registered dietitian and adjunct faculty instructor for Excelsior College in Washington, D.C. And heads up: A study in Physiology & Behavior links sugar withdrawal with impulsive behavior so maybe don’t make any big decisions this week. Focus on being kind and patient with yourself—and keep your eyes on the goal line.

Move-the-Needle Monday: This week is about getting at all added sugars, including those ones that have a faux health halo like coconut sugar, honey, molasses, and agave. You hear certain things about these other sweeteners being better choices because they have more nutrients or are lower on the glycemic index, but Roberts says they still count as the white stuff. “It might be a little bit more slowly digested into the bloodstream, but they’re still digested as sugar,” she says. Instead, shift your focus to whole foods. Roberts says that includes naturally sweet fruits and vegetables (like carrots) because they contain fiber which will help steady your blood sugar and help counteract the negative effects on the body.

The plan: On Monday (that’s today), make sure to start your day with a totally sugar-free drink (it’s called water, folks) and prepare for a week of near-zero added sugar by stocking up on nuts, crunchy vegetables (crunch might distract you from the lack of sweet on your plate), and sugar-free dips like hummus. For sweet cravings, choose fruit—you’ll start noticing exactly how sweet a banana or apple is once you’ve eliminated the added sugars from elsewhere in your meals. You may have trouble focusing as your body adjusts to the lack of sugar in your bloodstream, so plan to take five-minute breaks each hour at work (get up a walk around the room or if you’re working remote, seize the opportunity to work on your pushups—see above). On the weekend, have a little speech planned asking for support if peer pressure rears its ugly head–even just a quick “I’m doing this thing for my health and I need your help to stay on track!”

Top tip: When energy dips, go for a walk; it’s a smarter strategy for getting that refreshed feeling than a candy bar. “It’s a way to get your blood pumping and get that metabolism going a little bit,” says Roberts.

Week 4: Master the 80/20 Technique

The science: Well, it only took four weeks, but here’s where the fog is finally lifting—as you come out of your sugar detox, you may experience a sense of mental clarity, as many studies have linked the sweetener to poor cognitive function. And bonus: You might also notice your jeans are less snug, as a meta-analysis of 77 studies in the British Medical Journal found that several weeks of reduced sugar intake—without any other dietary changes—resulted in measurable weight loss.

Move-the-Needle Monday: Your focus this week is on making sugar a once-in-a-while thing, not part of your daily diet. The key? Stick to an 80/20 rule (meaning 80% of the time you choose healthy foods and 20% from the not-so-great-for-you category). “This allows you a little bit of flexibility. Total restriction isn’t sustainable in the long-term,” says Carmen Roberts, M.S., a registered dietitian and adjunct faculty instructor for Excelsior College in Washington, D.C.

The plan: Now that you’re on a low-sugar track, start shifting your focus to adding fiber and protein—the two elements, Roberts says, are key to feeling satisfied with a low-sugar lifestyle. (Hint: hard-boiled eggs, cheese, roasted chickpeas, and nuts hit both buckets and are good pick-me-ups). This is also the week you can test out the 20% part of your plan by, say, having a ½ cup of ice cream on Wednesday and perhaps splitting a dessert with someone on Saturday. You’re also in the clear to add a glass of wine over the weekend, especially if it’s red—a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found red wine is naturally low in sugar and carries heart-healthy benefits to boot. Before you know it, it will be Sunday and you will have made it—have a little dance party to celebrate your major win.

Top tip: When you want something sweet, reach for 70% dark chocolate with nuts, says Roberts. “It’s got a touch of sugar, sure, but it’s also got all these other components, like the protein and the healthy fats, that will help satisfy the craving,” she says. Also, dark chocolate comes with its own set of healthy heart benefits.

Beth Shapouri
Meet Our Writer
Beth Shapouri

Beth Shapouri is an award-winning beauty, health, wellness, and lifestyle freelance writer whose work has appeared in Glamour.com, Elle.com, Health Monitor, Magnolia Journal, Marie Claire, RealSelf.com and more. Career highlights include a multi-year stint as Lead Beauty Writer for Glamour.com and contributing to a New York Magazine package on circumcision that received a National Magazine Award for service.