Sugar Detox: Hype or Hope?
Sugar detox is the hottest trend, with three-week diets promising to rid you of your dependence on sinister sweets so you can finally lose weight. Researchers think a pattern of withholding and binging — not sugar itself — may lead to addictive-like behavior and even brain changes. Sugar influences the same “feel-good” brain chemicals — including serotonin and dopamine — as illicit drugs. But scientists aren’t quite ready to lump sugar in with heroin.
Whether you call it an addiction, an eating disorder, or simply a bad habit, there are signs of an unhealthy use of sugary foods. You may lose control and eat more than you planned. You may have withdrawal symptoms when you skip your regular cookie “fix.” “You can get low blood sugar symptoms, which would include a little bit of anxiety, shakiness, jitteriness…a cold sweat,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokeswoman for the ADA.
Sugar fuels every cell in the brain and influences brain chemicals, too. And overloading on sugary foods may alter the brain receptors that regulate how much we eat. In laboratory studies, rats that binged on sugar had brain changes that mimicked those of drug withdrawal. In humans, just seeing pictures of milkshakes triggered brain activity similar to what’s seen in drug addicts — and that activity was stronger in women with a high food-addiction score than in women who didn’t report addictive eating.
When you eat cake, the sugar in that treat — called a simple carbohydrate — is quickly converted to glucose in your bloodstream. Your blood sugar levels rise and spike when simple carbs are eaten alone, as when you grab a candy bar mid-afternoon. All simple carbs are absorbed quickly, most especially the processed, concentrated sugars found in syrup, soda, candy, and table sugar. Simple carbs are also found in fruits, veggies, and dairy products — but fiber and protein slow absorption and provide wholesome nutrients.
When Starch Equals Sugar
Do you overdo it with bagels, chips, or French fries? These starchy foods are complex carbohydrates — but the body breaks them down into simple sugars. When eaten alone, without better foods, some starches such as white flour, white rice, and white potatoes can trigger the same surge-and-crash cycle of blood sugar seen with sugary foods. Highly refined starches are the worst culprits: white bread, pretzels, crackers, and pasta. Grain-based desserts can be a double-whammy of sugar and refined grains.
Do Sugar Detox Diets Work?
Can you beat your sugar addiction by quitting cold turkey? Some sugar detoxes urge you to eliminate everything sweet — including fruit, dairy, and all refined grains — to purge your system of sugar. Diet changes like this are too drastic to be realistic. “If you are doing something that is not sustainable, that you can only do short-term, then you will ultimately go back to your old habits,” says dietitian Kirkpatrick.
Retrain Your Taste Buds
You don’t need sugar as much as you think you do. “If we wean ourselves off [sugar], we can train our taste buds to enjoy things that aren’t as sweet,” says Kirkpatrick. Try eliminating one sugary food from your diet each week. Pass on dessert after dinner. Slowly reduce the sugar in your coffee or cereal. “Over time, you will lose your dependence on that sensation,” she says.
Choose Sweet Alternatives
You don’t have to give up sweetness — just get it from other sources. Try fresh fruit or pureed berries on oatmeal instead of sugar. Fruit in many different forms beats table sugar: dried, frozen, or canned fruit (without too much added sugar). A glass of low-fat milk or low-sugar yogurt can satisfy, too. These contain the milk sugar lactose, which doesn’t taste sweet. And of course, these dairy foods are packed with protein and calcium.
Kick the Habit: Take Baby Steps
Don’t get drastic. Make small, simple changes to your diet that you can sustain over time, Kirkpatrick suggests. Eat more fruits and vegetables, drink extra water, and use fewer processed products. Start buying unsweetened foods and add just enough sugar to satisfy your taste. Cut out a little bit of sugar each week. After a few weeks of trimming back the sugar, you’ll be surprised at how little you miss it.
Kick the Habit: Add Protein
When you’re starving, every cookie cries out to you. Hunger robs you of the willpower to resist sugar cravings. Eating protein is an easy way to curb those cravings. High-protein foods digest more slowly, keeping you feeling full for longer. When you pick a protein snack, choose healthy sources like lean chicken, low-fat yogurt, eggs, nuts, or beans.
Kick the Habit: Fill Up on Fiber
“Fiber always helps with fullness,” says nutritionist Gerbstadt. High-fiber foods also give you more energy, and they don’t raise your blood sugar so there’s no hungry crash afterward. Look for soluble fiber from fruits and vegetables, as well as insoluble fiber from whole grains. Or, smear some peanut butter on an apple for a protein/fiber combo. As a bonus, fiber can also protect against heart disease and some types of cancer.
Are ‘Natural’ Sugars Better?
Honey, brown sugar, and evaporated cane juice all sound healthy — but are they really any better for you than white table sugar? Not really. Sugar is sugar. And whether it comes from bees or sugar cane, it can cause your blood sugar to rise.
How Much Sugar Is Too Much?
If you’re like most Americans, you’re eating 19 teaspoons or more of added sugar a day. That means about 285 of your daily calories are coming from sugar, which health experts say is way too much. How much sugar should you be eating? No more than six teaspoons (100 calories) daily for women; and about nine teaspoons (150 calories) for men.
Names for Sugar
Just because you don’t see the word “sugar” on a food label doesn’t mean it isn’t hiding inside the package. Sugar goes by many different aliases, including:
- Agave nectar
- Brown rice syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Evaporated cane juice
- Malt syrup
Packages that list any form of sugar in the first few ingredients, or contain more than four total grams of sugar aren’t worth the calories.
Tame Sugar Withdrawal
When you first cut back on sugar, you will go through a sort of withdrawal. You may feel tired, listless, or edgy. “It’s very short-lived,” Gerbstadt says. Having goals — like vowing to lose 10 pounds or cut out desserts for a week — can help you get through your sugar withdrawal. Knowing that you’ll soon be free from your sugar addiction and on the road to better health can also be a real motivator.