I am regularly quizzed on common nutrition topics from friends and family, and the one that comes up the most often is how to reduce sugar intake. But of course, there’s always a subtext—how can I quit sugar without, you know, actually quitting? Because we all want to be able to enjoy our favorite treats. But moderation is not always our strong suit.
What they’re really asking is: How can I change my relationship with sugar?
Not everyone needs to adjust their relationship with sugar. You can have dessert daily and still be healthy and feel great. For those bingeing on the stuff who are experiencing health issues associated with blood sugar imbalance, however, reducing intake may help.
In my experience with clients, focusing your attention elsewhere instead of doing a mass purge of all the sweets in your house is helpful. But if you don’t know what to focus on, you’ll end up back where you started.
The Benefits of Reducing Sugar
First, let’s define “sugar.” I’m talking refined white sugar and refined carbohydrates (white flour, etc. which converts to sugar in the body) and other added sugars. Added sugars are those not naturally occurring in food. Fruit is often a food people try to limit when quitting sugar, but sugar naturally occurs in fruit with all of its fiber and nutrients in tact, the sugar is not added to the fruit as a sweetener. Got it? Cool.
Bingeing on sugar can impact your health in many different ways, so widely varying that you may not connect the dots. If you’re constantly spiking your blood sugar with sweets and other snacks, it can effect your hormones, mental health, skin health, gut health, energy, and so much more.
Here are some of the many ways moderating sugar intake could potentially benefit you:
- Better energy throughout the day
- More stable mood throughout the day
- Less frequent distracting cravings
- Less frequent colds/flu
- Better concentration, focus, and mental clarity
- Improved sleep
- Balanced hormones (better skin! better mood! better period! better fertility!)
- Improved mental health
- Reversed type II diabetes
- Lowered risk of heart disease and cancer
- Better digestion
That’s a lot of stuff! But many of these things are known to be associated with blood sugar regulation (or lack thereof), so if you’re dealing with any of these issues and a strained relationship with sugar… it’s time to get you feeling better.
Why Quit Sugar Cold Turkey?
You’ve waited this long to do something about it, right? Why wait even longer? This gets you on the fast track towards redefining your relationship with sugar.
Going cold turkey isn’t going to feel great for the first few days or week (depending how heavy you rely on sugar, you may feel under the weather before things get better, but it does get better). You just want to allow your body time to calm down any inflammation and start to feel better. Sugar can always come back if you want it to, but allowing your body to rest from the effects of chronic blood sugar spikes is an important part of the process, at least from what I’ve seen with my clients.
The key—the KEY!!—is setting yourself up for success. If you want to adjust your relationship with sugar, sugar isn’t the ONLY part of the equation.
How to Quit Sugar Cold Turkey
Before you get started, think about the ways that sugar is impacting your health and life. What would it mean for you to be able to overcome the addiction to soothing yourself with sugar? How would your life change? This is your WHY. Write it down.
- Meal plan. You don’t have to make 21 meals from scratch, trust me. Your meal plan can be as ridiculously simple as writing down what you are planning to eat that day and where you’ll get it (so if you plan to bring lunch from home or are going to sweetgreen, the point is that you know ahead of time to meet your needs and avoid stress and last-minute panic purchases).
- Focus on abundance. There are soooo many incredibly SCRUMPTIOUS foods out there. Collect a bunch of recipes you want to try, go shopping for your favorite fruits and vegetables, cook a meal with friends. When’s the last time you tried a new recipe? Spent more than 5 minutes in the kitchen? There’s so much for you to enjoy!
- Make sure your meals are balanced. That said, it’s easier to have an abundance mindset when you aren’t feeling deprived, so make sure your meals have protein, fat, carbohydrates (whole grains and/or starchy vegetables), and fiber (other vegetables) to keep you satisfied from one meal to the next.
- Get into this habit before starting. Try getting into the habit of meal planning and/or eating balanced meals before even thinking about sugar, especially if you’re new to meal planning or cooking. Too many new things at once might overwhelm you, so see if having balanced meals is actually what you’ve needed to reduce intake instead of throwing all your chocolate in the trash.
- Get sleep and stay hydrated. Cravings often come on when we’re tired, or when we mistake thirst for hunger—plus we just need sleep and water to survive… so get your 8 hours and 8 glasses as best you can. You deserve it!
- Don’t use artificial sweeteners. They confuse your brain into thinking sugar is coming, so your body ends up wanting it more and brings on more cravings.
- Don’t be afraid of fruit. I defined what sugar I was talking about above that affects blood sugar, but don’t worry about the sugar in whole fruit.
- Read ingredients. Sugar is ev.er.y.where. Get familiar with the things that you’re buying and see if you can make your own goods like condiments, sauces, and dressings instead. You might like yours better anyway!
- Relax. It’s a process, and we’re striving for progress, not perfection. You might not know every single ingredient at a restaurant, or suddenly it’s everyone’s birthday at the office and there’s cake everywhere. Don’t stress, just enjoy it and move on. Every meal is a new opportunity to do something that feels good to you. Sometimes that’s cake.
- Listen to your body. What kind of hunger are you really feeling? When a craving comes on, ask yourself what you’re actually feeling. If it’s anything but actual hunger, think about what you can do to feel better that isn’t immediately reaching for sugar. Again, sometimes it’s cake, but it’s still good to get in the habit of understanding where cravings are coming from.
It can take at least a couple weeks before your reliance on sugar truly starts to diminish, but the above tips can make the process smoother. Once you feel physical and/or mental improvements and are feeling pretty great, it’s totally up to you how you want sugar to play a part in your life.
Did it change your symptoms so much that you never want to look back? Awesome!
Did you feel sooo much better but still want to have chocolate every day? Sweet!
Keep your WHY in mind and let that help you make intentional decisions about what you eat, whether that’s skipping it altogether or enjoying every last bite. The ultimate goal is for YOU and your body to decide, rather than for sugar to decide for you.