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Sugar Detox: What to Expect and How to Detox from Sugar

Written by Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD on January 26, 2024

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There’s no shortage of detox programs out there, so if you cringe a little when you hear “sugar detox” or “sugar cleanse”, hear us out. Whether we’re aware of it or not, the average American consumes an estimated 20 teaspoons of added sugar per day. This is equivalent to 80 grams of added sugar, which you would find in 2 cans of soda, most candy bars, and even some flavored yogurts. 

In our hunter-gatherer era, sweet flavors supported human survival. Today, sugar is more of a simple pleasure, not meant to be a foundational nutrient in our diets. Excessive consumption of sugar has been linked to many adverse health outcomes, including a higher risk for cavities, obesity, and related chronic conditions, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. 

Added sugar is deeply engrained in our food system, making it difficult to avoid. Some researchers even suggest people can become addicted. If you’ve found yourself in a toxic relationship with added sugar and are looking to gain more control, perhaps a sugar detox (AKA a gradual reduction in your added sugar intake) is worth looking into. Let’s talk about how to detox from sugar and what you might expect from the experience.

Why Should You Do a Sugar Detox

The potential benefits of embarking on a sugar detox can vary depending on the person and your goals. This is a process of retraining your taste buds and taking back control of your health. Below are 10 sugar detox benefits one might expect. 

1. Improved Energy Levels

A sugary snack may make us feel temporarily energized, but in the long run, a high-added-sugar diet can actually disrupt metabolism and promote low energy. The typical Western diet, laden with excessive sugars, often leads to erratic spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels. 

By significantly reducing added sugars, blood sugar can stabilize, resulting in a more sustained and balanced energy supply throughout the day. With stable blood sugar, the body becomes more efficient in utilizing energy from healthier sources.

A combination of complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats provides more satiety and a steadier energy supply. For example, a snack plate with a Chomps meat stick, a sliced apple, and a spoonful of almond butter. Experiencing more energy can not only make you feel better but also help you lead a more active lifestyle

2. Weight Management

Ditching added sugars can be a powerful ally in achieving weight loss goals. Excessive sugar consumption is often linked to unintentional weight gain. These types of foods tend to be high in calories, yet low in actual nutrition. 

Therefore, reduced sugar intake is often associated with weight loss as it can lead to lower calorie consumption. Additionally, a sugar detox can help break the cycle of cravings for high-calorie, sugary snacks, allowing you to lean into more mindful eating habits

The way a sugar detox helps stabilize blood sugar levels can also positively impact weight management. It prevents the dramatic spikes in insulin that can promote fat storage and cravings. 

3. Better Skin Health

Perhaps you’ve heard that eating chocolate causes pimples. While this isn’t necessarily true, there does appear to be an association between excess sugar consumption and skin issues like acne and premature aging. Therefore, detoxing from sugar may contribute to clearer and healthier skin.

Healthier blood sugar regulation may help reduce the inflammation that contributes to skin problems for many people. Plus, excessive sugar intake can also lead to glycation, a process in which sugars attach to proteins, affecting the elasticity and collagen in your skin. Finally, the reduction in sugary snacks and beverages may encourage better hydration habits, supporting skin elasticity and a more radiant complexion. 

4. Enhanced Mental Clarity

If you’ve ever noticed that eating something sugary gives you brain fog, this could be an indication that a detox would benefit your mental clarity. The rollercoaster of blood sugar spikes and crashes associated with excessive sugar consumption can lead to fluctuations in energy levels, affecting focus and concentration

Reducing your added sugar intake, and replacing it with healthier foods, can help provide a more consistent source of energy to your brain. As a result, you might experience better focus and ability to concentrate. 

5. Reduced Risk of Chronic Diseases

High added sugar intake is associated with an increased risk of chronic conditions such as obesity and related diseases, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. Ultra-processed foods that are high in added sugar tend to be low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals that support overall wellness. 

On the other hand, eating foods that do not contain added sugar can contribute the nutrients and compounds that support your health and reduce your risk of disease. Ditch the packaged sources of empty calories and opt instead for whole foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. 

Note that foods like fruits contain natural sugars. This is different from the sugar you would add to a cake. Unlike the bag of refined white sugar for baking, natural sugars are also packaged in other beneficial nutrients and compounds that support health and prevent drastic spikes in your blood sugar. 

6. Improved Mood

We live in a culture that often leans on comfort foods to bring us out of a funk or recover emotionally from a bad day. These foods tend to be high in added sugar (we’re looking at you, ice cream, cookies, and potato chips). While these foods may provide short-term gratification, they can contribute to mood swings, irritability, and low mood in the long run. 

One reason is that they can promote energy fluctuations. Taking on a sugar detox can help disrupt a cycle of relying on sugary treats for a quick mood boost. Instead, opt for more balanced snacks that offer a combination of protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs. If you need a mental pick-me-up, consider other methods, like walking the dog, dancing in your kitchen, or calling a friend.

7. Better Dental Health

All of those times your mom limited your candy intake as a child were for a reason. Excessive sugar consumption is a major contributor to tooth decay, cavities, and bad breath. Instead, cutting back on your sugar can help improve your oral health.

By eliminating added sugars, you can reduce your exposure to the main culprits that feed harmful bacteria in the mouth. These bacteria produce acids that erode tooth enamel, leading to said decay. 

A detox not only limits the direct impact of sugar on dental health but also encourages the adoption of alternative, more tooth-friendly snacks. Overall, minimizing added sugar supports better oral hygiene practices, leading to improved dental health and a lower likelihood of cavities. You still need to go to the dentist for regular cleanings and exams, though.

8. Balanced Hormones

Excessive sugar intake, particularly refined sugars (found in ultra-processed and packaged foods), can lead to insulin resistance, disrupting the delicate balance of hormones. Reducing your sugar intake and supporting healthier insulin levels can positively influence other hormones in your body. 

Moreover, a sugar detox can help reduce inflammation, another factor that can contribute to hormonal disturbances. More normal, stable hormone levels can translate to better mood, energy, and overall well-being. 

9. Enhanced Immune Function

A high intake of added sugar may be lowering your body’s ability to fight off infections and illnesses. This is because high circulating sugar levels can impair the normal function of your immune cells. 

Avoiding so much sugar in your diet can help you create an environment that supports a more robust immune function. Doing so creates more space in your diet for nutrient-dense foods that provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. This helps support a healthy gut microbiome (the community of microbes that live in your digestive tract) and ultimately, your overall health and resilience. 

10. Reduced Inflammation

Added sugar has pro-inflammatory effects on the body. When your body is in a constant state of systemic inflammation, this increases your risk of various health issues, including cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and autoimmune disorders. 

Reducing sugar intake may help reduce inflammation, potentially alleviating symptoms of inflammatory conditions and lowering your risk of preventable disease. This is also an opportunity to boost your intake of healthier foods that provide anti-inflammatory nutrients like antioxidants, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids. 

Symptoms and Side Effects of Sugar Detox

If you’ve become accustomed to added sugar, removing it may hit you harder than you expect, like a withdrawal. Rest assured that this is temporary, however, as your body and mind adapt. Take it slow. Some of the more common symptoms and side effects from sugar detox may include: 

  • Cravings: Initially, you may experience strong cravings for sugary foods as your body adjusts to reduced sugar intake.
  • Headaches: Some people may experience headaches as their bodies go through sugar withdrawal, which is a common early symptom.
  • Fatigue: Temporary fatigue or low energy levels can occur as your body transitions from relying on sugar for energy to utilizing alternative fuel sources.
  • Irritability: Changes in blood sugar levels can impact mood, leading to irritability or mood swings early on.
  • Nausea: Some individuals may experience feelings of nausea or gastrointestinal discomfort as the body adapts to the absence of excessive sugar.
  • Muscle Aches: Sugar detox can sometimes be accompanied by muscle aches, possibly due to changes in energy metabolism.
  • Difficulty Concentrating: As your body adjusts to a new energy source, there may be temporary difficulty concentrating or "brain fog."
  • Sleep Changes: Some people may experience changes in sleep patterns, including difficulty falling asleep or changes in sleep quality.
  • Skin Breakouts: As your body eliminates toxins, temporary skin breakouts may occur before skin health improves.
  • Digestive Changes: Changes in dietary habits can affect digestion, leading to temporary digestive issues such as bloating or changes in bowel movements.

How to Detox from Sugar?

Now, you’re probably wondering how to do a sugar detox. Detoxing from sugar involves gradually reducing and eliminating added sugars from your diet. Here's a simple 3-step plan to help you get started.

1. Assessment and Awareness

Start by evaluating your current sugar intake. Read nutrition labels to identify sources of added sugars in your diet, which can include sneaky items like condiments, breads, and beverages. Be mindful of terms like sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, and other sugar-related names.

2. Gradual Reduction

Gradually reduce your sugar intake rather than making sudden, drastic changes to help minimize withdrawal symptoms. Start by cutting back on sugary snacks, sodas, and desserts. Build meals and snacks with nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. Experiment with unsweetened versions of products when possible, without replacing them with nonnutritive sweeteners. 

3. Adopt a More Nutrition-Focused and Balanced Diet

Emphasize whole foods in your diet, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. These provide essential nutrients and fiber, promoting overall health. Prioritize complex carbohydrates to stabilize blood sugar levels, like quinoa, sweet potatoes, oats, chickpeas, almonds, apples, berries, and bananas. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day.

Less Sugar, More Health

There’s no shortage of sugar in today’s world. Unfortunately, rather than being an occasional source of joy, sugar has become a staple ingredient in our food system. If you’re looking to eat less of it, you might consider a detox from sugar

Gradually reducing the sugary foods and beverages in your typical diet can help retrain your taste buds and offer a variety of sugar detox benefits. Consider your goals, have a realistic plan, and get started.

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