How to cut sugar out of your diet and how long sugar cravings last
- When cutting sugar from your diet focus on cutting out added sugars but keeping natural sugars.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners because they can make you crave more sugar.
- Withdrawal cravings and symptoms will likely last a week, or so.
- This article was reviewed by Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City.
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According to The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP), Americans consume what equates to about 17 teaspoons of sugar a day, which exceeds the max recommended amount of 12 teaspoons or about 200 to 250 calories worth.
Cutting sugar out of your diet isn't just beneficial for losing weight, it's also important for long-term personal health.
For a 2017 study in BMJ Open, researchers estimated that if, starting in 2015, Americans reduced added sugars in their diet by 20% and stuck with it, then by 2035 - for every 100,000 people - about 20 fewer people would have type 2 diabetes and 10 fewer people would have coronary heart disease. Not to mention the estimated $10.3 billion in medical costs the country would save.
So, if you're inspired to cut down on your sugar consumption, here are some tips.
What type of sugar to cut and keep
Before you start cutting every sweet treat under the sun, consider this: not all sugar is created equal.
There are natural sugars - like fructose in many fruits and lactose in dairy products - that you should still consume in moderation because they come with additional vitamins and minerals your body needs to function.
Then there are added sugars that you can often find added to certain foods and drinks like pre-packaged bread, ketchup, and soda, to name a few. These added sugars provide your body with no real nutrition. And, when consumed in excess with processed foods, have been linked to obesity, hypertension, and metabolic syndrome.
"The refined sugars, or things that you see on any food label that says sugar or sucrose, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, agave - it's all sugar," says Despina Hyde Gandhi, registered dietician and diabetes educator at the Weight Management Program at NYU Langone Health. "Those are all the things that we want to try to avoid."
The first step to cutting added sugar out of your diet is being aware of the different foods that contain it. That means always reading the labels. According to Sugar Science by the University of California, San Francisco, added sugars can come in a variety of forms. Here are some to look out for on food labels:
- Cane juice
- Corn syrup
- Maple Syrup
- Rice syrup
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Date syrup
How to cut added sugar out of your diet
There are various things you can do to lower your sugar intake and get on the path to cutting unhealthy sugars out altogether:
- Assess what you eat on a daily basis. Take a look at what you normally eat. Read the labels and check for the ingredients mentioned above. You might be very surprised at just how much sugar is in certain items, or surprised to find sugar in the ingredient list at all in something you didn't think was necessarily sweet.
- Start with small changes. Don't try to quit sugar cold turkey. This might make sugar cravings and withdrawals worse. Starting small will make it easier for you to stick with the changes you're making and form new habits.
- Don't spring for artificial sweeteners. Sugar-free doesn't always mean healthy. Many sugar-free snacks or beverages are sweetened with artificial sweeteners like aspartame or stevia extracts, which aren't necessarily good for you. In fact, switching to these chemically sweetened drinks can backfire on you. "Because our brain tastes sweet and perceives the sweet taste when we're having artificial sweetener metabolically, our body acts like we're metabolizing sugar, so you may crave more sweets if you have that," says Gandhi.
- Give yourself a "budget". Gandhi says she often gives patients a "sugar budget" so they can know exactly how much sugar they should be consuming. "I might say, you can have a hundred calories of sugar per day to get started, and that may be enough to let them have a square of dark chocolate or one small cookie," says Gandhi. Once you've gotten the hang of that, you can even move on to work with a smaller sugar budget.
- Use behavioral strategies. Create new habits that'll deflect you from eating sugary foods. For example, if you're prone to snacking on sweets at night, Gandhi recommends brushing your teeth and flossing after dinner, turning the lights in the kitchen off, anything that helps derail "the path to the pantry."
- Find your new favorite substitutes. There's plenty of food and drinks that are delicious and not loaded with added sugar. You might try trading your sweet drinks for flavored herbal teas, and your usual dessert for some fruit salad. Play around and try new options until you find what you like the most - something you'll be happy to eat.
Withdrawals and cravings will last for around a week
If you normally consume a lot of sugar and are cutting down, you'll likely experience cravings and even withdrawal symptoms. "You really can get a lot of pleasure from sugar. When cutting it out, you can hear people say they have 'the carb flu' or just feeling really lousy," says Gandhi. Withdrawal symptoms may only last a couple of days for some, but it's possible to last up to a couple of weeks.
Finding a healthy replacement is very helpful for fighting through these cravings, so you're not just cutting something out of your diet, you're substituting it with something new. For example, if soda is one of your main vices, you can try having a seltzer instead when the craving hits you.
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- What is resistant starch and why it's healthier than simple starch
- What the different types of carbs are and how they can affect your health
- What is the Paleo diet and whether it helps you lose weight
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