If you eat dinner solely for the chance to chase it with dessert, we hate to break it to you, but it might be time to try a sugar detox. We’re not talking about a five-day fad cleanse, either. “The ultimate goal is to really downplay sugar in the diet and have that be a permanent lifestyle change,” says Bethany Doerfler, RD, LDN, and a clinical research dietician at Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation.
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Your love for sugary stuff may seem benign, but the truth is that most people are eating way more of it than they need. “Americans currently consume 22 teaspoons of sugar per day,” Doerfler says. That’s more than three times as much as what’s recommended by the American Heart Association.
Plus, research shows that not-so-innocent sweet tooth could be doing serious damage to your health, leading to weight gain, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels and an increased risk for diabetes. In fact, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of The End of Dieting, says eating too much sugar should be considered just as dangerous as smoking cigarettes. “A diet with sugar and high glycemic index foods promotes all the leading causes of death in America,” he says. “I don’t see value in cutting out sugar for a few days and then going back to eating it, but I do see value in cutting it out permanently.”
Why It’s Hard to Quit Sugar (But Worth It)
Sugar addiction is no joke. Once you’re hooked, cravings can be hard to resist, leading you down a slippery slope towards obesity and other health problems. “Studies are showing that in some people and animals, the brain can react to sugar very much like it can to drugs and alcohol,” Doerfler says. That’s why when you initially cut added sugars from your diet, you might feel deprived for a few days. “When your body is overloaded with waste, you feel more uncomfortable when not eating that food,” Fuhrman says. “It’s like stopping coffee.”
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Your efforts to cut back on sugar will pay off though. “In the short term, people will notice their energy levels improve right away and after a short period of time they will notice cravings and fatigue diminishes,” Doerfler says.
Plus, the long-term benefits of cutting back on added sugar in your diet are impossible to ignore. One study published in the journal Circulation showed that sugar-sweetened drinks directly cause the cardiovascular disease and diabetes that kill about 184,000 people worldwide every year.
Your Sugar Detox, Made Simple
There’s more than one way to do a sugar detox. “Some patients feel that taking a moderate approach doesn’t really work for them and they need to go cold turkey,” Doerfler says. “But for most people, I recommend cleaning up one meal at a time and then progressing onto the next meal the following day.”
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Regardless of the route you go, your number one goal should be to cut added sugars from your diet. That includes most desserts, sugar-sweetened beverages and many processed foods or snacks. In general, men should consume no more than nine teaspoons, or about 36 grams of sugar per day, while women should eat no more than six teaspoons, or about 25 grams, of added sugars per day, according to the American Heart Association. In other words, it’s time to start reading nutrition labels.
You should also be armed with a plan for when cravings hit. Expect to struggle the most in the afternoon and after dinner when you’re watching TV, Doerfler says. “Often when people are trying to avoid sugar, they go too far and try to take fruit out of their diet and there’s no reason to do that,” Doerfler says. “A better option is to substitute processed sugars like cake, cookies and sweetened coffees for natural sugars, like fresh fruit.”
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Ready to detox? Here’s a basic meal plan to get you started:
Your Sugar Detox Guidelines
Breakfast: Cereal or oatmeal with fruit on top
Your bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios might be a secret sugar bomb. Try picking unsweetened oatmeal, or shredded wheat cereal options, instead. “For sweetness, I like people to add their own fruit, rather than letting the cereal company add sugar,” Doerfler says.
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Lunch: Grilled chicken, fish or tofu with a veggie salad
Your goal at lunch is to fuel your body and fend off that inevitable afternoon crash for as long as possible. “I think having veggies and a protein at lunch is great way to give people a midday boost,” Doerfler says.
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3 p.m. snack: Nuts or veggies with hummus
Welcome to the danger zone. “At about 3 p.m. our circadian rhythm starts to drop and that’s a time of fatigue for everybody,” Doerfler says. “Expect that you’re going to get the munchies and have a game plan in place.” For easy, portable ideas, check out this list of low-calorie foods that will actually fill you up.
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Dinner: Whole-wheat pasta with chicken and vegetables
You might be avoiding sugar, but whole-wheat carbs are still totally OK. “Dinner is when I like people to add another whole-grain in — whole-wheat pasta, couscous, or sweet potatoes,” Doerfler says. One cup of cooked pasta is considered a good serving size — take your pick and fill up.
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Dessert: Fresh fruit
It’s time to redefine dessert. “Fruit is probably the lowest sugar snack option available and it’s loaded with antioxidants and fiber, which helps people lose weight and feel full,” Doerfler says. If you truly can’t live without a little dark chocolate before bed (we feel you), Doerfler says you can indulge — as long as you limit your treat to a single portion size.
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Originally published on February 8, 2016. Updated on January 21, 2022
All images via Shutterstock