How to Detox From Sugar

Sugar makes so many foods taste good, but regularly indulging your sweet tooth could make you feel bad: Eating too many foods with added sugar can cause serious health issues, including obesity, elevated blood pressure, and a higher risk of diabetes. A sugar detox could be just what you need to jumpstart your health.

The Ill Effects of Sugar

A recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine reveals that people who get a quarter or more of their overall calorie intake from added sugar (sugars not naturally occurring in foods) have twice the likelihood of death from cardiovascular disease than those whose sugar intake is limited to no more than 10 percent of their diet. For a person eating a 2,000 calorie a day diet, 10% would be 200 calories, close to the amount contained in just one can of soda. This 10 percent is in line with current U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.

Unfortunately, most of us eat more added sugar than we should: American men consume a daily average of 335 calories (or 12.7% of their diet) from added sugars; women consume 239 calories (or 13.2% of their diet) from added sugars.

Could You Be Addicted?

Sticking to the recommended 10 percent of your calories from sugar can be tougher than you’d think, since sugar is added to so many foods we regularly eat, including yogurt, cereal, and even ketchup. Further complicating matters is that the more sugar you eat, the harder it can be to change your habits.

"The chemical process of sugar addiction is similar to the process that leads to drug addiction," says Rebecca Lee, RN, a registered nurse from New York and founder of She explains that consuming sugar prompts the body to release a chemical called dopamine in the brain, which produces a pleasurable feeling. Over time, it can take more sugar to get the same effect, thus encouraging the consumption of more sugary treats. That makes this a vicious cycle that’s important—but often difficult—to break.

Follow these tips to get the sweet stuff out of your diet:

1. Educate Yourself

All sugar is not created equal. Knowing how different sugars work in your body will help you make healthier diet choices. Sugar comes in three different forms: natural sugars, grains and starches, and added sugars.

Natural sugars are those found in vegetables, fruits, milk, and cheese. These sugars provide nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Natural sugars enter the bloodstream as glucose (sugar) relatively slowly. This is important: The more slowly glucose enters the bloodstream, the less of an insulin spike is produced. (Insulin is a hormone needed to move sugar into the cells, where it can be used for energy). The result is better control of blood sugar levels for a longer period of time.

Sugars from grains and starches, like bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes, on the other hand, enter the bloodstream very quickly and rapidly increase insulin levels.

Added sugars, which include high fructose corn syrup, sucrose (table sugar), brown rice syrup, molasses, and honey, are added to foods during preparation or processing. Added sugars contribute extra calories to your diet and lead to weight gain without providing any nutritional value. Ironically, foods with added sugars often enter the blood at a slower rate than grains and starches because these foods can also be high in fat, which slows the emptying of the stomach and the release of sugar into the blood.

2. Start Slow

One common mistake people make when planning a sugar detox is doing it cold turkey, or suddenly dropping all sugar from the diet. A drastic decline in in sugar in your diet can cause a drop in feel-good dopamine levels, Lee says. It can also cause cravings, which can lead to slip-ups and frustration.

So unless you have diabetes or other health problems that require a more drastic approach, Lee suggests that you slowly wean yourself off sugar to let your body adjust. The process could take a some time, and "Someone who has the occasional treat is going to have an easier time than somebody who eats and drinks sugar all day long," Lee says. "If you consume a lot of sugar, you might have extreme withdrawal symptoms for two to three weeks."

You can cut out the food with the most added sugar first, or the food(s) you find easiest to do without, like soda at lunch—whatever makes most sense to you.

3. Make Smart Swaps

When performing a sugar detox, Lee says that a good rule of thumb is to cut foods with added sugars—like cookies, cakes, and candy—and replace them with natural sugars, such as a piece of fruit. She says that for people with diabetes or other health problems that prevent them from eating too much sugar, natural sugars may also be limited to some extent, adding, "The amount of natural sugar recommended for a diabetic should be individualized."

Another way to simplify your efforts is to focus on what to eat, rather than what to skip. "Rather than looking for various sugar names on processed foods, use a little common sense and only buy your carbohydrates from the fruit and vegetable counter in the supermarket," says Barry Sears, Ph.D., a Peabody, Mass.-based research scientist and president of the Inflammation Research Foundation. Sears is best known for the anti-inflammatory diet featured in his best-selling book, The Zone.

What does inflammation have to do with your diet? Sugar and inflammation are intimately related, since the sweet stuff can trigger an inflammatory response. An anti-inflammation diet (which tends to be low in processed sugar) can provide health benefits: Sears cites a 1999 Harvard Medical School study in Pediatrics "that demonstrates that providing two consecutive anti-inflammatory meals [containing foods that reduce the body’s response to inflammation, such as fish, vegetables, and olive oil] to obese children was all that is needed to dramatically lower insulin surges caused by glucose." In addition, "Giving them three consecutive anti-inflammatory meals dramatically reduced their calorie intake by 25 percent because of lack of hunger, even when surrounded by their favorite sugary drinks, foods, and desserts."

4. Snack Smart

To keep hunger at bay, you'll probably need a snack or two. "There are many yummy and healthy snack options out there," Lee says. "You just have to find ones that fit your palate. Once you find a healthy snack that you really like, you'll be more willing to give up the unhealthy ones."

Some good choices include:

  • 1/4 cup of organic trail mix.
  • 1 medium apple with 1 tablespoon of peanut or almond butter.
  • 2 or more cups of vegetables with 2 tablespoons of hummus.
  • 5-6 cups (cooked) air-popped popcorn.
  • 1 cup of low-fat cottage cheese.
  • 0.75 ounces of light cheese with 1 medium apple.
  • 20 grams (about .75 of an ounce) of dark chocolate.
  • 1 cup of lightly salted edamame (soybeans).
  • 1 hard boiled egg.

5. Skip the Artificial Sweeteners

Avoid replacing sugar with a ton of artificial sweeteners, which are found in many diet or sugar-free products. FDA-approved artificial sweeteners include acesulfame potassium (also known as acesulfame K), aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, neotame, and advantame.

These substitutes affect the brain like sugar does, according to Lee, who adds that research has linked regular use of such sweeteners to a variety of health problems, including weight gain and metabolic syndrome (a group of symptoms related to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, among other conditions.) Why is this? Although this seems counter-intuitive since these artificial sweeteners don’t add any calories, some experts believe that the artificial ingredients interfere with the body’s metabolic functioning.

6. Buddy Up for Success

One way to make going sugar free easier is to have a partner in the process. Recruit friends or colleagues, and arrange to check in regularly to share updates and support. And "If you're married or living with someone, you can encourage each other to make smarter choices. It's hard to break longtime habits on your own. It's good to have an accountability partner who can coach you or be your own personal cheerleader," Lee says.

Barry Sears, Ph.D., reviewed this article.


Lee, Rebecca RN. Email interview, May 5, 2016.

Sears, Barry, PhD. Email interview, May 5, 2016.

"FDA Revises Proposed Nutrition Facts Label Rule to Include a Daily Value for Added Sugars." US Food and Drug Administration. Page last updated July 28, 2015.

Ervin, R. Bethene, Ogden, Cynthia L. "Consumption of Added Sugars Among U.S. Adults, 2005–2010." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/NCHS Data Brief 122, May 2013.

Ludwig, DS, et al. "High Glycemic Index Foods, Overeating, and Obesity." Pediatrics 1999 103 (3): E26.

Yang, Quanhe. "Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults." JAMA Internal Medicine 174(4) (2014):516-524. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13563

"What You Eat Can Fuel or Cool Inflammation, a Key Driver of Heart Disease, Diabetes, and Other Chronic Conditions." The Family Health Guide/Harvard Health Publications/Harvard Medical School. Updated February 2007.