Sugar gets a really bad rep. Headlines make it seem like hoarding donuts is just as bad as a cocaine habit; the simple carb has been categorized as everything from unhealthy and addictive to downright dangerous.
It’s enough to make us want to sugar detox for good. But there’s a big difference between Sweet Tarts and the healthy carbs found in vegetables and whole grains. And while ultimately, most of us very likely eat too much of the sweet stuff, you have to dig beneath clickbait and sensationalism to find the truth about sugar—what it is, how much you need of it, and how to effectively cut back if you’re overdoing it.
Just in time for candy canes and holiday feasts, here’s a look at sugar in all of its forms and how to get a handle on your intake,.
What Exactly Is Sugar Anyway?
Definitions first: “Sugar is a simple carbohydrate and it can come in several sources,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D., the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute.
Sugar is found in both plant foods (think: fruits and vegetables) and in refined forms (sugar cane, for example). In the latter form, sugar is concentrated and separated from the other parts of the plants, creating table sugar or sucrose, says Sharon Palmer, R.D.N., author of Plant-Powered for Life.
There are other types of refined sugars, too, says Palmer — corn sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, and agave syrup. “These are called ‘added sugars,’” she explains.
To be a little more nitty gritty, Ryan Maciel, R.D.N., a dietitian based in Needham, MA says sugars are generally broken up into two groups. The first is called monosaccharides—carbs in their simplest forms. The below are monosaccharides:
- Glucose: the body’s main source of energy. It is commonly found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes.
- Fructose: found mainly in fruits and some vegetables, fructose is also found in sugar-sweetened beverages (soda, sports drinks, energy drinks).
- Galactose: a component of lactose, this sugar found in milk products and, like lactose, it’s found in dairy products, legumes, and some fruits and vegetables,.
The second group of sugars are called disaccharides, sugars made from two linked up monosaccharides. The below are disaccharides:
- Sucrose: composed of glucose and fructose. Sucrose is naturally found in fruits and vegetables, and is also extracted from sugar beets and sugar cane to make table sugar. It is commonly added to cereals and baked goods as a sweetener.
- Lactose: composed of glucose and galactose. Lactose is mainly found in dairy products (milk, cheese).
- Maltose: composed of two glucose molecules. It is commonly found in bread products, cereals, and malt products such as milkshakes and some candies.
Does a Healthy Diet Need Sugar?
To clarify, we need carbohydrates — and all carbs turn into glucose, or ‘sugar’ in the body, says Kirkpatrick. “Glucose is the major and only fuel for the brain,” she adds. (Low-carb diets like the Ketogenic Diet force your body to wind up using fat as fuel, says Kirkpatrick. It also still tends to include five percent carbs.)
As for the average person, though (athletes especially who burn through glucose stores via exercise), The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 45 to 65 percent of calories in your diet come from carbohydrates. Whole food sources — fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes — prove the best choices, notes Maciel.
That number also isn’t written in stone. “This is a good place to start but you may need more or less carbohydrates based on your activity level, body type, and goals,” says Maciel. Touching base with a registered dietitian and detailing your workouts and current eating plans as well as any goals you have can help you determine an adequate intake.
Related: Sugar Is Not Your Enemy. And Here’s Why.
But remember: This 45 to 65 percent number doesn’t include foods like cookies or white bread. “It is recommended to limit consumption of added sugars to less than 10 percent of total daily calories,” says Maciel. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that means only 200 calories should come from cookies or candy (about 50 grams). Some data suggests Americans eat about 82 grams a day.
And that 10 percent is an upper limit. So if you can nix added sugars, great. But don’t stress too much if your workout schedule is packed. “In men that are engaging in rigorous activity, simple sugar stores must be replenished to continue activity,” notes Kirkpatrick. That’s why runners, for example, take in pure glucose or fructose during the race.
What’s So Bad About Sugar?
There’s quite a lot of information out there about sugar’s so-called “addictive” properties. But as Kelly Hogan, R.D., a clinical dietitian at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City notes: “No human studies have been conducted on sugar and addiction, so really we don’t know for sure.”
What we do know: At least in rodents, sugar has been found to spike dopamine release in the brain, just like some drugs, she says. And while in those studies, rats exhibited addiction-like behaviors after being deprived of food (and humans on restricted diets can act like the same way), that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re addicted to a food. “It means we’re having a physiologic response not having eaten,” she says. “We cannot translate results from these rodent studies to humans, and I think equating sugar to a drug like cocaine is ridiculous.”
Of course, there is a case for cutting back on added sugars. When we talk about eliminating sugar, we’re generally not trying to reduce the sugars found naturally in foods like fruits or vegetables which, on top of sugar, also include vitamins and minerals.
“We cannot translate results from these rodent studies to humans, and I think equating sugar to a drug like cocaine is ridiculous.”
For one, a diet full of processed, sugary foods ultimately fills you up on foods that lack key nutrients. “If consumed instead of more nutrient dense foods, like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains,” Hogan says, “people may not get as big a variety of vitamins and minerals, as well as nutrients like protein, fiber and fat that help keep blood sugar and energy levels steady throughout the day.”
Replacing sugary foods with (hopefully) colorful vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins can fuel the body appropriately for the day, Hogan explains. “Less blood sugar spikes and crashes can help reduce fatigue and increase energy levels as well.”
Related: Apparently Sugar Is Bad For Everyone. But Worse For Men
By giving up junk food and added sugar, you also won’t box out those healthful foods in your diet. “Every time we fit in a junk food, such as sugary soda, a brownie, or candy, we are crowding out some nutritious food in our diets,” Palmer adds, “foods that can flood our bodies with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds.”
But most importantly, diets high in added sugar can increase your risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases like diabetes. Diets full of sugar have also been linked to mental health conditions and scientists continue to study sugar’s relationship to different kinds of cancer. Subbing high-sugar foods with healthier ones can do everything from help manage blood sugar and cholesterol levels to even reducing the risk for chronic disease.
How to Do A Sugar Detox
So you’re already eating pretty healthy but you want to give putting the breaks on the sweet stuff a shot? First, it’s worth noting that many dietitians could do without the term “detox.”
“It incites an extreme behavior and can lead people down a path to disordered eating,” Hogan notes. “There is also nothing we can do externally to ‘detox’ our body of any nutrient — our liver and kidneys do a great job of that.”
Maciel adds: “I don’t necessarily believe in a true sugar detox. But, he says: “I think it can be helpful to go cold turkey for some and eliminate all added sugars and processed foods for a few weeks and then indulge occasionally.” For some people, cutting back in one fell swoop might truly be the best option to avoid temptations and binging.
How come? Well, when you eliminate or reduce added sugars, your taste buds start to change, he says. So by cutting the sweet stuff out you can actually reset them for future months and years.
Related: The Truth About Why Low-Carb Diets Suck
Lowering you sugar intake can also help promote the growth of good bacteria in your gut, he notes, which has been shown to positively impact overall health, he says.
There isn’t one particular protocol that proves most effective, but to jumpstart a bigger habit of cutting back on added sugars, Maciel suggests changing the way you eat for two to four weeks. Why so long? “This is how long it takes to form a habit or for something to be more routine,” he notes. (Remember, we’re keeping the bigger picture in mind here.)
Start your sugar detox by nixing processed foods. Cookies, cake, ice cream, candy, and crackers, are packed with added sugars. Do away with seemingly ‘healthy’ snacks that can secretly be sugar bombs (instant oatmeal, protein and granola bars, cereals, dried fruits, frozen foods, salad dressings, and marinades).
When it comes to your kitchen cabinets, eliminate anything in the house that has sugar in the first five ingredients, suggests Kirkpatrick.
Just note: Sugar might not always be listed as ‘sugar’ (that would be too easy). There are arguably 50+ different ways to list the sweet stuff on labels alone, just some of which could be high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, honey, molasses, fruit juice concentrates, syrup, and sugar molecules ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose).
According to the FDA, nutrition labels will soon include amounts of added sugar, making reading these often way-too-complicated bad boys far simpler. Though the Food and Drug Administration announced the plan last year with a roll-out date of 2018, that timeline has since (unfortunately) been delayed.
Pay particular attention to drinks like fruit juices, sports drinks, and sodas, too. Our drinks tend to account for a lot of our daily sugar intake, says Palmer. (Unsweetened tea and black coffee aren’t as bad as they sound, we promise.).
As part of a detox, you’ll also want to stop eating refined grains (which are processed and have had their protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals removed), says Maciel. “Whole grains are a much better choice because they contain all three original parts, the bran, endosperm, and germ, which are rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.” Whole grain foods will also help you control your blood sugar, increase satiety, and reduce cravings.
Don’t fear fruit. In Maciel’s plan, eating healthy carbs from fruits, vegetables, and legumes is totally fine and may actually help to eliminate nutrient deficiencies that may be leading to cravings, he notes. “For most of us fruits aren’t that sweet because we have been exposed to highly sweetened foods and beverages for so long.” Substituting fruits, vegetables, and legumes in for desserts or snacks will also help to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Sample 2-4 Week Sugar Detox Meal Plan
Maciel suggests the below plan for a two- to four-week sugar detox:
Meal: Two- to three-egg omelet cooked in olive oil with bell peppers, onions, and cheddar cheese with sliced cantaloupe.
Beverage: Glass of water
Meal: Spinach fruit salad made with strawberries, pineapple, blueberries, walnuts, red onions, and sliced chicken breast.
Beverage: Glass of water
Meal: Black bean, sweet potato, and quinoa chili.
Beverage: Glass of water
Meal: Greek yogurt parfait with mixed berries (raspberries, blueberries, blackberries) and homemade granola.
Celery and peanut butter or an apple with mixed nuts.
Sugar Detox Side Effects
If you cut back on all the “bad” sugar quite a bit, you might experience some unwanted side effects (though not everyone does and making changes slowly instead of all at once should counter this).
“Headaches and irritability are common in my patients and are usually gone by 10 days at the latest,” Kirkpatrick says. “These symptoms occur due to a number of reasons, including the omission of a ‘fuel’ your body is used to.”
You may also experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, cravings, brain fog, difficulty sleeping, and fatigue that last a few days or a few weeks, Maciel says.
The good news: “Many of these symptoms can be solved by replacing added sugars and processed foods with healthy sources of carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes).”
How to Add Sugar Back In
After two or four weeks, depending on what you decide, it’s time to add some sugar back in but the key is doing it just occasionally.
“It’s unrealistic to think that you can avoid processed foods and sugar all together,” Maciel says. He suggests after the timeframe is up to allow for indulgences every now and then. But it’s important to eat more slowly and be more mindful when you are eating sugary foods. This will help you tune in to how you feel when you’re eating it. “You may find that you don’t need as much as you used to or that you don’t even like what you are eating,” he says.
Another Strategy for Cutting Back
Want to lay off a little more slowly? After all, Maciel notes that going cold turkey simply doesn’t work for everyone.
“If you typically eat five to seven desserts or processed foods each week, focus on reducing this to three to four desserts per week,” he suggests.
If we focus on things we can have and should have more of, there is honestly not a lot of room in the day, or our stomachs, for tons of added sugar.
Also, give your meals a good once-over, focusing on what to add instead of what to take out. Each meal should have a variety of plant foods along with a protein source. “This could be roasted vegetables, brown rice, and salmon; three bean veggie chili or avocado toast with a poached egg,” Hogan says. “If we focus on things we can have and should have more of, there is honestly not a lot of room in the day, or our stomachs, for tons of added sugar.”
Even if there is, a cookie or two is not going to hurt you. In fact, it can be an enjoyable part of your day, which proves important. “I’ve found that if people have more satisfying meals, including colorful vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and fats, sugar cravings will naturally decrease.”
Related: How Often Should You Have Cheat Meals?
Then, save your sugar for the foods you really love, says Palmer. (Because what’s the point in getting the sorbet if you’re just going to wind up eating a bowl of ice cream later?)
How to Handle Sugar Cravings
Whether you’re on a sugar detox or simply trying to reduce your intake, sometimes a sweet tooth strikes. In those times, turn to fruit, Palmer says.
Otherwise, Kirkpatrick suggests you try foods like turkey, cheese, lentils, and nuts which tap into the same neurotransmitters that sugar hits.
If you’re just cutting back (not doing a detox), a small square of dark, low-sugar chocolate, which offers those feel-good ingredients without the high-sugar intake, can help take the edge off, too. “Look for at least 70 percent cocoa,” Palmer suggests.
Still craving sugar? Time to take a step back. Check your sleep. A lack of it can contribute to sugar cravings. And remember, exercise produces feel-good hormones that can counter negative feelings.
Otherwise, re-analyze your diet as whole. “A lot of times, sugar cravings are caused by not eating enough food in general,” Hogan notes. Balanced meals help you feel satisfied and keep your blood sugar levels stable which will help to reduce cravings.
“Sometimes it’s more than just, eat this instead,” Hogan says, “but why are you craving sugar to begin with?”