Sugar Detox: How to Cut Cravings and Enjoy Healthier Alternatives

Sugar (naturally-occurring and added) is not only found in desserts and treats, but also everyday foods. While limited sugar consumption isn't likely to negatively impact your health, the hidden sugars in everyday foods can easily ramp up the daily sugar intake. In such case, weight gain, diabetes, and specific cancers are more likely to follow.

Key takeaways:
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    Once you eat sugar, the hippocampus (reward center) in your brain activates and sends signals (cravings) to eat sugary food on repeat.
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    High sugar consumption can lead to weight gain, heart disease, fatty liver disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and specific cancers.
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    Experts recommend limiting daily sugar intake up to 36 g for men and 24 g for women.
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    Reducing added sugar intake, especially in liquid form, is one of the most important behavioral changes you can make.
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    There are healthy sugar alternatives that you can use – stevia, erythritol, monk fruit extract, allulose, and others.

Simple sugars are classified as either monosaccharides (glucose, fructose, galactose) or disaccharides. That's two monosaccharides joined together, such as sucrose, maltose, lactose. Keep in mind that sugar, starch, and fiber are the three primary components of carbohydrate-rich food. In this article, the label sugar refers to types of added sugars in foods often in the form of sucrose or fructose that have detrimental effects on health.

The truth: Is sugar that bad?

A teaspoon of sugar a few times a month isn’t likely to impact your health. Ramp up to the average daily intake of 19 teaspoons, and weight gain, heart disease, fatty liver disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and specific cancers are more likely to follow.

Even signs of aging such as fine lines and wrinkles accelerate with high sugar intake due to the development of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) that damage collagen and elastin.

After metabolizing the sugar, the hippocampus or reward center in your brain activates, and a pleasure cycle ensues that motivates your brain to eat sugary food on repeat. This habit-forming cycle creates a sugar dependence and is compared to a drug addiction.

Worldwide health experts concluded that added sugars should be limited to less than 9 teaspoons (36 grams) a day for men, and 6 teaspoons (24 grams) for women, or less than 10% of calories. To put that into perspective, just one 12-ounce serving of soda, lemonade, or other sweetened drink contains more than this amount of added sugar.

Tips to detox and curb cravings:

The more sugar we eat, the more we want. Ready to break free of this vicious cycle? Your brain, body, and palate will need up to 2 to 4 weeks to adjust to lower sugar intake, so be patient with yourself. Here are 10 tips to take back control of your cravings:

  1. Limit sugary drinks. Swap sweetened beverages like coffee, tea, and smoothies for unsweetened options;
  2. Drink more water. Swap a can of soda for sparkling water. You'll enjoy the fizz, reduce sugar, and increase hydration;
  3. Replace sweets with fruit. Eat whole fruit when you feel a craving to satisfy your sweet tooth in a healthier way. You can also sweeten plain yogurt with warmed frozen fruit, which concentrates the flavors.
  4. Use healthy sugar alternatives. Swap added sugars in your coffee and baked goods with a sugar alternative, like stevia;
  5. Distract yourself from cravings. Set a timer for 5 minutes and distract yourself when the craving strikes. The intensity of cravings lasts 3 to 5 minutes, so distraction is key to help keep you from caving;
  6. Read product labels. Choose packaged foods with 0 grams of added sugar;
  7. Balance your diet. Make sure you eat nutritious meals with protein, fat, fiber-rich complex carbs, and vegetables to stabilize blood sugar and prevent sugar cravings;
  8. Build healthy habits. Aim to manage stress and prioritize sleep quality and quantity. High stress and sleep deprivation lifestyles are associated with high-sugar cravings, intake, and weight gain.

Look out for foods with hidden sugar

Below are some of the many names that sucrose and other forms of added sugars may be hiding behind. Exclude as many as possible to help retrain your brain and palate to reduce cravings, prefer naturally-sweetened foods, and improve your health.

Agave NectarBrown SugarCane Sugar/CrystalsCoconut NectarConfectioner’s Sugar
Corn SyrupCrystalline FructoseDextroseEvaporated Cane Juice/CrystalsFruit Juice
FructoseHigh-Fructose Corn Syrup Grape/Apple Juice ConcentrateHoneyMalt
MaltodextrinMaple SyrupPalm SugarRice SyrupSorghum Syrup

Healthy sugar alternatives

Just because you intend to reduce your added sugar intake doesn’t mean you have to go without. Fruit and some safe low-calorie sugar alternatives can help bridge the gap and contribute to weight loss.

  • Whole fruit. Frozen, fresh, and pureed fruit serve as excellent sugar substitutes because they provide nutrients and fiber that help slow absorption and digestion of the sugars while providing satiety. Despite having more calories than low-calorie sweeteners below, research confirms whole fruit exerts many anti-obesity effects;
  • Stevia. A sweet leaf plant available in both powder and liquid, the healthiest, least processed option is the actual stevia plant. Add a few leaves to a smoothie, or chop them up into baked goods. Stevia, even commercially prepared versions, has an aftertaste that is unpleasant to some.
  • Erythritol and Sugar Alcohols. Sugar alcohols, or polyols, such as erythritol, xylitol, and sorbitol are found in many fruits and vegetables but are industrially made for consumption. These sugar alcohols contain roughly half the calories as sucrose, although erythritol is near zero, and tastes less sweet. Xylitol and erythritol help reduce tooth decay compared to sucrose. All but erythritol may contribute to gastric discomfort due to their incomplete absorption in the small intestine;
  • Monk Fruit Extract. Monk fruit is a tropical East Asian fruit. Its extract is 100 to 250 times sweeter than sucrose and contains 0 calories. Mogrosides are unique antioxidants found in monk fruit that are responsible for their intense sweetness and reported health benefits;
  • Allulose. A natural sweetener found in wheat, figs, jackfruit, and raisins, it is now commercially prepared from various sources. Allulose contains 0 calories, is not metabolized in the body, and is excreted in the urine. It tastes slightly less sweet than sugar, has no aftertaste, and can be used as a 1:1 replacement for sucrose in baked goods. As with other alternatives listed here, studies show metabolic advantages and health improvement when replacing sucrose with such a sweetener.

Reducing added sugar intake, especially in liquid form, is one of the most important behavioral changes you can make. Set up your environment for success by swapping out sweetened foods and beverages with unsweetened options in your home and workplace. Some planning and patience will help significantly cut your sugar intake and health risks.

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