Ok, you did it. You ate some sweets and now you’re feeling guilty, bloated, and like you’ve gained 10 pounds… and you’re craving even more sweets. Here’s what you can do to kick your cravings and detox from sugar.
Understanding Why You Crave Sugar
Sugar activates the reward center of your brain. Every time you eat sweets, your body releases serotonin and dopamine. These hormones make you feel good in the same way anti-depressants, cigarettes, alcohol, and heroin do.
So why doesn’t broccoli trip this reward system as well? Well, healthy meals do in fact trigger dopamine, but the levels are lower and trail off much faster than when you consume sugar. It’s the long-acting effect of sugar that has us seeking out the next sweet high versus broccoli high.
The more sugar you consume, the more it blunts your brain’s reward system. Like any addict, it takes increasingly higher doses to achieve the same lasting high– another reason why you don’t crave broccoli; a broccoli high is nothing compared to a sugar high.
Constant activation of this system leads to a loss of control to say ‘no’ when sweets are in front of you. Even if you could muster the strength to walk away, cravings will follow suit. The lesson here is that cravings are not about will-power and motivation. Cravings are about your brain chemistry.
So the trick is to re-train your brain to crave broccoli and other good-for-you things.
This is how you do it.
6-Step Sugar Detox to Kick Cravings to the Curb
Step One: Hydrate
You already know that dehydration triggers hunger. It also triggers cravings for sugar too. The reason why is that like salt, sugar will retain water in your system. When people say that the first few pounds lost on a low-carb diet are ‘just’ water weight, they’re half-right. It’s sugar + water weight.
Losing those first few pounds is a positive sign that your body is shifting from a state of constant sugar consumption and dehydration to level blood glucose levels and hydrated, healthy cells.
Try to get at least 60 ounces of water in a day, especially in the first few days of a sugar detox. It will keep your mouth and hands busy, and your tummy full.
If you tire of water, two other beverages that work to keep you hydrated are warm broth and sugar-free electrolyte drinks. Broth is soothing, and also contains salts that help offset the dehydrating effects when you first lower your blood sugar levels. Sugar-free electrolytes are also a smart choice, they come in many flavors and can balance out other salts your body needs such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
Step Two: Fast
Don’t skip over this step if you are serious about kicking sugar for good. Fasting on non-caloric beverages for 24 to 48 hours is the best way to flip the switch on sugar addiction.
You won’t be as hungry as you think, especially after you’ve gone off-program. There are calories to spare, and enough stored glucose in your liver to last a day without your body going hungry.
Sure, you might feel the urge to eat here and there, but that will have more to do with your learned behaviors. A fast will also help you identify behavioral triggers that prompt you to eat. It’s useful to realize the difference between physical hunger and a wired behavior brought on by anxiety, depression, stress, or habit.
Step Three: Go Cold-Turkey
Going cold-turkey is the most efficient way to kick the sugar habit. The typical American diet has about 13% of its calories from sugar. According to the World Health Organization, that number should be no more than 5%.
That means that unless you are already committed to a low-sugar diet, you are probably physically addicted to sugar. While 13% of calories in your diet doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s enough to have you craving sugar whenever its available. And if sugar isn’t available, your body is smart enough to find any simple carb like bread, pasta, and chips to satisfy the urge of another blood glucose spike. Once your total sugar calories drops to 5% or below, those urges decrease.
In the absence of sugar, broccoli will actually start to taste sweet to you– triggering the reward center of your brain. This increased sensitivity is where you can become more addicted to broccoli. The difference with a broccoli (or other healthy food addiction) is that you aren’t constantly craving the next high.
That’s the magic moment of ‘food serenity’ that signals peace between you, your body, and the food you eat.
Step Four: Eat Real Food
Sugar can be found in 74% of packaged foods at the grocery store. That means that in order to get rid of sugar addiction, you’ll need to focus on real, whole foods. With few exceptions, foods like meats, eggs, nuts, vegetables, and cheese can be counted on to not have hidden sugars.
Starches, breads, potatoes, fruits, and pasta spike blood sugar levels; they are seen by your body as similar to sugar and lead to blood sugar spikes. A successful detox is dependent on keeping high blood sugar levels from spiking your reward center again.
While most of us are familiar with low-carb diet, it doesn’t necessarily take zero carbs a day to detox from sugar. Our Weight Loss Coaches have found that most people can kick sugar, lose weight, and even get into ketosis at around 30-50 grams of complex carbs obtained mostly from vegetables.
Eat real, whole foods whenever you feel hungry. If you tried fasting, you’ll know the true difference between hunger and cravings. If you are still learning the difference and feel hungry– eat! Just don’t eat sugar or starchy carbs. Trying to restrict calories when you have cravings can lead to a disastrous sugar binge, undoing all the work you’ve put into your detox.
Step Five: Exercise
A UK study has found that a simple 15-minute walk is enough to effectively reduce cravings. Exercise releases feel-good hormones that can take the place of a sugar rush. As with broccoli, in the absence of sugar you can re-train your brain to feel that rush from exercise.
It’s worth considering how an aversion to exercise can be caused by sugar addiction itself. Your brain wants the bigger high. People who lower their sugar intake, which in turn increases their sensitivity to the rewards of exercise find that not only do they have more energy to do things– they WANT to do them, too.
So at a minimum, make sure you get at least 20 minutes or 2,000 steps in every day. If you can do more, do it.
Step Six: Be Kind to Yourself
It’s no joke that sugar detox is hard. That’s why it is sometimes called the ‘carb-flu.’ Feeling tired, achey, irritable, nauseous, and even coming down with a cold are all things that happen when you detox.
The best thing you can do is heed step one: stay well-hydrated. You can also take your over-the-counter pain reliever of choice to help with any aches and pains.
You should also make it a point get enough rest. Hormones called ghrelin, leptin, and corisol that control hunger and cravings are affected by a lack of rest.
Done correctly, it takes about 2 to 3 days to detox from sugar. You’ll know it’s happened because your cravings will diminish, your energy will increase, and you’ll crave healthy foods more than unhealthy ones. If it takes longer than 3 days, it’s time to check for hidden carbs and sugars in your food and beverages. Reading the labels on everything for a day or two can usually help you find the culprit.
If you are still having troubles finding hidden sugars or with the detox steps listed here, you can always call and talk with one of our Weight Loss Coaches at 1-800-273-1686.
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About the Writer: 100 pounds ago, Jan knew what it is like to be obese, unhappy, and stuck. She has spent the last 17 years as a fitness writer, trainer, yoga teacher, and Weight Loss Coach. Today, she’s proud to be a part of the Personal Trainer Food team so she can continue her goal to help others live their fullest lives possible. Email Jan@PersonalTrainerFood.com if you have any questions!
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