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The indulgent sweetness of sugar is a real treat, but many people consume far too much of it. A sugar detox is a process during which you remove sugar from your diet to improve your health. Here, you’ll learn what happens to your body during a sugar detox, including the good and the bad, so you can decide whether cutting out sugar is right for you.
In America, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) work together to make nutritional recommendations for healthy individuals. Recently, the government recommended that Americans get no more than 10% of their daily calories from sugar. Studies conducted by these groups over the course of several years found that Americans consume 150 to 170 pounds of refined sugar each year. Because the study focused only on refined sugar, it didn’t account for natural sugars found in fruits, juices, and dairy products or the sugars your body creates when you consume carbohydrates.
A similar study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, found that the average American consumed anywhere between 13 and 20 teaspoons of added sugar each day. Much of that sugar comes from soda and even fruit juices touted as healthy, but companies are sneaky when it comes to added sugar. For example, ketchup, which is considered America’s favorite condiment, contains four grams of sugar per tablespoon, and nobody follows the recommended serving size when it comes to ketchup.
Your brain has evolved in such a way that it craves things that make you happy. A brain system called the mesolimbic pathway is responsible for picking up on natural rewards that occur when you do something pleasant. You’ve likely heard of dopamine; this is a hormone and neurotransmitter that carries signals throughout the brain, and per research conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it’s one of the major causes of addictions to everything, including drugs, gambling, sex, and even food.
Imagine sitting down to eat a big bowl of chocolate ice cream. Your brain has evolved in such a way that it prefers this sweet treat to something bitter, like some greens, or something sour, such as a serving of rhubarb. That’s because our bodies use sugar for energy, and they even convert carbohydrates into sugars called glucose that our cells can use as fuel. Your brain has evolved to send out a flood of dopamine when you consume foods rich in sugar for this very reason. It’s a reminder that the ice cream is good because the sugar is providing you with instant energy, and you should have that ice cream more often.
Your body doesn’t become addicted to the ice cream, per se. It becomes addicted to the flood of dopamine (often called the “happy hormone”) that the bowl of ice cream triggers. Later, if you’re given a choice between a bowl of ice cream or a healthy serving of broccoli, you’ll automatically go for the ice cream because the broccoli won’t trigger the release of dopamine. This results in the overconsumption of sugar products, which boosts the obesity epidemic and the number of new diabetes cases being diagnosed every year.
A sugar detox is a diet plan that requires you to eliminate sugar from your diet for at least 10 days, but preferably longer. To do it, you’ll need to avoid foods in boxes, packages, or cans and stick to whole foods. What’s more, because grains convert to sugar in your body, it’s best to give these up, as well. You’ll need to avoid eating anything with added sugar, and you’ll also need to avoid drinking any sugary beverage at all – including fruit and vegetable juices with no added sugars. You’ll need to do this cold turkey, too, so there’s no tapering down or cutting back. While it may be rough going at first, your body will thank you.
Per a 2008 study published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, sugar withdrawal is real and observable on a grand scale. In this study, rats were deprived of food for 12 hours a day, then given access to both their regular foods and a sugary solution for the other 12 hours. After a month, the rats displayed behaviors very similar to the behaviors of drug addicts. They ate more of the sugar solution than the regular food, and they displayed emotions like anger, anxiety, and depression during the 12 hours no food or sugar was available to them.
When these rats (or humans, for that matter) consume sugar regularly, a protein responsible for moving dopamine out of synapses and back into neurons is greatly inhibited. In short, the longer you’re exposed to sugar, the more you crave that sugar as a reward, and the more sugar you need to keep those dopamine receptors happy. When you start your sugar detox, you’re likely to experience some withdrawal symptoms. These include, but are not limited to:
Remember – your body has become addicted to sugar, and detoxing is like breaking any other physical dependency. There will be withdrawal symptoms involved, and some are quite unpleasant, but you’ll be happier and healthier for it in the end. The worst of the symptoms will be over in about three to five days, though cravings may persist for weeks.
Now that you understand how and why your body becomes addicted to sugar – and just how unpleasant the withdrawals can truly be – it’s a good time to look at the benefits of eliminating added sugar from your diet. These include:
Committing to a sugar detox may not be the simplest thing you’ll ever do, but it’ll be one of the most beneficial. What’s more, when you remove processed foods from your diet and replace them with whole foods, you’ll get more natural nutrition. There are fewer chemicals and preservatives, too, and there are even more benefits associated with removing these from your diet along with sugar.