Going sugar free, it turns out, wasn’t the hard part. I stayed on track for my 21-day sugar fast without a glitch. It was re-integrating that was the tricky part. In this article, I share why I went sugar free, the journey, and how I would do it differently.
“Sugar is the most dangerous drug of this time.” This is what Paul van der Velpen, the head of Public Health Service in Amsterdam said in his September 2013 press release.
He is not the only one calling sugar addictive, and certainly not the first. Studies show that sugar can induce reward and craving even more than cocaine. This gives us a pretty good analogy of sugar’s grip on us. First off, don’t be so harsh on yourself for your sugar habit.
So how addictive is sugar?
We aren’t likely to know how addictive sugar is for us, until we try going sugar free. The intensity of this craving – how much we NEED and actually consume – becomes obvious when we go sugar-free. It’s like the elephant in the room. The more you try not to think about it, the more you think about it. Except with sugar, our reward system can get dysregulated.
What Happens When We Eat Sugar?
When we eat sugar, the “happy hormone” dopamine floods our system. We literally live on cloud nine when we eat sugary foods. Because we are hard-wired to seek out pleasures, the “reward circuitry” is stimulated and lights up. The more a pathway is used, the more it becomes strong and also the default pathway. Dopamine is the reinforcer. This does not automatically lead to addiction. It does however increase the opportunity or potential for addiction to occur.
Over time, “the dopamine receptors start to down-regulate. Now there are fewer receptors for the dopamine. This means that the next time we eat these foods, their effect is blunted.” 1 We therefore eat more sugary foods to try to replicate that euphoric feeling.
In a 2007 study titled Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward the authors had this to say:
“We speculate that the addictive potential of intense sweetness results from an inborn hypersensitivity to sweet tastants…sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants. The supranormal stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets would generate a supranormal reward in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus lead to addiction.”2
How Does Sugar Imbalance Our Health?
“Sugar turns on insulin in the body,” explains Dr Mark Hyman. “Insulin is a fast fat storage and it drives fat storage into the fat cells in your abdomen and literally sucks the fuel out of the bloodstream. So you get hungry quickly and the body thinks you are starving and your metabolism slows down.”
So what is happening (in relations to us getting fat), according to Dr Hyman in his video interview, is this – we are storing fat, we are hungry because there is no fuel, and metabolism slows down because the body thinks we are starving. We eat more and we are getting fatter, especially around the middle and around the organs.
The body maintains blood sugar within a narrow range. The body does not function optimally when blood sugar is too low or too high and has to work harder to re-establish a balanced state. Blood sugar levels that are too high or that oscillate widely throughout the day can wreak havoc on our physical and mental health and you tax your glands and organs. Excess sugar, in addition to throwing off the body’s homeostasis, may result in a number of significant consequences.
Dr Taylor Bean
Canadian Naturopathic Doctor
Dr Bean gives a few examples of consuming too much sugar:
- suppresses the immune system, thereby impairing defenses against infection.
- feeds candida resulting in thrush and digestive complaints
- imbalances the absorption of calcium and magnesium, weakening eyesight
- causes saliva to become acidic and periodontal disease
- contributes to osteoporosis
- unbalances hormones (e.g. increasing estrogen in men and decreasing growth hormone)
- reduces learning capacity and affect the ability to think clearly by causing an increase in delta, alpha, and theta brain waves
Sugar, in excess, is indeed trouble for homeostasis and general wellbeing but it is not all bleak.
Like Dr Hyman says, “who doesn’t love sugar? Anybody? We all love sugar. It’s not that we can’t have sugar. The problem with sugar is that we have gone from 22 teaspoons a year as cavemen to 22 teaspoons a day today. On average. We also went low-fat and what that did was put this huge glut of sugar into the market. Sugar is okay to eat but it’s a recreational drug.”
Going Sugar Free for Four Weeks
Like other addictions, for many people, the only way not to fall off the wagon is complete and total abstinence. Having absolutely no sugar, in a world of sugary tempting foods, may seem impossible.
The best way for many people to get to a place where we can live in harmony with sugar is with a detox first. By going sugar free, we break the hold sugar has on us so we can choose more freely what to eat. We stop eating on auto-pilot and form new healthier habits. An elimination diet allows us to feel what a particular food does to us when we re-introduce it to our diet.
With this intention, I went on the 21-day sugar detox on September 1. Kate Wilesmith, the owner of Facebook pages such as Nutritional and Natural Health, set up the 21 Sugar Free September Days in Singapore (now running with various start dates). She based this detox on Diane Sanfilippo’s book 21-Day Sugar Detox: Bust Sugar and Carb Cravings Naturally and her own vast personal experience. Our detox excluded several “Yes” foods from this book, making it an even stricter regime. Kate’s advice is also to go cold turkey, if possible.
The book outlines several levels, making this sugar detox do-able for everyone. The levels have different “YES” and “NO” foods. It also includes modifications for athletes, pregnant and nursing mothers, and even kids. It’s up to you to decide which level and which modifications are best for you.
The synopsis of the book includes, “The effect that sugar, “hidden” carbs, and refined, processed foods have on our bodies goes far beyond our waistlines. We can’t focus, we can’t sleep, we have irrational mid-afternoon cravings, and we can’t even make it through the day without wanting–or needing–to prop up our energy levels with caffeine or even more sugar! What can we do to break free from this cycle?”
For me, to break free, I went all in – cold turkey and no modifications. Going sugar free means no obvious sweetness – sugar and sugar substitutes, honey, maple syrup, fruits, alcohol. Other exclusions are grains (wheat, oats, rice, millet) and some seeds, legumes, starches (potato, parsnip, pumpkin, turnip), dairy, and processed foods.
Some people may choose to slowly eliminate the “NO” foods from their diet over the week or so leading up to the sugar detox. This helps to level out any withdrawal symptoms.
The 21-Day Sugar Detox “YES” list may seem short – non-starchy vegetables, good fats, nuts, eggs, fish, and meat. It’s definitely do-able. Kate pointed out that her own kids have been on this diet for four years now. The key is to make most of your diet non-starchy vegetables and as much home-cooked as possible. Having complete oversight of the ingredients and their quality even when not on special diets helps improve our health.
Tips on Going Sugar Free
① Do the Prep Work
Do a sweep of the kitchen pantry and the house (including any and all hiding places) and empty out the sugar foods.
It is much easier going sugar free if the entire family is in on it. Otherwise, explain to them why you are and how they could be supporting you.
Stock up and make sure your fridge is always full of “YES” foods. Taking time to have cut up veggies or other allowed snacks (e.g. almond bread) will help combat hunger pangs and cravings. Plan ahead and set yourself up to succeed.
② Focus on the “YES” Foods
Reminiscing about your favourite cookies, that glass of bubbly, raw chocolate mousse, or even fruit will only make the detox that much more difficult. This may mean going sugar free when you don’t have important engagements, like your friend’s wedding or your annual Christmas do, to go to.
This is the time to experiment with what may be new foods for many. Even a cursory google search will bring up an impressive number of easy and healthy sugar-free recipes. A lot of paleo recipes are a go. I have myself added almond bread to my repertoire. Not my own recipe but certainly well received by my friends.
③ Drink Lots of Water
Dehydration is often mistaken for hunger pangs. The general guide of eight glasses a day is just that, a general guideline. Sip lemon-infused water throughout the day so you are never gulping copious amounts at one time. Yes lemon and lime are exceptions to the no-fruit rule. As is tomato.
Hydration helps with withdrawal symptoms you may experience as you eliminate sugary and starchy foods from your diet. You may feel tired or irritated. You may have headaches or insomnia. It is all very individual and it could be several days to a full week. Take it easy. Allow yourself more leeway. Nap more, if you need to or get to bed earlier at night. Soon you will be bouncing with super energy.
④ Take Your Time to Transition Back to a “Normal” Diet
How we transition back to a sustainable diet is so important that it can break or make the benefits experienced from weeks of going sugar free. This is often the most difficult part of the process. Being patient and taking your time will make a difference.
Having one “new” food every three days allows you to gauge how your body handles that one food. It is also a way to see if a particular food can be eaten daily or perhaps only once a week or some other interval. Intrinsic in this transition period is instability, maybe a sense of discomfort. We may overrate how we feel and jump back fully and reintroduce too many foods at one time.
When we do the transition with awareness, we are able to gauge the impact of specific foods on how we feel when we reintegrate it back into our diet. This allows us to make better choices with this food.
To be honest, the transition was where I goofed up. This is why I am going sugar free again. I realized when I brought back apples and pumpkin, my cravings for sugar returned more strongly than before. So going sugar free and staying sugar free for a month was do-able for me. I didn’t have these deep cravings and pulls. Then the transition – boom, all the cravings. Weird, I know.
The Missing LInk
We can cut out sugar from our diet for three weeks or longer. We can avoid it like alcoholics avoid alcohol. Before we demonize sugar, let’s take a moment and think about these questions –
When do you raid the fridge? Or hunt for that chocolate bar? Or down a few glasses of wine? Is it stress? Is it a feeling of loneliness, deep grief, or a general feeling that there is more?
Here’s something everyone needs to address for a true shift in their relationship with sugar. What are the voids you are filling with sweet foods? Where is the sweetness in your life?
Are you evading something painful? Substituting what you desire and feel is unattainable with an easier high? Are you avoiding attention or seeking it? Most people are not aware of what is really going on. Whatever it is, understanding there is a better, more free, way to live will bring a greater sense of wellbeing.
In Chinese Medicine, the flavour of sweet is related to the Earth Element and the organs of Spleen and Stomach. The Earth Element is about being grounded, rooted, stable, practical, and feeling cared for and nurtured. The Spleen and Stomach are about digestion and assimilation – are we able to take in what we need?
It is worthwhile to explore these relationships and correspondences to delve more deeply what is going on about our sugar addictions. Going sugar free helps us to break that physical link and yet here are other ways we are using sugar and sweets as a stand in that cannot be ignored.
To shift on multiple levels during a sugar detox, you can try Jin Shin Jyutsu. Something easy is holding your fingers, each of which is related to two organ functions, element, attitude, etc. Or your thumb which relates to the Earth Element.
Or you can tap – either the entire Emotional Freedom Technique protocol or just the karate chop point on the side of your hand (pinky side). You can work on your beliefs around sugar and eating, any feelings of ungroundedness, or overworry.
Even pausing and taking deep breaths when you are confronted by discomfort rather than suppressing it (through food, medications, recreational drugs, drama, shopping, etc) is a huge step forward.
Or maybe it is time to seek out professionals to help you with these challenges and blockages. To work at deeper levels means we can engender real change and not default to our sugar habit at some later date, when a seemingly insurmountable obstacle appears.
In the four weeks I was on the sugar detox, my skin cleared. This was from not getting bitten by mosquitoes and not reacting to the bites. Even though I don’t know the exact relationship, I know there is one. Perhaps I had eliminated histamine-rich foods as well and my elimination pathways were optimized. For me that was the most obvious and profound change.
I did also lose some weight, a nice bonus. My energy level was fantastic and mornings were less painful. On the emotional side, I discovered some of my triggers.
Would I recommend the 21-Day Sugar Detox? Absolutely. Experimenting with new recipes, making our own food, sourcing better ingredients, and eating more clean can only be good for our health.
I would suggest not going turkey, especially if this is the first time. I did, partly because I’ve done similar elimination diets before and my big sugars are fruits. A gradual reduction of anything that could be challenge is wiser, especially since care supports the Earth Element. I would also suggest keeping a diary and journal about the questions raised earlier about the emotional triggers, sweetness in life, and the Earth Element. Take your time to transition back foods you love. And find what is sweet to you on the non-physical levels.
1How Sugar Hijacks Your Brain And Makes You Addicted by Kris Gunnars, Authority Nutrition: An Evidence-Based Approach.
2Study: Saccharin And Sugar May Be More Addictive Than Cocaine by Sayer Ji, GreenMedInfo.
Sugar Addiction: Pushing the Drug-sugar Analogy to the Limit by Ahmed SH, Guillem K, and Vandaele Y.