On average, Americans eat 17 teaspoons of sugar daily. By comparison, the American Heart Association’s recommended limits for daily sugar intake are around six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men. So, yes, 17 teaspoons a day is awfully high.
Now, you may be wondering how this is possible. After all, this isn’t the high end of the spectrum — it’s the average intake. But keep in mind that when we talk about sugar consumption, we need to distinguish between natural sugars and refined sugars, because not all types of sugars are metabolized the same way by our bodies.
Natural vs. refined sugars
Natural sugars, as the name suggests, are basically sugars that occur naturally in fruits, vegetables, and plant-based foods. Generally speaking, there’s nothing wrong with eating foods with natural sugars when they are consumed in moderation.
Our main concern here is the amount of refined sugars that are being added into our daily diets. We’re talking about sugars that have undergone an extraction and refining process to be made into what we commonly call “table sugar.” Refined sugars are also often used as added sugars in processed foods and drinks to enhance flavor and extend product shelf life.
Indeed, added sugars are hidden in almost all kinds of packaged foods — even in savory items like ketchup, salad dressing, and pasta sauce — so it can be a challenge to keep track of how much added sugar we’re actually eating every day.
The impact of added sugars
Excessive intake of added sugars can bring about many health problems. Among other issues, they are known to increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. This is because consuming too much sugar can lead to chronic inflammation, which makes our bodies more susceptible to various diseases and infections.
Prolonged inflammation in the body may also cause weight gain, premature aging, and acne problems. On top of that, it can affect your mood and lead to increased stress, anxiety, and even depression.
Moreover, studies have suggested that sugar may have addictive qualities, so it can be difficult to stop eating a high-sugar diet. If you find yourself craving sugar and sweet foods quite often — if not all the time — you may want to consider doing a sugar detox.
Of course, detoxing from sugar won’t be an easy task, but the benefits are certainly worth the effort.
When you steer clear of added sugar, you’ll probably experience some symptoms of sugar withdrawal at first, such as fatigue, headache, intense cravings, and irritability. Once your body adjusts to having less refined and added sugars, however, you may notice an improvement in your level of concentration and energy. Besides that, lower sugar intake can help with weight loss, clearing up your skin, and the balancing of hormones.
If you’re ready for a sugar detox, here are five tips to help.
1. Have a plan
Whether you’re trying to do a one-week or one-month sugar detox, you should plan your efforts according to your lifestyle and budget to make sure it’s feasible and realistic. For instance, if you’re a college student with limited options for food and groceries, a highly restrictive diet might not be the best choice.
When you plan your meals in advance, leave some room for natural sugars. Don’t cut all types of sugar out of your diet completely. While some might claim that going cold-turkey is the most effective way to do a sugar detox, you are essentially changing the energy source for your body and naturally occurring sugars can help moderate the transition.
If you’re used to consuming a lot of sugar on a daily basis, you may want to reduce your added sugar intake gradually instead of making drastic changes to your diet.
2. Restock your refrigerator and pantry
Before starting your sugar detox, consider getting rid of all processed foods and sugary snacks in your house or dorm room. Stock up on whole foods such as nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and fresh meat. Increase your fat and protein intake, but remember to still consume healthy carbs like brown rice, oats, and starchy vegetables.
What about sugar replacement products, then? While you might be tempted to use artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes, these products will only defeat the purpose of a sugar detox because they can trigger cravings for sweet foods. So it’s a good idea to keep away from sugar replacement products.
But don’t worry. Once you retrain your palate to taste natural sugars again, you’ll really begin to enjoy the natural sweetness in whole foods.
3. Say no to sugary drinks
That’s right. Liquid sugar has to go, too.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sugar-sweetened beverages are among the main sources of added sugars in the American diet. Such beverages include sodas, energy drinks, and even so-called “healthy” fruit juices.
Therefore, avoid all forms of sugary drinks — try sticking to unsweetened coffee and herbal tea instead. And a note about alcohol: when you drink any adult beverage, the alcohol interferes with your body’s ability to regulate itself, so blood sugar levels tend to fluctuate unevenly. The effects are compounded if your drink is mixed with juice or a soft drink. This dynamic can be especially dangerous if you are struggling with diabetes.
4. Pay attention to labels
Once you’ve gotten past the withdrawal stage and no longer have intense cravings for sugar, you can start to allow some processed foods into your diet once or twice a week — although, of course, it would be better if you stuck with the whole foods that you’ve been getting used to.
At this point, you’ll find yourself reading a lot of nutritional labels to check for unnecessary added sugars in your foods and sauces. When you check the ingredient list, sugar should definitely not be among the first three ingredients since the ingredients on a product label are listed in order of weight — from highest to lowest. Also, look out for different forms of sugar such as high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, saccharose, and maltose.
Even if you come across products that are being promoted as “diet” or “sugar-free,” don’t let your guard down. Such products are most likely full of artificial sweeteners, sugar substitutes, and sugar alcohols, so “sugar-free” isn’t always the better choice.
Some artificial sweeteners commonly used in foods and drinks include aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, sorbitol, xylitol, neotame, and acesulfame potassium (also known as acesulfame K). Scan food labels for these names so that you can avoid them during your sugar detox. Although artificial sweeteners provide sweetness without calories and do not affect your blood sugar level, they may still lead to poor eating habits and a wide range of health issues.
5. Maintain an overall healthy lifestyle
Another important thing to focus on during a sugar detox is to pair your detox diet with a healthy lifestyle. This is because proper and consistent self-care can be especially helpful for dealing with the side effects of sugar withdrawal.
A few simple habits to keep in mind are to stay hydrated, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep. These habits will help regulate your stress levels and keep your cravings under control, which in turn will make your detox process much more bearable. Most sugar withdrawal symptoms should go away within a few days or weeks, but if any of your symptoms persist or worsen, take the time to listen to your body and make minor adjustments to your diet until you start seeing improvement.
Keep your goals in mind
During your sugar detox, remember that your main goal is to improve your health by changing your relationship with sugar. It’s okay to make mistakes. And don’t focus too much on details like weight loss and changes in your skin complexion — those details can make you feel even more stressed than you were before you began. Invest in the long-game here — trust your body to adjust when you give it good nutrition, and the other changes will come in time.
A sugar detox is a great step in making sustainable and long-term lifestyle changes, so slow and steady is the way to go. Good luck!