I quit sugar over 1,800 days ago. That makes it five years, or 60 months without sugar when I write this article, in September 2022. In a time when most of us are exposed to way too much sugar, some of it unknowingly, how did I make this lifestyle change and managed to sustain it for so long? I will reveal the process I went through and a few sugar alternatives that help me have my sweet treat whenever I feel like it, without the negative effects of sugar.
Most people eat too much sugar. They eat sweet cereal, sweetened yogurt, porridge, or pastry for breakfast in addition to sweetened juice. For lunch, kids have a fruit rollup or candy with a sandwich, maybe some ketchup, and adults have pasta or a sandwich, eventually accompanied by a soda, energy drink, or fruit juice. And for dinner, both kids and adults have more refined starches, salad dressings and sauces, and drink sodas and other sugary drinks. Dessert might be ice cream or cookies, and let’s not forget the little snacks in between and before sleep.
Sugar gives us a lot of energy at first by spiking our glucose level (the ‘sugar high’ is real), and then it makes us really tired and cranky when the glucose level dips abruptly, leaving us always wanting more sugar. Some people get headaches or feel sick as a result of this blood sugar rollercoaster. Certainly, our bodies do not need so much sugar, and there are many easy ways to eat less of it.
You will feel better and be much healthier without it! And you can still eat the cake.
What exactly is sugar?
We think of sugar as a carbohydrate. Glucose, lactose, and fructose are sugar molecules. Another sugar molecule is sucrose, a mix of glucose and fructose. Whatever source comes from, sugar is processed the same way by our bodies.
Table sugar or refined sugar is sucrose, half glucose, and half fructose. High fructose corn syrup is about 45% glucose and 55% fructose.
“To me, sugar is the public enemy number one. Ingesting it consistently sets you up for inflammation and lays the groundwork for every flavor of modern distress from cancer, diabetes and heart disease, dementia and depression, to infertility, and acne, and more. “Frank Lipman, MD
Does quitting sugar mean that you will never ever touch sugar in your life again?
I think that’s an unreasonable expectation. There are naturally occurring sugars in many whole foods. Fruits, root vegetables, honey, and dark chocolate all have sugar in one form or another. But while some forms of sugar come with zero health benefits (like table sugar and high fructose corn syrup), some other forms, like dates and honey, come packed with fiber, nutrients and/or enzymes that have health benefits.
The idea is to educate ourselves and understand how much sugar we exactly consume every day, which sources we get it from, and in what form. It’s also important to know the consequences that eating too much sugar can have on our health.
According to the American Heart Association, the average American consumes 77 grams of sugar daily (20 teaspoons), more than three times the recommended amount for women. And shockingly, children consume 81 grams daily, more than the average adult!
Most of this sugar comes from:
- soft drinks – 25%
- fruit drinks – 11%
- sport/energy drinks – 3%
- coffee/tea – 7%
- snacks and sweets – 31%
- other sources (bread, sauces, dressings, etc) – 23%
See why giving up soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit juices, and sweetened coffee and tea, can have a huge impact on your life, even when you continue occasionally eating your favorite dessert?
I have met quite a few people addicted to soda. A male friend who rarely drank water and slept with a 2L bottle next to his bed, which he would sip from throughout the night. A girlfriend who had to go to rehab for this addiction; and even my husband, who when I met, was drinking a type of soda when he was thirsty, even during the night (he hasn’t touched one in 10 years).
I recently heard a very influential nutritionist say she doesn’t like to drink water, so she prefers sodas with flavors and artificial sweeteners. I can’t think of a more terrible advice ever given by a nutritionist.
Drink 3L of water daily, and you won’t need to drink anything else. We are made of water; our organs need water!
Read labels: there are 56 different names for sugar
I still vividly remember, about six years ago, before I started this journey, I was in Whole Foods with a yoga friend, during lunchtime, and I picked up a fresh, ‘healthy’ fruit juice, one of those that are marketed as the healthiest thing you can have in a supermarket.
She asked me: “Did you look at the label? These things have a lot of sugar.” We looked at the label together, and indeed, that healthy juice had over 20 grams of sugar. I think it was the first time someone made me pay attention to the nutritional label of a so-called ‘healthy’ food or drink.
To make things even more confusing, manufacturers hide the amount of sugar they add under no less than 56 names. A few examples below:
- High fructose corn syrup
- Cane sugar
- Coconut sugar
- Maple syrup
- Agave syrup
- Brown rice syrup
- Date syrup
Some of these names are wrongly perceived as healthier alternatives to sugar. Don’t be fooled. Too much sugar is too much, no matter the source!
How to actually read labels for sugar, step by step?
One of the most empowering things you can do for your health is to learn how to READ LABELS.
- First of all, look at the serving size.
- Look at total carbohydrates. Total carbohydrates tell you how much sugar is in one serving size.
- Look at the next line, which is fiber.
- Take away the fiber from the number of total carbohydrates, and you will get how many grams of sugar are in one serving size.
- There are 4 grams of carbohydrates in a teaspoon of sugar, so if you divide the number you get at the previous step by 4, you will get how many teaspoons of sugar are in that serving size.
Both bars in the below image are marketed or perceived as healthy.
The first one (white) has 15g of carbohydrates and 8g of fiber. So 7g of sugar (the label says 6g, I’m not sure why), of which 4g is added sugar, from Manuka honey which appears in the ingredient list. This is a good choice if you are looking for a healthy snack. Not only is it low in sugar, but the added sugar comes from an ingredient with nutritional value and health benefits. And the rest of the ingredients are healthy: macadamia nuts, blanched almond butter, inulin, coconut, sea salt, and monk fruit. Tocopherols are anti-oxydants.
The second one (green), a very popular brand marketed as healthy, has 27g of carbohydrates per serving and 2.7g of fiber. Very little fiber considering this bar is made of oats. It has listed 11.3g of added sugar, but if you make the calculation, it has 24.3g of sugar. Divide that by 4, and you get 6 teaspoons of sugar in just one snack bar. The ingredients are: 60% rolled oats, sugar, sunflower oil, 3% honey, salt, molasses, sunflower lecithin, sodium bicarbonate.
The ingredients are always listed in order of the amount used. In the second bar’s case, sugar is the second ingredient.
So you may think you are having an innocent snack, but you are having 6 teaspoons of sugar as a snack. No wonder most people are eating, on average, 20 teaspoons of sugar per day.
Why is sugar bad for you?
Sugar is one of the worst things for your health, hiding everywhere. But how exactly the consumption of sugar affects our health?
- Sugar has a devastating effect on our microbiome. The bad bacteria in your gut thrive on sugar, while the good bacteria don’t do well with simple sugars. They love complex sugars, or what we call fiber. It is well known that candida thrives on sugar, for example.
- The overconsumption of sugar drives Type 2 diabetes and obesity. So not only sugar makes weight management almost impossible, but it will lead to becoming insulin resistant and eventually developing Type 2 diabetes, a lifestyle, chronic disease.
- According to Healthline, more than 1 in 3 Americans (adults) were living with prediabetes in 2018, and 84% did not know they had it. Prediabetes is when blood sugar levels are higher than the normal range but not high enough to be considered diabetes. According to CDC (Centre for Disease Control), in 2018, 10.5% of American adults had diabetes.
- Sugar takes a big toll on our immune system. According to Dr. Steven Gundry, sugar suppresses your white blood cell function by 70% for up to 6 hours after you have that ‘healthy’ orange juice. There are 21 grams of sugar in one cup of orange juice.
- Sugar affects heart health. Elevated cholesterol comes from sugar consumption, not from fat. Sugar is converted into the first form of fat, triglycerides, so by lowering our sugar consumption, we will lower our triglycerides.
- Sugar affects brain health. According to Dr. Dale Bredesen, renowned neurologist and the creator of ReCODE, the first protocol to reverse Alzheimer’s disease, sugar damages your ability to support your synapses. When eating too much sugar, your brain becomes resistant to the insulin effects, which are critical for keeping your neurons alive.
- Sugar is addictive. If you think self-control and moderation are enough to kick your sugar addiction, you are wrong. It might sound surprising, but it’s really not your fault you are craving sugar, and you can’t stop eating it. In rat studies, it has been shown that sugar is more addictive than heroin and cocaine, which makes giving up sugar quite hard.
“The most disturbing fact about our addiction to sugar is that when we combine fructose and glucose (which we often do when we eat foods made with table sugar), the fructose might not do much to our blood sugar right away, but the accompanying glucose takes care of that – stimulating insulin secretion and alerting the fat cells to prepare for more storage. The more sugars we eat, the more we tell our bodies to transfer them to fat. This happens not only in the liver, leading to a condition called fatty liver disease, but elsewhere in the body as well. Hello, love handles, muffin tops, beer bellies, and the worst kind of fat of all – invisible visceral fat that hugs our vital organs.”Grain Brain, The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Bran’s Silent Killers, pg. 126, David Perlmutter, MD
How I quit sugar, step by step
NOTE: While I encourage you to stay flexible rather than having an all-or-nothing approach, when it comes to sugar, due to its addictive properties, it might be actually better to quit cold turkey, as I did. But please know my way it’s not the only way. If you manage to remove half of the sugar you already consume, you will definitely benefit from it.
I have to start with what was the trigger, the eye-opening event. That might be different for every person, but for me was reading The Plant Paradox book by Dr. Steven Gundry. The negative effects sugar has on our health were so well explained that I decided at the moment that I needed to change my lifestyle if I wanted to give my body the chance to heal.
I can’t say I was particularly addicted to sugar, and I was not drinking sodas or eating fast food desserts like donuts. But a tiramisu in my favorite restaurant? Gourmet cookies and muffins? Caramel popcorn? Some fruit juices and so-called healthy sodas? That’s another story. And like many of us, I was oblivious of how many forms sugar can take and that it’s everywhere.
So, this is my journey to a sugar-free lifestyle and, in general, a healthier lifestyle, broken down into steps that helped me start and sustain it:
- Reading about the negative effects sugar has on our health.
- Doing a pantry makeover.
- Removing most processed foods from my diet. Sugar is hidden everywhere, from ketchup to mustard, to salad dressings, to bread, to pickles, to yogurt, and so on.
- Learning about the safe alternatives to sugar.
- Exploring new ways of cooking without sugar (in my case, also gluten and lectins).
- Stopped senseless fruit eating. I only eat the fruit in season and low-sugar fruit in its whole form (exceptions sometimes when I use frozen berries, which are low sugar).
- I increased my intake of water (100oz/3L daily).
- I added a high variety of vegetables and foods rich in prebiotic fiber (which will feed your good gut bacteria and remove bad bacteria, reducing your cravings for sugar). I prioritized cruciferous vegetables, root vegetables, leafy greens, avocados, onions, sweet potatoes, asparagus, mushrooms, artichokes, olives etc.
- I started to eat moderate amounts of quality animal protein, species-appropriate raised and fed (not CAFOs).
- I improved my cooking skills (from cookbooks, cooking shows, or experimentation). I took it as a challenge to create a healthier version of any dish I liked or wanted to try.
- I started my day with a nutrient-dense, savory meal (as opposed to starting it with pastry or sweet cereals, which depletes us of energy).
- I stopped eating at least 4 hours before sleep.
- I studied and got my Health Coach certification from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in New York. This helped me in my own journey but also gave me the tools to help others.
This is what happened after I quit sugar
Did I feel amazing immediately after giving up sugar (and other negative lifestyle choices)? In many ways, yes. These are a few of the things that happened after I quit sugar:
- I lost all the extra weight and puffiness
- I gained flexibility and strength almost overnight (I was an Ashtanga yoga practitioner, so it was easy to see the progress in my daily practice); that was probably a result of lower inflammation in the body
- Period pain disappeared like magic after all my life I suffered from it (this was the AHA moment for me; I never thought that was possible, and when it happened, I was convinced I wanted to live this lifestyle forever).
- I felt more motivated and energetic, had more focus and clarity
- My skin cleared
- My daily heartburn resolved (I couldn’t go to sleep without an acid blocker, and I could only fall asleep on a high pillow)
- I stopped having cold sores and sore throat
- I have maintained my ideal weight for the past five years, being in my late 30s and early 40s.
- I haven’t taken any medicine for five years. Although I have occasional pain and days when I don’t feel my best, I never had to take a drug. I used to be addicted to Advil and sometimes the double yummy Advil and Claritin for allergy-like symptoms.
- I started this blog, and my own business, which you might think is unrelated, but it is. When you feel healthy, hopeful, and empowered to take care of your health, you also feel motivated and inspired to create things that make you happy.
However, when you give up sugar and all processed foods, you will certainly have one or a few sugar withdrawal episodes. Mine happened a few days after I started, and I fixed it with a couple of dry figs and a handful of nuts. I made sure I always carry a little pack of these with me in case it hits me again. For most people is weakness and headaches, maybe some body pains, depending on each individual. For me, it was sudden weakness, possibly a big dip in blood sugar, during the night.
Since I was also on a keto-ish diet (very low carb) for the very first time in my life, I experienced some keto flu symptoms for a few days (bad breath, excessive thirst, dry mouth, nausea, flu-like symptoms). It didn’t last long though, and after these episodes, I felt amazing.
60 months later, I’m writing this article, and I can’t imagine living any other way.
Five years without sweet treats? Hell, NO!
Ok, now let’s get back to reality. Do I want a life where there is no occasional sweet pleasure? No. I bet you too. I love cakes. I love to bake them, and I love to eat them. And luckily, there are ways to make healthier desserts without using sugar or even gluten. When I quit sugar, I also quit gluten and lectins, which means I had to work with alternative flours that are both gluten-free and lectin-free.
A word of caution, though. As mentioned earlier in this article, sugar comes in many forms, and sometimes even in the form of healthier flour alternatives, like tapioca, and cassava. So, even if you can make amazing desserts, consume them in moderation.
Six sugar-free, low-calorie, natural sweeteners
There must be a lot of confusion out there about what it means to be sugar-free.
What you should avoid at all costs: artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose. You might know them by these names: Sweet’N’Low, Equal, and Splenda. In a Duke University study in 2007, it was shown that one packet of Splenda, which is sucralose, will kill off 50% of your microbiome (your good gut bacteria).
What you can occasionally have as a treat, but know that it can cause a spike and drop in glucose levels and are not appropriate for people with insulin resistance, prediabetes, or diabetes: maple, dates, these types of natural sugars. And even if you are healthy, eating them can make you feel tired, groggy, cranky, lethargic, and brain-fogged.
Good quality dark chocolate, made with cacao mass, cacao butter, vanilla, and a little bit of sugar, is a great way to get over that sweet craving. Chocolate above 85% cacao has no more than 1g of sugar per square. And even if sometimes the suggested serving is half a tablet, and it has 6g of sugar, one square after a meal is more than enough to satisfy that sweet craving.
Alternatively, you find good quality dark chocolate that is 100% sugar-free, as it’s sweetened with non-caloric sweeteners such as stevia or monk fruit.
Sugar-free, low-calorie, natural sweeteners are a great alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners, even if you have insulin resistance, prediabetes, or diabetes. In fact, many doctors around the world recommend these sweeteners to people suffering from diabetes because they can offer you that sweet taste without spiking your blood sugar.
These are my favorites:
- Allulose (non-GMO)
- Monk Fruit
- Erythritol (Swerve brand as favorite as it also contains prebiotic oligosaccharides)
- Yacon Syrup
While there are already studies confirming that these sweeteners are generally safe, long-term safety and effectiveness still need to be studied.
Allulose, quite a recent addition to many experts’ favorite list of non-caloric natural sweeteners, is a rare form of sugar that was first discovered in figs. Allulose is so new that it is not yet approved by the European Union (at the time I’m writing this article, September 2022), but there are signs this will happen soon. It is, however, approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the US market. We soon should be seeing more sugar-free products – food and drinks – on the market containing allulose as a form of sweetener.
Allulose is almost 70% as sweet as sugar, so a little less sweet than sugar. Today, a lot of allulose is being produced, most of which comes from corn. For this reason, make sure you buy non-GMO allulose.
Allulose can be found in powder, granulated form, or syrup form and works well in baking and making ice cream or drizzling on top of pancakes and porridge.
Because allulose contains fiber, some people might experience minor, non-toxic abdominal discomfort when consuming it. As with all non-caloric, natural sweeteners, make sure you consume them in moderation, or rather small quantities, that would be enough to satisfy your sweet tooth without unpleasant side effects.
- Wholesome Sweeteners Allulose Zero Calorie Granulated Sweetener, No Glycemic Impact, Non GMO, Gluten Free & Vegan, 12 oz (Pack of 1)
- Wholesome Sweeteners Allulose Syrup, Zero Calorie Liquid Sweetener, No Glycemic Impact, Non-GMO, Keto Friendly, 11.5 Oz
What is monk fruit? Also called lo han guo or Buddha fruit, monk fruit is a small round green melon coming from southern China and named after the monks who first cultivated it centuries ago.
Its health benefits are well known in traditional Chinese medicine, but The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved its use as a sweetener only in 2010. Like allulose, at the time I write this article, monk fruit is still to be approved by the European Union.
Monk fruit sweetener is extracted from the dried fruit, and it is 150-250 times sweeter than table sugar. It has zero calories and carbs and does not raise blood glucose levels, hence is recommended for diabetics.
You can sweeten anything with monk fruit. In its granulated form, you can add it to cakes, desserts, coffee, teas, porridge, and pies, and in its liquid form, you can use it as a syrup for pancakes, crepes, and more. Monk fruit is one of my favorite sweeteners, and I missed it since I moved from the US to Europe.
The FDA concluded that monk fruit is “generally recognized as safe” for everyone, including pregnant women and children. However, there are no scientific studies yet on the long-term use effects. There are no known side effects.
Monk fruit has been traditionally used for thousands of years by the Chinese to make hot drinks for the treatment of sore throat and the removal of phlegm, and its anti-inflammatory properties have been confirmed in a 2011 study.
- Lakanto Organic Classic Monk Fruit Sweetener with Erythritol – White Sugar Substitute, Zero Calorie, Keto Diet Friendly, Zero Net Carbs, Baking, Sugar Replacement (Organic Classic White – 1 lb)
- Monk Fruit Sugar Substitute Keto Friendly Non-Glycemic Zero Calorie Golden Sweetener in 16 Oz pack 1:1 Ratio for Sugar Substitute Tastes just like Sugar
- Lakanto Sugar Free Maple Syrup – Monk Fruit Sweetener, Keto Diet Friendly, Vegan, 1g Net Carbs, Pancakes, Waffles, Oatmeal, Coffee, Tea, Granola, Frosting, Marinade, Dressing (13 Fl Oz – Pack of 1)
What is Inulin? Inulin is a type of dietary fiber found in more than 36.000 species of plants, such as chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, garlic, raw asparagus, raw onion pulp, wheat, and raw barley. Inulin is available as powder, in supplement form, or as an ingredient in protein bars, cereal bars, yogurts, other milk products, drinks, baked goods, and desserts. According to Dr. Steven Gundry, inulin “is probably the best prebiotic there is“.
Inulin helps improve digestive health and immunity, relieves constipation, helps manage high blood sugar, improves calcium and magnesium absorption and bone density, and, of course, helps with weight loss. Also, although the evidence is not so strong, some studies talked about other benefits of inulin for heart health, colon cancer, mineral absorption, and inflammatory bowel disease.
In small doses, inulin is safe for most people. However, if you are sensitive to FODMAPs, you might not tolerate inulin. Always start with small amounts and see how you feel. Because of the high amount of fiber, you might experience digestive discomfort until your body adjusts to the added fiber.
- Inulin Powder Organic for Prebiotic Fiber and Gut Health (12oz) by Kate Naturals. USDA Organic Prebiotic Powder for Vegan Baking, Gluten Free & Keto. Mix Well with Coffee & Smoothies
What is erythritol? Erythritol occurs naturally in some fruits, mushrooms, and fermented foods and belongs to the sugar-alcohols category (same as xylitol). The problem with sugar-alcohols is that they can cause digestive upset for some people. Erythritol is a good sugar substitute if you can tolerate it.
In my experience, people use too much of it when trying to replace sugar. For example, if they have a recipe that asks for one cup of sugar, they’ll replace it with one cup of erythritol. I would never do that. The most I ever added to a dessert was maybe 1/4 cup of sweetener, but I generally add 1, 2, or 3 tablespoons. When used this way, it will most likely not cause side effects.
Due to its low-calorie content and no impact on blood glucose levels, erythritol is recommended by doctors for people with diabetes.
What is Stevia? Stevia is a very old natural sweetener used to add sweetness to tea, and other beverages taste since the 16th century. The plant, part of the sunflower family, is originally from Paraguay and Brazil, but nowadays, it is also found in Japan and China (China is now the current leading exporter of stevia).
Stevia is a non-nutritive sweetener (it contains zero calories) and a herbal supplement. It tastes 200 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar, and it’s FDA and EU-approved alternative sweetener. If monk fruit is popular in the US, Erythritol and stevia are the most common non-caloric sweeteners in the European Union.
The most common way Stevia is sold is in a liquid form, in a very small bottle. Use one or a very few drops in your coffee or desserts where a granulated sweetener is not necessary. In a granulated form, stevia is usually mixed with erythritol or other sugar-alcohols.
The problem with stevia is the aftertaste, usually described as bitter. I have never experienced this problem; I guess this is because I always use the minimum for just a hint of sweetness. Also, the quality of the stevia product you are buying matters, and a more expensive product, from a reputable company will be of better quality.
Some popular brands of Stevia, like Sweet Leaf in the US, are mixed with inulin.
- SweetLeaf Natural Stevia Sweetener Powder Shaker, 4 Ounce
- SweetLeaf Sweet Drops Liquid Stevia Sweetener, SteviaClear, 4 Fl Oz (Pack of 2)
What is Yacon Syrup? Yacon Syrup is a natural sweetener extracted from the yacon root, which natively grows in the Andes mountains in South America, where it has been traditionally used for medicinal purposes. People there believed that Yacon Syrup’s properties benefited those suffering from diabetes and helped in kidney affections and digestive disorders.
The syrup has a dark color, and its consistency is similar to molasses.
The carbohydrate content in yacon is about 70 to 80 % fructooligosaccharides and inulin. These components have a low glycemic index and should not cause spikes in blood sugar. According to Nutrition by WebMD, yacon root is shown to be hypoglycemic and may decrease insulin resistance and serum insulin.
However, use yacon syrup with caution if you have diabetes. In general, use Yacon syrup in small quantities occasionally. Dr. Steven Gundry states that he has observed a rise in triglyceride levels in some people consuming yacon syrup.
I used to be a big fan of Yacon syrup at the beginning of my journey, but now I enjoy it only occasionally, with some pancakes.
- Blue Lily Organics – USDA Organic Yacon Syrup 8 fl oz, Alternative Sweetener, All Natural Sugar Substitutes, Prebiotic, Low Glycemic, & Antioxidant for Blood Glucose Control & Weight Management
Healthy Sweet Treats
There are at least 100 recipes for sweet treats on this website. You find them all in the HEALTHY SWEET TREATS category, under ALL RECIPES. Since I started my health journey, I have also published two books (the latest one to be released in January 2023, but available for pre-order):
- Everyday Low-Lectin Cookbook: More than 100 Recipes for Fast and Easy Comfort Food for Weight Loss and Peak Gut Health Paperback – available for preorder, to be released January 17, 2023
- The Living Well Without Lectins Cookbook: 100 Lectin-Free Recipes for Optimum Gut Health, Losing Weight, and Feeling Great Paperback – Illustrated, February 25, 2020
All the recipes in these books are sugar-free.
Any recipe you can think of can have a healthier version.
Need more help, or have questions?
If you have comments or questions or want to share your journey and what helped you quit sugar, feel free to leave a comment below.
*This post contains affiliated links, which means I get a small commission if you choose to purchase something via one of my links, at no extra cost to you.