When my health started to decline seven years ago, I knew I had to change something with my lifestyle. I was packing pounds by the day despite all my efforts to eat (what I thought was) a healthy diet, the ‘everything in moderation’ kind of diet. My doctor told me it’s normal to gain weight as a woman in her late 30s. Sounds familiar?
Read on if you want to learn why you are addicted to sugar, how to quit sugar, and how to maintain this healthy habit without feeling miserable and giving up the joy of eating a delicious cake.
The moment I started eliminating all the inflammatory foods in my diet, including sugar, my body regained her balance, and those extra pounds and puffiness melted away. I started to feel like myself again. It’s been almost six years since I quit sugar, and I don’t have the slightest desire ever to start again. Not only I built a lifestyle that is supportive of my health and happiness, but I became a health coach to understand how I can help others to create and sustain good habits.
We eat too much sugar, and we don’t even know it
While a cake every now in a while would be acceptable, most people eat too much sugar, and most of it unknowingly. They eat sweet foods all day: 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, feel sick or feel like they want to nap due to this blood sugar rollercoaster.
Certainly, our bodies do not need so much of it, and there are many easy ways to eat less of it. Removing sugar from your diet, even if only partially, is the best thing you can do for your health.
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
Education – key to quitting sugar addiction
To quit sugar addiction, you first need to understand why there is a sugar addiction in the first place. Get curious about how your body works and what sugar does to your health. Find out the answers to these questions:
- What is sugar?
- How much sugar do you eat, and from what sources?
- What happens in your body when you eat sugar?
- What happens in your body when you quit eating sugar?
- How long does it take to quit sugar?
- How can you maintain such a lifestyle change and not feel miserable?
- What are the safe alternatives to sugar, and why should you re-educate your taste buds and your palate?
Where does sugar come from in your diet?
There are naturally occurring sugars in many whole foods. Wanting to eat the sweet stuff is natural. Fruits, root vegetables, honey, and dark chocolate all have natural sugars 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, reducing your sugar intake considerably, 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 soda addiction; and even my husband, who, when I met him, 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 more terrible advice ever given by a nutritionist.
Drink plenty 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?
It is one of the worst things for your health, hiding everywhere. But how exactly the consumption of it affects our health?
- It 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 does it make weight management almost impossible, but it will lead to insulin resistance and eventually the development of 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.
- It takes a big toll on our immune system. According to Dr. Steven Gundry, it 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.
- It affects heart health. Elevated cholesterol comes from sugar consumption, not from fat. It is converted into the first form of fat, triglycerides, so by lowering our sugar consumption, we will lower our triglycerides.
- It affects brain health. According to Dr. Dale Bredesen, renowned neurologist and the creator of ReCODE, the first protocol to reverse Alzheimer’s disease, it 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.
- It 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 it, and you can’t stop eating it. In rat studies, it has been shown that it 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 to 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 it 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.
If you want a guide on how to start giving up sugar, including an easy meal plan for three days, check out my 3-Day Cleanse to Lose Belly Fat (and Feel Better!).
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:
- 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 six years, being in my late 30s and early 40s.
- I haven’t taken any medicine for six 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 and packaged 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.
Six 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.
What natural sweeteners do I use in my baking, and are they safe?
But first, stay away from these artificial sweeteners:
You might know them by these names: Sweet’N’Low, Equal, and Splenda.
What can occasionally be a source of sweetness in tiny quantities:
- Pure honey, preferably local (produced by bees close to where you live, or Manuka honey), one teaspoon a day
- Pure maple syrup
- Good quality dark chocolate (above 85% cacao), which is made with sugar, but only has about 2 grams of sugar per serving.
- Small quantities of dried dates, figs, or other unsweetened dry fruits
- In-season low, sugar fruits (like berries; I also use frozen berries outside the season, but I’m not insulin resistant or prediabetic)
Most of these are probably out of the discussion if you are prediabetic, diabetic, or insulin-resistant. Agave syrup, coconut sugar, and brown sugar are still sugar. If in doubt, get a glucose monitor and measure your blood glucose after you eat one of these.
There are seven sugar-free, natural sweeteners that are low-calorie and generally considered SAFE:
- Allulose (non-GMO)
- Monk Fruit
- Erythritol (and Xylitol)
- Yacon Syrup
- Bocha Sweet
This post was updated in March 2023 after the mainstream media had misleadingly interpreted a controversial study about erythritol.
To read more about this study and these seven natural sweeteners, why they are safe, and how to use them, please read my article:
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 December 2022, 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.
Check out our recipe round-up of sugar-free desserts that are also gluten-free and lectin-free: 30+ Healthy Sugar-Free Dessert Recipes.
Need more help, or have questions?
If you have comments or questions on how to quit sugar 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.