Medically Reviewed by Dr Babar Shahzad, BSc and MBBS on January 10, 2020.
Sugary foods and drinks are everywhere. From chocolate to candy, ice cream, and cake, we are surrounded by foods that are packed with processed sugar every day of our lives.
Unfortunately, too much sugar has profoundly negative impacts on your overall health. Study after study shows that sugar affects everything from your heart health to your skin health, and so it’s important not to consume too much sugar.
Of course, it’s not that easy. Sugar is addictive in much the same way that recreational drugs are, and quitting it isn’t a simple feat.
With some planning ahead and a foundation of healthy habits, you can quit sugar and stay off it for good.
These nine steps will give you the best chance possible to succeed. But firstly, what is so damaging about sugar, and why is it so hard to quit?
Sugar Is Bad For Your Health
When you eat too much sugar, your body converts it to a storage form called glycogen. This process leaves behind LDL cholesterol, the “bad” kind of cholesterol, which can increase your blood pressure and your risk of heart disease (1, 2).
Drinking sugary beverages has been directly linked to an increased risk of heart disease in multiple scientific studies. Consuming excess sugar causes inflammation and increased LDL cholesterol in healthy people, thus exposing them to multiple kinds of health risks (3, 4).
Your skin health is also at risk when you eat too much sugar. Sugar causes the collagen and elastin proteins that keep your skin supple and healthy to grow links with each other. This process is called glycation, and it is a major factor in skin aging (8, 9).
Sugar addiction can even impair your cognitive functioning. The hippocampus, the area of the brain that is responsible for working memory and learning, is impaired by high-energy diets rich in sugar and saturated fats (10).
Cutting sugar out of your diet is a great way to improve your health. But, it’s often easier said than done.
Sugar Is Addictive
If you’re finding it hard to stop eating sugary foods, that’s no surprise. Eating sugar produces a very similar response to addictive drugs in both behavior and brain activity.
Behaviorally, the major indicators of drug addiction also apply to sugar. First up is bingeing, the inability to stop eating sugar, resulting in overconsumption. Suddenly quitting sugar can cause withdrawal symptoms like anxiety and irritability. Cravings can also happen, much like an alcoholic may feel highly compelled to have a drink. Finally, desensitization to sugar can happen, meaning you need more and more sugar over time to feel the same sense of reward (11).
Sugar addiction also mirrors drug addiction on a more fundamental level. A major component of drug addiction is the increase in dopamine in the brain that taking drugs causes (12). Eating sugar produces spikes in brain dopamine levels comparable to those induced by cocaine (13).
Eating sugar also causes the release of endorphins. The name ‘endorphin’ comes from a contraction of endogenous morphine, meaning an opioid naturally produced by the body. Endorphins act in the same way in your body as opioids like morphine, heroin, and oxycodone.
Evidence shows that excessive, repetitive sugar intake can result in a dependence on endorphins that mirrors addiction to recreational opioids (14).
Over time, eating sugar can even result in chemical changes in the brain that we usually see with drug addiction. This mostly refers to increased sensitization of the opioid and dopamine receptors in the brain, in effect, priming them for further consumption of sugar (15, 16).
9 Steps To Quit Sugar For Good
It’s not as simple as just cutting out sugar tomorrow and leaving it at that. Due to the addictive nature of sugar, it can be just as hard to stop eating it as it is to stop taking drugs or drinking alcohol.
These nine changes will put you on the path to quitting by naturally reducing your cravings and providing healthy alternatives. With a bit of effort, you can enjoy the benefits of a good diet and improve your overall health.
#1 – Improve Your Sleeping Habits
Healthy sleeping habits improve almost all aspects of your health, including our dietary choices.
When people are sleep-deprived, they tend to make poorer diet choices. They are more likely to overeat and select high-energy foods, including sugary snacks.
This behavior has been observed in several scientific studies, in which researchers stopped half of the study participants from sleeping the night before and then observed what food choices they made in the morning (17, 18).
Brain activity scans have found a possible mechanism by which this happens. A team of researchers found that when you don’t get enough sleep, brain activity goes up in the cortex, but down in the amygdala (19).
The cortex is responsible for weighing up food choices, like deciding between two different meal options based on how they taste, and how healthy they are.
Meanwhile, the amygdala is more involved with responding directly to the availability of food – it tells your body to eat what it can find, and the more energy in that food, the better.
When these changes happen, it makes it harder for you to make responsible food choices. So, it’s important to get plenty of sleep each night.
#2 – Watch What You Drink
We often focus on what we’re eating when we think about diet, but sugary drinks are often just as responsible for our sugar intake as sweet treats.
Obviously, soft drinks contain a lot of sugar, but other beverages can contain just as much. Sports drinks and fruit juices often contain just as much sugar as Coca-Cola (20).
It’s best to stick to water and plenty of it. Staying hydrated may have an effect on your food intake, much like sleeping properly.
Many people report feeling more full when they’re hydrated, suggesting that drinking enough water can reduce cravings for sugar (21). And, studies show that when you’re adequately hydrated, your food choices tend to improve. Children who are dehydrated chose foods that were higher in sugar and fat and ate more calories overall (22).
#3 – Form A Diet Plan
A lot of main meals tend to have better nutritional profiles than snacks. The foods with the most sugar are usually things like cookies, muffins, candy, and chocolate – things you eat impulsively throughout the day, rather than for lunch or dinner.
Writing down what you’re going to eat throughout the day will help you to manage those impulsive cravings and stay away from the sugar.
You don’t have to give up snacking – just incorporate some healthy snacks into your plan. These could include nuts, crackers with hummus, or carrot sticks with peanut butter.
Changing your behavior to improve your health is a process of self-regulation. You set goals and rules for yourself, then adhere to them to achieve your desired outcome. This is why the evidence shows that dietary changes are most effective when you make a plan for yourself, rather than just going ad hoc (23, 24).
#4 – Practice Mindfulness
Dietary slip-ups happen most often when we’re not quite present in our own minds. That means when we’re distracted, emotional, or tired.
The aim of mindfulness practices is to stay present in our minds all the time. When you’re mindful, you’re thinking through your choices instead of acting on impulse.
People can spend years practicing mindfulness, but you don’t need to become a master yogi or get up at sunrise to meditate to see benefits in terms of your sugar cravings and dietary choices. A quick, 15-minute walk can significantly improve your food choices, according to one study (25).
#5 – Eat More Bitter Foods
We humans have been busy ridding our diets of bitter flavors, preferring sugar, fat, and starch. From pasta and bread to sweet treats, meat, and cheese, our diets are filled with foods that avoid activating our bitter taste receptors in favor of more palatable ones.
That’s a shame because our bitter taste receptors actually play important roles in regulating our diet and digestion. We have many different kinds of bitter receptors throughout our gastrointestinal tract, and their stimulation produces a range of effects that can help us in quitting sugar.
Most importantly, stimulating bitter receptors reduces food intake overall, as well as helping people avoid high-calorie foods (26, 27). Scientists aren’t quite sure yet how important this regulatory mechanism is, but it’s certainly possible that our bitter taste receptors are crucial components of our bodies’ overall dietary regulation.
Eating more vegetables, especially leafy greens, is a good start – they naturally contain many bitter compounds. In the past, people ate a lot of roots, barks, and leaves that contained high concentrations of bitters, so another option is to look for bitter herb extracts like dandelion and burdock root.
#6 – Exercise Regularly
Working out is a very effective way to manage sugar cravings, and it also helps to counteract some of the negative health impacts that come with excess sugar consumption.
Both aerobic exercise and resistance training influence insulin, the hormone that controls your blood sugar levels (28, 29). As a result, glucose and fat stores in your body are mobilized during exercise. The result of this is a normalization of your blood sugar to a healthy level.
When your blood sugar levels are too low, you feel hungry. You can also feel anxious and tired, which can affect your mood. The combination of these factors can make you more likely to cave to an urge for a sugary snack.
Exercise has been shown by numerous studies to improve your mood. Apart from keeping your blood sugar where it’s supposed to be, working out releases endorphins. Some researchers have also suggested psychological reasons for the mood boost, like providing a distraction from negative thoughts (30)
Whatever the reason, improving your mood means you’ll be better able to resist sugar cravings. When you’re happy, you feel content, and you don’t need to reach for the chocolate to make yourself feel better.
#7 – Find Alternative Treat Foods
All of these strategies will help you to fight your sugar cravings and eat a more managed diet. But, everyone needs a treat every now and then.
A lot of tasty foods contain a lot of sugar, so it can be a challenge to find an alternative for your low-sugar diet.
Dark chocolate contains a lot less sugar than milk or white, and you can bake it into slices, muffins, and cookies to flavor them without needing to add a lot of sugar.
In fact, doing your own baking is a great way to make low-sugar tasty treats. Using banana or dates to sweeten your baking is a low-sugar alternative to putting in a lot of refined sugar.
If you’re not much of a baker, cafes, bakeries, and supermarkets are increasingly stocking low-sugar options. With a little looking around, you should be able to find something you find delicious that won’t ruin your diet plan.
#8 – Get Some Essential Oils
We know that the sense of smell can have an impact on your appetite. While it seems obvious – who doesn’t get hungry when they smell dinner cooking? – there are also studies that show people eating more or less depending on the scents they are exposed to (31).
You can use this fact to your advantage to beat your sugar cravings. Studies have shown that smelling strong non-food scents decrease your food cravings overall, so getting some essential oils for around the home is a good bet to stop you wanting to snack.
Some scents that work include jasmine and peppermint (32, 33). Essential oils can be applied anywhere, including on your person. Try applying the oils where you are when you feel the strongest cravings, such as your desk or your sofa while you’re watching TV.
#9 – Be Prepared For Withdrawal
In the case of a genuine addiction to sugar, you can experience withdrawal symptoms that can be unpleasant.
Physical symptoms include headaches and fatigue. Mentally, you may become irritable, anxious, or experience a reduced attention span and feel mentally foggy. These symptoms will only last for a few days, but it can be easy to succumb to them and relapse straight away (34).
It’s important to choose a good time to quit sugar. If you know you’re likely to be busy or stressed in the few days you’re likely to be experiencing withdrawal, you might want to think about choosing another time.
Choosing a period of a few days where you don’t have a whole lot to accomplish and when you are surrounded by friends or family is the best option. Remember, it will only last a few days. With support around you and healthy habits in place, you’ll give yourself the best chance to succeed.
Eating too much sugar isn’t great for the body, but it’s hard to quit. Sugar affects the brain, much like addictive drugs, so we should treat quitting sugar the same way.
The best way to quit sugar is to develop healthy habits that will naturally reduce your cravings for a sweet fix. Sleeping well, exercising and staying hydrated will go a long way. Meanwhile, you can add a couple of tricks to your repertoire by getting some essential oils and bitter herbal extracts.
Combine these strategies with an effective diet planning regime, and you will give yourself the best chance to quit sugar for good.