Reset Your Sugar Cravings with a 30-Day Sugar Fast

The health benefits of giving up all added sugar for a month—or more

Photo by PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay.

Sugar seems to be in everything. From jars of tomato sauce to sliced bread, Americans are hard-pressed to find prepackaged foods of just about any sort that don’t contain sugar in one form or another.

Given the popularity of quick, easy, pre-made snacks and meals (one study concluded that as many as 75% of foods and beverages in the United States contain some kind of added sugar), it’s clear that many of us are addicted to the substance.

I, for one, never stood a chance at resisting sugar: my mother was a baker for most of my childhood and adolescence, and there was never a lack of desserts in the house, whether they came in the form of fudge, chocolate chip cookies, or her unrivaled carrot cake.

But while I enjoyed all the sweet goodness available around the clock, the truth about sugar became shockingly evident as I got older: it’s not good for my body, and it’s far too easy to overindulge in it. That meant that my health suffered.

But if sugar is ubiquitous, how could I possibly remove it from my diet without going hungry? I was determined to find out.

So I did some research and discovered a way to cut all added sugar out of my diet for 30 days. Ultimately this abstinence had benefits for my health, my mindset, and my self-discipline, ranging from increased energy to a massively decreased obsession with sweets. After my sugar fast, I found that I was satisfied with small amounts of sweets, and I gave up some of them completely.


A Primer on Sugar and Other Sweeteners

There is such a thing as “good” sugar—it is that which is found naturally in fresh fruits and vegetables. Those foods also contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and there’s no need for most people to cut them out, even during a sugar fast.

While small amounts of added sugar won’t do a significant amount of harm to your health, it’s easy to go overboard. Just look at this statistic from a study by the National Cancer Institute: most people over 19 consume more than 16 teaspoons of sugar a day—over a third of a cup. That’s a lot of sugar!

All that consumption may have something to do with the fact that sugar is an addictive substance. It produces a chemical response in our brains very similar to that caused by opioids or other similar substances. Sugar causes a dopamine reaction that keeps us coming back for more, which can lead to a whole slew of other health problems.

One study found a significant relationship between added sugar consumption and an increased risk for mortality from cardiovascular disease. The risks of developing type 2 diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, and depression also rise with excess sugar consumption.

Eating too much sugar also contributes to weight gain and causes insulin resistance and elevated insulin levels. Part of the result is that your body starts thinking it’s hungry when it’s not, and so you eat more. All the while, excess fat is being stored instead of burned as energy.

The good news? Decreasing sugar intake has the opposite effect, reducing both weight and the risk of serious health concerns.

Natural vs. Artificial Sweeteners

For a time, many Americans thought choosing artificial, low- or no-calorie sweeteners to be a no-brainer. Diet sodas and no-sugar-added foods packed grocery store shelves. But studies have increasingly shown that these sweeteners aren’t any better for us than cane or beet sugar.

For starters, artificial sweeteners may actually trick us into craving more sweets. In the San Antonio Heart Study, participants who drank more than 21 diet drinks per week were twice as likely to become overweight or obese as people who didn’t drink diet soda. And in another study, daily consumption of diet drinks was associated with a 36 percent greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which is associated with heart disease, and a 67 percent increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes—rates much like those seen with natural sugar.

Finally, artificial sweeteners can be just as addictive as sugar. In one famous study, lab rats chose the sweetness of saccharine over cocaine.


What to Cut Out

As you can see, it’s not just natural sugar that does harm to our bodies and causes addiction. Any added sweetener, from natural varieties like honey, agave, and maple syrup to lab-created sweeteners like Sweet’n Low, Splenda, and Equal, can have detrimental effects on our health—and sugar cravings.

That means that in order to conduct a proper sugar fast, you should abstain from all forms of it. Diet Coke is just as bad as regular when it comes to addiction, and though blood sugar may not spike as high with agave as with cane sugar, it still produces a significant insulin reaction.

There are plenty more names added sweeteners go by, and they show up in many different products. When trying to cut added sugar out of your diet, watch out for these terms to make sure manufacturers aren’t sneaking in added sweeteners under a lesser-known term:

  • Sucrose
  • Fructose
  • High-fructose (corn syrup)
  • Glucose
  • Agave
  • Molasses
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Treacle
  • Sorghum
  • Maltodextrin
  • Aspartame (Equal)
  • Saccharine (Sweet’n Low)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • Stevia (Truvia)
  • Honey

If a product contains even a gram or two of any of these, leave it on the shelf.

I recommend that you also ditch fruit juice. It may not seem unhealthy per se, but juice contains none of the healthy fiber of whole fruit, so it’s best to avoid it.

Eat as much fresh fruit as you want, but beware of fruit packed in juice or heavy syrup, or dried fruit like cranberries or raisins, as sugar is concentrated in and sometimes even added to these foods. That goes for dates too, a popular source of sugar in natural sweet treats.

Most alcohol also contains a significant amount of sugar, so a sugar fast might be a good time to simultaneously perform a little booze detox. If you think you can only handle denying yourself one unhealthy substance at a time, stick with small amounts of distilled alcohol like vodka, rum, or gin. Beware of cocktail mixers, however, as most contain sugar.


Prepping for Your Sugar Fast

Spend a few days before you begin your fast purging cabinets of all the junk that contains added sugar. Eat it, give it to friends and family, whatever: just get it out of the house. If you know it’s there, you’re more likely to give in to cravings and undo all of your hard work and progress.

This will be harder when there are children in the house or you have roommates whose diets you may not be able to control, but if your roommate whips up a batch of cupcakes in the middle of your fast like mine did, the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” is an appropriate one. Ask those living with you to stash the sweets so you don’t see them every time you walk through the kitchen.

To be sure, some foods will be harder than others to cut out. For me, knowing I would have to eliminate bread from my diet was a stressful thought. I wasn’t sure how I’d handle my morning coffee either. I never put much sugar in it, but I simply never drank it without, so I was curious to see how I’d adapt (quickly, as it turned out).

Giving up orange juice and sweet breakfast foods like pancakes was also a concern, but in the end, I found that most of these things could be replaced with sugarless substitutes. For me, that meant putting more unsweetened almond milk in my coffee instead of sugar and drinking that at breakfast instead of juice. I also found savory breakfast recipes to replace my sweet go-to’s and made a considerable stack of homemade naan and tortillas before the fast began to keep in the fridge or freezer.


What to Eat Instead of Sugar

Since many of the foods we eat contain added sweeteners, the hardest part of a sugar fast is often figuring out what to eat instead. Frozen dinners, potato chips, salsa, and even canned vegetables sometimes contain added sweeteners, which makes it difficult to find store-bought items that are entirely free of added sugar. The solution is to get creative and plan meals in advance.

This might require more cooking from scratch than you’re used to, but while fasting from sugar, try planning and making several meals at a time so there’s always something to eat and you’re not as tempted to give in and reach for the granola bar in the back of the cupboard. I looked for natural, whole-food recipes and prepped servings large enough to yield leftovers.

Then, because our busy lives don’t always allow time for home cooking, learn what ingredient swaps you can make for quick and easy meals. Nearly all bread contains sugar, but many tortillas don’t. Instead of canned fruit or fruit cups, try fresh fruit as a midday snack. And if you always slather protein in BBQ sauce, try buffalo sauce instead.

Here are some ideas for sugar-free meals that worked for me:

Breakfast

  • Overnight oats with cinnamon, vanilla, strawberries, and chia seeds (sans honey)
  • Protein shake with banana, unsweetened peanut butter, almond milk, and unflavored protein powder
  • Savory steel-cut oats with cheese, bacon bits, salt, and pepper
  • Raw sweet potato slices topped with avocado, tomato, salt, and pepper

Lunch

  • Hummus and veggie wrap in a whole-wheat tortilla
  • Refried bean and egg or tofu scramble tacos
  • Kale or spinach salad with fried tempeh, edamame, tomatoes, corn, pumpkin seeds, and oil and vinegar
  • Black bean soup with avocado and crackers

Dinner

  • Stirfry with brown rice, frozen vegetables, and a protein of choice
  • Whole wheat pasta with pesto
  • Sweet potato mash with roasted tofu or chicken
  • Cauliflower steaks with roasted pumpkin seeds and butternut squash soup

When a craving for something sweet hits, reach for a banana or apple with unsweetened peanut butter or try your hand at baking sugar-free cookies using banana, oats, and peanut butter (like these). I made them once or twice during my fast when a textural craving hit and I wanted something warm, soft, and chewy. Don’t go overboard and bake a batch every night, but it’s a treat that will do in a pinch without undoing all your hard work.

You may be surprised by what you can come up with and how a little natural sweetness can go a long way, especially as your sweet tooth adapts.


What to Do When Out and About

While there’s a certain level of ease that comes with preparing your own meals at home, most of us don’t eat at home or by ourselves all of the time. We go out with friends, have drinks with coworkers, attend parties, and sit down to family dinner. That’s when eschewing sugar gets tricky.

It helps to spend a few days eating and grocery shopping on your own so you have time to figure out what foods do and don’t contain sugar. Then you can prepare for some situations by having substitutions at the ready. For example, if you know tortilla chips and your favorite brand of salsa don’t contain sugar, then bring those items (or another sugar-free snack you’ve prepared) to a party so you know you’ll have something to munch on.

Restaurants are a bit trickier, but after spending a few days reading ingredient labels, you’ll know, for example, that tacos are less likely to contain sugar than sushi, pizza, or pasta with red sauce.

As for family dinner, let those you’ll be dining with know about your mission, as well as why you’re doing it, and be prepared to simply pass on items with added sugar, like rolls or salad covered in vinaigrette. It will help to bring a dish or two to share so you know you’ll be able to participate in the meal even if everything else on the table contains added sugar. And when dessert is served, grab a piece of fresh fruit instead of pie or other sweets.


What to Expect When Ditching Sugar

Now that you know what to eat and avoid, you should also know this: the first few days of a sugar fast are far from easy.

On one hand, you’ll likely experience all the steadfast resolve of a new commitment. On the other hand, you’ll probably go through withdrawals like I did.

Since our bodies react to sugar in much the same way as they do to many other addictive substances — from caffeine to cocaine — expect some adverse side effects from quitting cold turkey. Symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Extreme cravings
  • Headaches
  • Moodiness

Fortunately, those symptoms will likely only last the first few days. But even after the first week, things will only get moderately easier. There’s not much you can do to combat these side effects except ensure you’re still consuming enough calories (not eating anything or trying to restrict other foods will just make your cravings worse) and soldier on.

Always keep healthy snacks like fruit and nuts on hand, but be careful not to combat fatigue with too much additional caffeine, as that rarely assuages cravings or the side effects of withdrawal.

I tried meditating and setting time aside to relax and do things I enjoyed, like reading. Make sure also that you’re getting enough sleep — eight hours is ideal — so unpleasant side effects aren’t exacerbated.

If you’re lucky, week two will pass largely without complaint or incident; you won’t have been fasting from sugar long enough to start losing your mind with cravings, but you’ll be over the first-week hump of undesirable side effects.

But if week two could be compared to cruising along a well-paved bike path on a new 10-speed, week three might be akin to an uphill push on a fixed-speed. I found that cravings returned. All I thought about were cupcakes and truffles and candy bars. You might feel like counting the days until you’re permitted to consume sweets again.

Then, just like that, week four will roll around, and you’ll be back to cruising. In fact, I felt great during this time. Elevated energy and mental clarity are two common benefits of cutting down on sugar, and you may notice that you’re sleeping better. As the last day of your scheduled fast approaches, you may even find yourself wondering if you want to break it at all. For me, it seemed such a waste to throw away all this hard work on one moment of sugary indulgence.


Long-Term Effects

As it turned out, breaking the fast — which I did with half of a homemade chocolate chip cookie — didn’t undo those 30 days of fasting after all.

In fact, the results were quite astonishing. Not only could I not finish a whole cookie, but for a whole month afterward I could only manage a few bites of sweet treats without becoming overwhelmed with sweetness. Now I needed far less sugar to ease cravings, and what’s more, most of my cravings had subsided substantially. Whereas I used to sit on the sofa thinking of nothing but dessert, it was now a fleeting consideration that I could willingly take or leave.

Most people will return to eating sugar after the fast is complete. I did. But if you feel great and decide to keep it going for another month, year, or even a lifetime, all the better!

Even if your sugar fast lasts only a month, consider continuing to limit your intake. This will be far easier to do than it was before you started, and you’ll be more aware of where sneaky sugar is hiding in store-bought foods and ingredients. You’ll feel more in control of your diet and cravings and more capable of abstaining.

To be sure, I saw benefits to my diet far longer than a few weeks post-experiment. Years after that first 30-day sugar fast, I still have not returned to drinking orange juice in the morning or sweetening my coffee. Only unsweetened almond milk goes in my cart these days, and I often opt to make my own snack bars and protein bars instead of purchasing sugar-loaded varieties from the grocery store. I’m also much more conscious of labels: if sugar is one of the first four ingredients (and it’s not cookies), I don’t buy it.


Reset Your Sugar Cravings

To hit reset on sugar cravings and jumpstart a healthier program of eating, consider this your prescription:

  • Cut out all added sugar for 30 days
  • Replace sugary foods with naturally sweet whole foods
  • Plan meals in advance
  • Be prepared with unsweetened snacks

Your body will thank you with the energy, longevity, and health that are rarely attainable from a sugar-loaded diet.

Ultimately, this fast is about whole body health—and the ability to enjoy the sweeter things in life more acutely with a reset tolerance and a new outlook on indulgence.