Brain health is undermined by cravings driven by the addictive qualities of foods with added sugar and refined carbs. Here’s a plan to stop eating sugar.
Eating a brain-healthy diet is a critical lifestyle factor for brain health and performance.
And it’s no surprise that foods with added sugar and refined carbs are not a part of a brain-healthy diet.
But sugar cravings (and the way processed foods are made) make it hard to resist these foods.
Relying on willpower alone is futile since it’s a limited resource that gets used up. (1)
Before you know it, you’ve got your head in the fridge or cupboard looking for something sweet.
Addressing the underlying causes of sugar cravings is the only effective long-term diet solution for brain health.
Why It’s So Hard to Stop Eating Sugar
Having an occasional craving for sugar or refined carbohydrates is normal.
It’s a signal that your energy reserves have dipped too low.
But being driven by sugar cravings day in and day out is not normal, or healthy.
These foods put your blood sugar level on a roller coaster ride that accelerates your sugar cravings.
It’s not surprising that food manufacturers add sugar to make food taste good.
But another reason they add it is to keep you coming back for more.
Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, reveals in his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us that food manufacturers like Kraft and Nestlé make processed foods intentionally addictive.
" Some research indicates that sugar may be as addictive as heroin and cocaine.
They hire teams of scientists to create products that achieve a perfect blend of salt, sugar, fat, and additives known as the “bliss point” — the formula that makes these foods irresistible to the human palate.
They add sugar to a whopping 74% of packaged foods. (4)
They also give millions of dollars in funding to researchers to “encourage” them to downplay the link between sugar, obesity, and disease.
Your willpower alone doesn’t stand a chance against the powerful processed food industry.
Is Sugar Addictive?
The jury is still out on whether sugar qualifies as a truly addictive substance, but there’s a lot of evidence that suggests it does.
White sugar is an isolated chemical with no nutritive value that is more drug-like than food-like.
Addictive substances (alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and drugs) cause your brain to release a burst of natural opioids and dopamine, the brain chemical in charge of your pleasure-reward system.
Sugar likewise floods your brain with these feel-good chemicals.
Some research indicates that sugar may be as addictive as heroin and cocaine. (5)
Sugar addiction is not yet recognized as a psychological disorder by either the American Psychiatric Association or the World Health Organization.
But the latest research supports that sugar addiction is real. (6)
Sugar exhibits all the hallmarks of an addictive substance:
- You can’t eat sugar in moderation.
- You often have more than you planned.
- You consume mindlessly, not really enjoying it.
- You eat it to the point of feeling unwell.
- You think about sugar even when you are full.
- You feel guilty after eating, but immediately want more anyway.
- Your eating feels out of control.
- You lie about or hide how many sweets you eat from others.
Do any of these sugar addiction symptoms sound familiar to you?
If so, you may have a sugar addiction.
How to Stop Sugar Cravings
The next time you feel like your sugar cravings are a sign of weakness, don’t beat yourself up.
Keep in mind that powerful forces have spent billions of dollars figuring out how to hijack your taste buds and your brain.
But this doesn’t mean that you are helpless to regain control of your cravings.
There are two “simple but not easy” things you must do to stop sugar cravings for good:
- Get processed foods with added sugar out of your diet.
- Replace processed foods with real foods naturally high in protein, healthy fats, and fiber.
Your diet should include plenty of high-quality protein like grass-fed meat, wild seafood, and eggs, and healthy fats like nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, and avocados.
These foods help you feel full and satisfied.
Eat as many non-starchy vegetables as you like and eat whole fruit (not juice) and starchy vegetables in moderation.
Plant foods contain fiber that slows digestion, makes you feel full, absorbs nutrients, and feeds your intestines’ good bacteria. (7)
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8 Steps to Quit Eating Sugar
So the key to stopping sugar cravings is to quit eating sugar — but this is much easier said than done.
Here’s a step-by-step plan to get sugar out of your life.
1. Take a Food Inventory
Take inventory of all the foods you regularly eat to ferret out hidden sources of sugar.
Then, get any foods that contain sugar out of the house so that they won’t tempt you.
This won’t be easy!
Sugar goes by dozens of other names and is often a hidden ingredient.
According to SugarScience.org, there are over 60 alternative names for added sugar.
Here are some sugar alternatives you might come across:
- agave nectar
- barley malt
- beet sugar
- brown sugar
- buttered syrup
- cane juice, juice crystals or sugar
- carob syrup
- coconut sugar
- confectioner’s or powdered sugar
- corn sugar, syrup or sweetener
- corn sweetener
- crystalline fructose
- date sugar
- fruit juice or fruit juice concentrate
- glucose or glucose solids
- golden sugar or syrup
- grape sugar
- high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- invert sugar
- malt syrup
- maple syrup or sugar
- raw sugar
- refiner’s syrup
- rice syrup
- sorghum syrup
- turbinado sugar
Any food item that comes in a box, can, bottle, or package, even if you buy it at a health food store, is a potential source of sugar.
This includes seemingly healthy foods like energy bars, dry cereal, fruit juice, smoothies, whole grain bread, multigrain crackers, condiments, and yogurt.
Make it a habit to read all food labels carefully.
2. Switch to Healthy Sweeteners
Unfortunately, not all natural sweeteners are healthy.
Agave nectar, which once showed great promise to be the next big healthy sweetener, turns out to be no better than white sugar. (8)
Maple syrup is basically sugar with some tasty phytochemicals that impart its unique flavor.
Honey contains roughly equal parts fructose and glucose — the same composition as white sugar.
Raw, unfiltered honey does have the benefit of containing trace enzymes, minerals, amino acids, and B vitamins as well as having anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, antiviral, and antiseptic properties. (9)
So you can use it sparingly provided it doesn’t seem to trigger cravings.
So what else can you use?
My favorite healthy natural sugar alternative is stevia.
It comes from the leaves of an herb (Stevia rebaudiana) and derives its flavor from a sweet but non-caloric protein.
It’s 200 times sweeter than sugar, but doesn’t increase blood sugar or create an insulin spike.
Read labels carefully when buying stevia since, disappointingly, some products also contain sugar.
Monk Fruit (luo han guo)
Another lesser-known natural sweetener is luo han guo or monk fruit (Siraitia grosvenorii).
Monk fruit is new to most Americans, but this small subtropical melon has been cultivated in Asia for hundreds of years.
Powdered monk fruit is 200 times sweeter than sugar.
As with stevia, read labels carefully because some brands contain additional sweeteners.
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3. Create a Sugar-Free Meal Plan
Next, you need to replace foods that contain added sugar with healthier versions.
Especially for the first few weeks of your sugar detox, I suggest creating a meal plan.
If you aren’t sure where to begin, you won’t go wrong following a Mediterranean diet which is widely considered the healthiest eating plan of all.
These foods will keep you full and satisfied and keep sugar cravings to a minimum.
Or you might want to check out the MIND diet, a version of the Mediterranean diet found to protect the brain against aging and cognitive decline.
4. Avoid Wheat
I can hear you groan.
Now I’m asking you to give up another food you love!
But giving up wheat, in fact, makes giving up sugar easier.
Bread, even when it’s whole wheat, has a glycemic index score as high as that of white sugar. (10)
This can spike your blood sugar and ignite cravings.
I’ve found avoiding wheat to be a surprisingly effective way to reduce sugar cravings.
5. Switch to Healthy Drinks
Drinking sugary drinks is one of the worst things you can do for your health.
The American Heart Association reports that 180,000 annual deaths worldwide are caused by sugary beverages. (11)
Sugary drinks deposit fat right around your waist.
This kind of fat, also known as visceral fat, is particularly unhealthy and causes inflammation, an underlying cause of a multitude of diseases. (12)
Instead, drink water, natural mineral water, herbal teas, or one of our favorite superstar beverages — green tea, yerba mate, or matcha.
Green tea is particularly helpful when you’re weaning off sugar since it contains l-theanine which has a calming effect.
Be mindful that while you are cutting back on sugar, you may be slashing your caffeine consumption as well since many sodas, coffee drinks, and energy drinks are loaded with caffeine.
While you are quitting sugar is not the time to inadvertently quit caffeine as well unless you are determined to get all your suffering over at once. 🙁
6. Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
Don’t think that switching from regular to diet soda is the answer.
Like sugar, artificial sweeteners hijack your brain’s reward center making you crave more sweets. (13)
Additionally, artificial sweeteners have been linked to a long list of health complaints including anxiety, depression, brain fog, migraines, intestinal distress, and rashes. (14)
Ironically, they almost certainly aren’t helping you lose weight either. (15)
7. Harness the Power of Your Brain
Cravings and addictions start in the brain.
So why not put the power of your brain to work for you?
There’s a wide variety of mind-body healing techniques that can be used to minimize cravings, reduce withdrawal symptoms, and ease the stress of transition.
Some of the most accomplished people on the planet — athletes, entrepreneurs, and astronauts — use these methods to achieve their goals:
8. Try Supplements That Suppress Carb Cravings
Sometimes changing diet alone isn’t enough to sufficiently blunt sugar and carb cravings.
If you need a little help, here are the top supplements to consider.
Some work by diminishing your desire for sugar, while others work by providing missing essential nutrients that contribute to cravings.
Cravings can be your body’s way of telling you that you need more nutrients.
Counterintuitively, people that are overweight are also likely to be malnourished. (16)
A body starving for nutrients keeps sending signals that it needs more food — until it gets the nutrients it needs.
Common nutritional deficiencies that contribute to sugar cravings include magnesium, chromium, omega-3 fatty acids, and B complex vitamins. (17)
5-HTP is a popular supplement for anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
It’s a precursor to both the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin and the sleep hormone melatonin.
5-HTP is not a supplement we recommend often since it’s not intended for long-term use and should not be mixed with many medications. (18)
However, it really does the trick to reduce sugar cravings.
You should notice the effects almost immediately.
If you’re concerned about the downsides of 5-HTP, consider a tryptophan supplement instead.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that’s a precursor to 5-HTP and found mainly in animal protein foods.
Tryptophan more readily enters the brain than 5-HTP and also effectively lowers carb cravings. (19)
Chromium supplements are taken to balance blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity in those with diabetes or pre-diabetes.
Ninety percent of Americans are low in this essential trace mineral with seniors and those who eat a lot of processed food being most at risk for deficiency. (20)
One study found that chromium supplementation significantly reduced carb cravings and mood swings in 65% of those who tried it. (21)
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Glutamine is an amino acid that’s found in abundance in the central nervous system. (22)
It’s a precursor to the calming neurotransmitter GABA which is essential for feeling happy and relaxed.
Glutamine also provides the brain with an alternative source of energy to glucose, the brain’s usual fuel. (23)
Glutamine usually comes as a powder that you mix with water.
You can take it every few hours as needed to help stabilize blood sugar levels and banish cravings for sugar.
It works for alcohol cravings as well. (24)
You can also take whey protein powder which is usually a good source of glutamine.
Gymnema sylvestre is a tropical plant from Asia that’s been used to treat diabetes for over 2,000 years. (25)
It’s considered a blood sugar balancer so it’s useful for people with either hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia.
It goes by the common names gurmar (which means “sugar destroyer”) and miracle fruit.
For anyone with a sweet tooth or diabetes, this herb is almost a miracle.
Gymnema contains compounds called saponins that suppress the ability to taste sweetness. (26)
It also reduces the intestine’s ability to absorb sugar molecules, thus lowering blood sugar levels. (27)
Gymnema seems to reduce appetite to help with both food cravings and general appetite control. (28)
Sugar Craving Tips From the Experts
Here are some additional tips for lessening sugar cravings from some renowned health authorities:
Andrew Weil, MD
Dr. Andrew Weil is a Harvard graduate, pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, and founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.
He recommends eating more bitter foods like olives, endive, radicchio, and cooked greens which can balance your desire for sweets.
He advocates mind-body techniques like hypnosis and breathing exercises to reduce the stress that leads to emotional eating. (29)
Mark Hyman, MD
Dr. Mark Hyman is the Head of Strategy and Innovation at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine and author of The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet.
He believes that sugar is a true addiction and that it’s best to quit cold turkey just as a substance abuser would. (30)
Carolyn C. Ross MD, MPH
Eating disorder expert Dr. Carolyn C. Ross suggests getting more sleep, managing stress, and listening to what your cravings are trying to tell you about your life. (31)
Other tips include hanging out with others who eat healthily, avoiding emotional triggers, and liberally using spices like cinnamon to liven up foods and control blood sugar levels.
Avoid artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame — they confuse the brain and actually increase appetite and hunger. (32)
If you must sweeten your foods, switch to natural non-caloric sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit instead.
Chocolate Cravings: A Special Case
As cravings go, chocolate is in a class of its own.
Chocolate is one of the most commonly craved foods, especially by women.
There is even a word for someone who craves chocolate — a chocoholic.
There’s a long-standing myth that chocolate cravings indicate a need for magnesium.
But this is basically an excuse to eat more chocolate since green leafy vegetables, nuts, and seeds are equally good sources of magnesium.
While chocolate offers many health benefits, don’t use that as an excuse to binge on it.
The added sugar in your favorite chocolate bars can spark sugar cravings.
I was disturbed to learn that my favorite small (1.65 ounce) dark chocolate bar contained a whopping 5 teaspoons of added sugar.
There are sugar-free versions of chocolate.
Many contain sugar alcohols, but I prefer chocolate sweetened with stevia.
Also, you can make your own sugar-free chocolate snacks with cocoa powder or cacao nibs.
Both of these provide the same health benefits as the darkest chocolate with no added sugar.
Underlying Health Conditions That Contribute to Sugar Cravings
Diabetes, hypoglycemia, hormone imbalances, thyroid disorders, candida overgrowth, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and enzyme deficiencies can all be a root cause of sugar addiction and cravings.
You may also experience sugar cravings from eating foods to which you are allergic, sensitive, or intolerant.
If you suspect that you have any of these conditions, discuss this with your health care professional to know for sure.
Addressing an underlying condition may be the final piece of the puzzle in solving your sugar cravings.
What to Expect: Symptoms of Sugar Withdrawal
You may be one of the lucky ones who sails through their sugar detox with few problems.
But most people have symptoms very similar to those that occur when quitting caffeine.
Don’t be alarmed if you experience headache, body aches and pains, mood swings, fatigue, or a resurgence of cravings.
The length of time it will take you to get through withdrawal depends on many factors: how much sugar you normally consume, how abruptly you stop, and your unique physiology.
Most people are over the hump within a few days, but for others, it can take a few weeks to feel back to normal.
How to Stop Sugar Cravings: Take the Next Step
Sugar cravings can derail your best intentions to eat a brain-healthy diet.
To end sugar cravings, stop eating simple, refined carbohydrates and processed foods that contain added sugar in all its various forms.
Emphasize healthy proteins and fats, eat vegetables in abundance, and fruit in moderation.
Keep healthy food on hand for emergency cravings and consider using supplements to diminish your interest in refined carbs.
Lastly, make sure that you meet all your basic nutritional needs for vitamins, minerals, and essential fats.