Going through the painful symptoms of sugar withdrawal can feel like hell, but I promise you things are way better on the other side.
Sugar is the new nicotine as it’s both highly addictive and very bad for you health.
There’s no doubt that sugar is on the same level of addictiveness as many drugs.
Every time you have sugar your body releases dopamine in the reward center of your brain.
Dopamine is hormone that basically tells your body whatever you just did or ate is worth getting more of again and again.
Drugs like cocaine, nicotine and heroin all give your brain a huge dopamine boost.
It’s crazy to go to the grocery store and see all the foods that have some kind of sugar in them. The latest data says at least 80% of them have sugar!
Sugar can come in various forms:
- dextrose, fructose & glucose
- high fructose corn syrup
- ethanol (beer & wine contain residual sugars)
- sucralose (Splenda)
- agave syrup (highly processed + 80% fructose)
- honey (raw honey in moderation is ok)
- stevia (completely safe in moderation)
Even dieting can be tough with a sweet tooth. You’ll be doing great on your diet then suddenly you have those cravings for sugar.
Then it’s only a matter of time before you give into those sugar cravings and end up throwing your diet out the window.
The average sugar intake in the U.S. is about 95g per day. This adds up to an astonishing 77 pounds a year.
This is pretty nuts when you consider the American Heart Association recommends a maximum sugar intake of:
- for adult males: 36g per day
- for adult females: 20g per day
- for kids: 12g per day
It’s not too surprising to see record highs of the leading causes of preventable death with obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Sugar is the silent killer we keep feeding into our mouths every day that tastes deceptively sweet but on the inside it’s tearing our bodies apart.
“If we are looking for a dietary cause of some of the ills of civilization, we should look at the most significant changes in the man’s diet.” – John Yudkin, The Lancet 1963
Why Sugar Is Bad For You
Humans have been around for thousands and thousands of years, but only in the 15th century did refined sugar start to become an increasingly bigger part of our diets.
Nowadays it seems like almost every food out there has sugar, or some form of it inside.
When you think about it food manufacturers want to sell more food to us so they can make more money.
So it’s a lot easier from a business perspective to just sell people what they really want instead of trying to get them to buy something they don’t.
This is why so many foods have sugar in them because it makes them taste better and we’ll buy more of them.
But our bodies didn’t evolve to eat sugar. At least no where near the rate we’re eating it today.
Sure, we’d have the occasional raw honey and some fruit in the late spring/summer, but for the most part we didn’t have access to this abundance in refined sugar.
Sugar not only tastes sweet on the way down it also causes your blood sugar levels to spike sky high.
This causes your body to release insulin bringing these elevated blood sugar levels back down to normal.
What happens next is known as the “crash” where your body hits rock bottom. Usually, your body will then crave more sugar to bring your blood sugar levels back up.
This is known as the blood sugar roller coaster ride your body goes through every time it has sugar and refined carbohydrates.
It’s essentially putting your body into a body fat storing mode as it releases hormones that promote belly fat gain and lean muscle loss.
See my favorites natural sugar alternatives you can use to substitute to help get rid of the sugar in your diet.
Sugar Withdrawal Is Real
Sugar is highly addictive and this study found it to be on the same level as drugs.
Just think that kicking your sugar habit will cause similar withdrawal symptoms of cocaine and alcohol.
We really have the food industry to blame for making it a staple of our modern diet.
50 years ago the sugar industry paid off scientists to point the finger at fat for causing weight gain and health problems.
When I was a kid I remember how bad the stigma of eating fat was yet it was okay to eat sugar, processed foods and refined carbohydrates all day long.
Heck, even the USDA Food Pyramid told us the bulk of our diet should be these refined carbohydrates.
I used to have a small addiction to sugar too.
I would crave eating a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal every day after kindergarten.
When my Mom sometimes wouldn’t let me eat it I would become highly irritable and throw a little tantrum.
Maybe I was just being a brat but I don’t remember throwing a tantrum like that for not getting to eat my vegetables.
When you have the time watch this talk by Dr. Lustig on Sugar: The Bitter Truth for more on the history of why sugar is making us fat.
Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms
I’ll be the first to admit that completely kicking your sugar habit is going to be no walk in the park.
Sugar is an addictive stimulant and your body will have to go through the detox process to totally eliminate it.
Some of the symptoms you could expect from withdrawing from sugar:
- sweat / chills
- fuzzy / foggy head
- increased / decrease appetite
It can be ridiculously hard going cold turkey off sugar that’s why I usually recommend my clients slowly taper themselves off instead.
I know we can get hyped up and all gung-ho with wanting sugar out of our body, but your long-term adherence will go up with slowly taking yourself off sugar.
If my clients are trying to kick their sugar habit I’ll first have them start simple such as only drinking half a can of soda for a week instead of the whole thing.
Then the next week I’ll have them stop with the soda completely.
With these smaller changes it makes it easier on them so they won’t experience the same level of sugar withdrawal as going completely cold turkey.
There’s nothing worse than starting a sugar detox only to make it a few days before you end up binging on sugar like that kid in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Binging is also a clear sign of drug abuse as you need more and more of the same substance to give you the same euphoric effect.
That’s a big reason why sugar is such a problem for us.
It’s not that we just eat some of it, but we eat A LOT of it.
Even this study by Neuroreport found rodents would voluntarily escalate their sugar intake daily to satisfy their dopamine needs.
Sugar Withdrawal Cravings
Having cravings is defined as an enhanced motivation to process an abused substance.”
Even though most of us wouldn’t rob a bank to get some sugar we will go out of our way to get it once those cravings start to hit.
You’ll feel like you’re going crazy you want sugar so bad. I’ll provide some tips later with ways to beat these withdrawal cravings.
For most people this is going to be the hardest part of detoxing off sugar. Those cravings can be hard to beat. Use this 3 day detox to lose weight to help get you kickstarted.
Sugar has also been found to be a gateway to drinking alcohol. So not only are we eating too much sugar but we then want to follow it up some booze.
If you are going to end up drinking see my list of the best and worst drinks in my alcohol and weight loss blog post.
You’re going to want to limit your alcohol intake to maximize weight loss but I know everybody has a drink now and then so it’s best to minimize the damage.
Breaking a sugar addiction can be hard and lead to other bad behavior.
This study found rodents who were addicted to sugar were also much more willing to self-administer cocaine than less addicted ones.
I’m not implying you’re going to start doing cocaine just because you like sugar, but you get my point.
There are going to be some who are going to have a hard time dealing with sugar withdrawals, but the key is tapering yourself and sticking with it.
Sugar Withdrawal Headaches
Headaches are another common symptom of sugar withdrawal that just about everybody goes through.
Any kind of stimulant your body is used to will give you a headache for 2-5 days coming off it.
Same as if you gave up caffeine you will end up having a headache for a handful of days.
You’ll have this headache as your body adjusts to not having the constant flow of sugar and refined carbohydrates.
Instead try filling your body with protein and fats for food to keep yourself from binging on sugar.
Make sure you’re drinking a lot of water as well to stay hydrated. Sometimes when you have those hunger pains your body really just wants some water.
You can also have a little bit of fruit in moderation to help satisfy those sugar cravings.
The good thing about fruit is the sugar is natural and there is a lot of fiber in fruits to slow the absorption so the fructose doesn’t spike your blood sugar levels.
Whenever I’m craving sugar I’ll grab a handful of low calorie berries and just eat those instead. I’ll notice my sugar cravings have gone down dramatically.
Just make sure you don’t overdo it with the fruit and keep it low in moderation.
Sugar Withdrawal Anxiety & Depression
There are quite a few of us who have symptoms of anxiety and depression when they’re withdrawing from sugar.
They experience similar withdrawals as drug addicts who are getting off of opiates.
They have decreased body temperature with elevated feelings of aggression and anxiety.
When your body is used to getting “the high” from sugar and when you suddenly take it away your body will be at the bottom for a while.
This 2002 study in Obesity Research found sugar withdrawals to be similar to high-dose opiates.
They saw signs of anxiety in rodents such as teeth-chattering, tremors and head shakes.
In another study they found rodents were much more likely to be depressed while withdrawing from a high sugar diet.
When they put the rodents into water the non-sugar addicted rodents would swim to shore but the ones going through sugar withdrawal would just stay there and float.
The researchers shared this was a clear sign of depression and they even found rodents to have aggressive behavior when having these sugar withdrawals.
Sugar Withdrawal Weight Loss
Losing weight isn’t just about calories in, calories out.
Stabilizing your blood sugar levels is also a big part of the weight loss process.
The more you eat sugar the more you’re putting your body through these harsh spikes in blood sugar.
There isn’t much doubt left these days that sugar is linked to weight gain, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
As sugar intake has increased 500% in the last 50 years we’ve also seen increasingly record levels of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
When you get rid of sugar in your diet you can fully expect to not only lose weight but drop body fat as well.
Your body will be leaner and more toned than if you just lost weight by severely restricting your calories.
Those spikes in blood sugar cause your body to store more fat and lose more lean muscle.
This is why you see some people who may appear to be thin but they’re really just skinny fat with a squishy and weak body.
Be sure to also eliminate high fructose corn syrup from your diet as it will cause you to gain weight.
High fructose corn syrup is digested differently and has different metabolic effects than the natural sugar in fruit.
A big problem with high fructose corn syrup is it’s digested farther down in your intestines where glucose releases insulin from the pancreas.
High fructose corn syrup makes you gain weight from reducing circulating insulin and leptin levels in your body.
This causes you to not have those feelings of being full after a meal leading you to want to eat more calories.
Sugar Withdrawal Tips
Being prepared when you kick the sugar habit is going to be absolutely key.
Having all your healthy meals pre-cooked and ready to go will make sticking to your sugar-free diet much easier.
Also getting rid of all the bad foods that have sugar and refined carbohydrates will make things easy on yourself.
I have a rule that if it’s in the house you’re going to eat it.
When going through sugar withdrawals the cravings at times can seem overwhelming then it’s time to go for a run and workout.
This can help you take your mind off of things and help to exert some of the tension in your body when you have sugar withdrawals.
Sometimes when you’re craving sugar it’ll help to drink something that has some kind of taste to it.
I’d go with one of these weight loss drinks that will to ease these sugar cravings, but will also help you stay on the right track.
Coffee of course is okay too as long as you’re not putting any sugar or artificial sweeteners in it.
This goes for Splenda!
These artificial sweeteners are just as bad if not worst for you with gaining weight.
You can also take a tablespoon or two of apple cider vinegar mixed into a glass of water to make you feel fuller and get rid of those cravings.
Lastly, find yourself some kind of support group that can help keep you on track and motivated.
Going through sugar withdrawals can be rough for anybody so if you have someone there in your corner it can really help to save you.
Even if you just find one person to do it with you the odds of you sticking with it go up significantly.
Withdrawing from sugar can feel like you’re going through hell, but I can promise you you’ll come out much better on the other side.
You’ll not only lose weight and look great but you’ll have more energy, think clearer and have a stronger immune system.
A lot of the time we’re not only just addicted to the sugar but we’re also filling an emotional void by eating this poison.
Getting things right in your life can really help to prevent emotional eating that always leads back to sugar and refined carbohydrates.
Sometimes when I’m training a client they’ll get frustrated they haven’t lost much weight even though they’re sticking to the diet plan I made them.
After some inquisiting I’ll find they’re still eating a lot of sugar.
It’s only when they finally stop eating so much sugar and refined carbohydrates do they really start to see the weight fall off.
There are going to be times when it’s extremely difficult to not eat sugar while you’re detoxing from it, but cravings will gradually go away.
You’ll no longer be going through the sugar withdrawal and will come out feeling great on the other side.
Josh holds a Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and he’s a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) by American Council on Exercise. He’s worked as a Strength and Conditioning Coach at the high school and college levels. He has over 15 years of experience as a personal trainer and nutrition coach. He strives to bring inspiration and results for people to live healthier lives through smart diet and exercise.