InStyle: How to Actually Cut Sugar Out of Your Diet

InStyle Sugar

Sorry J.Lo, but experts say a no-sugar challenge is not the way to go.

So you want to go on a sugar detox. Smart idea. Quick refresher: Sugar has been tied to weight gain, depression, and increased risk of pretty much every disease — and reducing your intake is suggested by every health professional worldwide. 

While nixing sweets from your eternal future sounds overwhelming, even cutting out sugar temporarily for a 'sugar reset' can help you kick the habit and find an overall healthier relationship with sugar in the long term, says Harley Pasternak, celeb trainer and co-founder of Sweetkick.

For those who consider themselves addicted, there's good news: It'll only take about two weeks off sugar for the cravings to quit, says Drew Ramsey, M.D. assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University who studies how nutrition affects mood disorders.

And if you make it a month, for most people that means they’ve found a sustainable way to eat sugar-free. But a lot of people relapse in the third or fourth week, he adds. Your best bet: Go in with a game plan.

Here are some general rules to make cutting back on sugar easier on your brain and body.

1. Don’t go cold turkey.
No-sugar challenges have become super popular (hey J.Lo!), but it’s not a great idea for most. Unless you’re already pretty strict about your sugar intake, trying to go to zero sugar will cause a crash, Dr. Ramsey says. Instead, aim to whittle your way down to getting just 10% of your daily calories from added sugar, which is what pretty much every governing body advises Americans aim for. (If you eat 1800 calories a day, that's 180 grams.) Once 10% feels sustainable (likely after four weeks), you can continue to chip away at that till it’s as low as possible. The American Heart Association, for example, advises capping added sugar at 6 teaspoons (25 grams) a day for women, which is just 2% of an 1800 calorie diet.

2. Give all fruits a pass.
Pasternak and Dr. Ramsey agree anything from nature still in its whole form is a-okay. Plus, the natural sugars are the best option to satisfy your sweet tooth. Don’t be fooled by processed versions, like dried fruit.

3. Remove all trigger foods from your pantry.
If it’s not there, you can’t eat it. That sounds basic, but it's the most crucial concept to master. Pasternak advises doing a house-wide clean-out — go through the fridge, freezer, and cupboards and read every label, tossing anything that has refined sugars. A massive purge also helps reduce the mental exhaustion of having to double check every ingredient when you go to cook dinner.

4. Look at everything.
And we mean everything. “Ketchup, barbecue sauce, most granolas, and most breakfast cereals are absolutely loaded with sugar,” Pasternak says. Other super common offenders you may think are safe: Greek yogurt, salad dressing, and even that tonic water you use in cocktails.

5. Rethink your drinks.
“Sugar-sweetened beverages are the first line of attack,” says Kimber Stanhope, Ph.D., R.D, research nutritional biologist with the University of California Davis and the SugarScience team at the University of California San Francisco. The most obvious, of course, is soda. But about two-thirds of coffee drinkers and one-third of tea drinkers put sugar or sugary flavorings in their drinks, says a 2017 study Public Health. Don’t forget about milk alternatives, either — most of the oat, soy, and almost milks used at a coffee shop are the sweetened variety.

6. Switch to a sugar alternative if you need.
Outside of whole fruit, we’re talking about a spectrum of evil, with added sugar and most artificial sweeteners topping the charts. Agave is surprisingly high up there, as it contains very high amounts of fructose and is typically too processed to earn the badge of a natural sweetener. The research is mixed on honey, but it’s wise to use it sparingly because it also has a high fructose content. Aspartame is surprisingly your healthiest bet if you aren’t going cold turkey. “There are no data to show aspartame has any negative effects on body weight or disease risk factors from more than 15 human studies lasting 2 weeks to 3 years,” Dr. Stanhope says. Don’t overdo it — there may be a connection between eating aspartame and cancer over time (jury’s still out, says the American Cancer Society). But in the short term, aspartame is certainly better than sugar-sweetened drinks and a better choice to get you off the fructose, Dr. Stanhope adds.

7. Get your co-workers on board.
Offices are one of the biggest diet busters thanks to Bagel Fridays and those amazing cookies your cube-mate has a never-ending stash of. “It’s that whole ‘it takes a village’ idea,” Dr. Stanhope says. At 3 p.m. when you’re getting hungry and your resistance is down from a long day, a conference room filled with pastries can be impossible even for the strong-willed to pass up. 

8. Make a list of swaps.
“There are lots of ways to have sweetness and carbohydrates in your diet and be healthy,” Dr. Ramsey says. Purple sweet potatoes, for example, are a deliciously sweet carbohydrate and a great swap for sugar-laden potato chips. Make a list of what you crave or snack on most and a healthier option with a similar palette — dark chocolate almonds for chocolate-covered pretzels, plain Greek yogurt with berries for ice cream, kombucha for soda.

9. Don’t even walk down the grocery store aisles.
As you probably know from scrolling Instagram, simply looking at pictures of sugar sets off an alarm in our brain. And functional MRI data has shown that those who had the most activation in the reward center of their brain when looking at pictures of sugar were also more likely to have gained weight two years later, Dr. Stanhope says. We’re trying to detox both your body and brain from sugar, so don’t even give it the opportunity to light up at a cereal box. Stick to the outer perimeter of the store as much as possible, which is most often where all the fresh food is.

10. Focus on protein and fat.
“Focusing on filling up on the right foods — namely quality protein and healthy fats — will prevent your blood sugar from dropping, which will make you want to reach for sugar,” Pasternak says. Nuts, avocados, and hard-boiled eggs all make for a quick, sugar-free blood-sugar stabilizer.

11. Look closely at your workout fuel.
Athletes have more tooth decay, gingivitis (an early indicator of gum disease), and gum inflammation despite high levels of brushing and flossing and regular dentist checkups — all because they consume so many sports drinks and gels which all contain sugar, says research out of Australia. Look at your running gels, protein bars, hydration drinks, and protein powders — all of which are often loaded with added sugars — and try and stick to only natural sweeteners like dates and fruit, Dr. Ramsey advises.