How To: Quit Sugar

Photo from Shape Magazine

Most of us are aware that sugar (defined, in this case, as refined or added sugar) is far from ideal for our health. However, the extent to just how badly refined sugar affects our health (mental, emotional, physical) is vastly and scarily unknown.

I’m not going to go into the physical effects of sugar here and now (although you can read all about it here, here and here… for a start) — instead, we’re going to focus on addiction.

When we consume sugar, our brain receptors fire up, particularly in our cerebral cortex, which in turn alerts our “reward system.” Other things that fire up this part of our brain include sex, drugs and social contact. This essentially means that, chemically, consuming sugar causes a release in dopamine, thereby telling our body to continue consuming sugar again, and again.

Addiction to sugar is  chemically and biologically indisputable. In fact, studies in rats have shown that sugar activates the brain more than cocaine does. Results in humans are staggeringly similar.

The receptors in our brain are not, however, the only receptors that sugar manipulates. After we consume sugary foods, the foods naturally travel down towards our stomach. Within our stomach are receptors that tell our brains when we’re full, when to stop eating, and whether we are in need of any more insulin in order to regulate our blood sugar levels. Sugar, however, prevents our brains from truly knowing when we are full; it masks our ability to detect our own satiation, making it far easier to overeat.

In America (and realistically, most of the world sugar dominates our diet more than we care to acknowledge. Some different names for sugar on food labels include glucose, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, maltose, lactose, starch and dextrose. In fact, there’s approximately 61 different names on food labels in America, all of which are essentially the same thing: refined sugar.

But how do we avoid sugar? Most of us are also aware that sugar is in everything, and by everything, I mean everything: bread, pasta sauce, sushi, low-fat yogurt, milk, canned soups, canned baked beans, salad dressing, flavored oatmeal, granola bars… The list is endless.

The trick to “quitting sugar” (because yes, quitting sugar is often as difficult as quitting smoking or other drugs) lies less in avoiding the sugar — although that’s a key part — and more in reducing your desires and craving for sugary sweet tastes every day.

  1. Research. I promise you, the more you know about sugar, the more turned off by the substance you’re going to be, and therefore, the less likely you are to choose to invest in it each day. Plus, understanding why you’re quitting sugar, rather than simply trusting me or your doctor blindly, will help you justify yourself when everyone stares at you wide-eyed saying, “What?? You’re quitting sugar? You’re crazy!” Check the bottom of the article for the resources used here, as well as my top sugar documentaries to watch.

  2. Clean out your fridge. Wherever possible (I know a lot of us live in dorms or houses with shared kitchens), get rid of all your junk food — or “healthy” food that actually contains sugar. Most of the time we turn to these food in or around our 3 p.m. slump — but if they’re not there, you can’t eat them! (You’ll thank me one day, I promise.)

  3. Know what’s coming for you. If you consume a lot of sugar on the daily (perhaps more than you initially thought, with all those unhealthy health foods lying to you), then you realistically need to brace yourself for the detoxifying process that is about to occur. Naturally, and like with any addictive substance, you will probably experience headaches, strong cravings, exhaustion and sluggishness — however, these feelings are temporary. Once your body has cleared itself of all its sugar, and regulated your internal functioning again, you’’ discover long-term, sustainable energy, regulated moods and heightened focus — much more heightened than before you quit sugar, I promise.

  4. Eat enough food. It’s so important to make sure that you continue to eat the same amount of food as you always have. Sugar-free foods tend to be lower in calories than those laden with refined sugars and sweeteners, so make sure you’re full, eating a wide range of foods (carbs are not bad for you, so long as they’re not laden with refined sugar!) and don’t let yourself go hungry — that’s when the cravings will get to you.

  5. Get enough sleep. Given that you’re going to be feeling lethargic anyway, this one should be easy. Make sure you get at least eight hours of sleep each night as you make this change. A lack of sleep one night can increase your likelihood of giving in to cravings the next day.

  6. Avoid sweeteners. If at all possible, stay away from things like stevia, agave or other more natural sweeteners. While these may not have as dire consequences on your body as more chemically refined sugar, they still satisfy your sweet cravings, which in the long term make it difficult to actually stop craving sweetness on a daily basis.

  7. Work together. Find someone who is equally as interested in quitting sugar, be it for similar or different reasons, and stick together. Talk about how you’re feeling, keep each other on track, be honest and find cool places to eat together. In this case, the best thing about being in Los Angeles is that there are so many sugar-free cafes, restaurants, take-out places that are delicious, hip and affordable — get exploring!

At the end of the day, quitting sugar is going to be difficult. Nobody can deny that. However, once you realize that the rewards for fighting through that difficulty far outweigh the long-term consequences of keeping sugar as a part of your lifestyle, you will be successful. It all comes down to you.

For more information about the effects of sugar, you can read about it here. Or you can watch the following documentaries: That Sugar Film, Fed Up, Sugar Coated, Hungry for Change, The Price of Sugar.


Annabel Hickey is sophomore majoring in creative writing. Her column, How To, runs every other week on Fridays.