How to end your sugar addiction

Story highlights

  • Just like some hard-core drugs, getting off sugar leads to withdrawal and cravings
  • It helps to create an actual detox plan to get off sugar

It's 3 p.m., and the sugar cravings are relentless. I've tried satisfying them with a handful of fresh blueberries and some chocolate-covered espresso beans that I found in the back of my desk drawer. But I'm still struggling not to sabotage my withdrawal progress with a chocolate shake from In-N-Out Burger. I fantasize about the sugar hitting my bloodstream and soothing my nerves. Instead, I stand in my pantry brainstorming possible alternatives: A pinch of coconut. A spoonful of raspberry jam. A swig of maple syrup.

I'm in really bad shape.
    We all know about the negative effects of sugar. (The list keeps growing: Weight gain, increased blood pressure and cholesterol levels — plus a higher risk for diabetes, cancer and heart disease.) So like many others, I've forced myself to get used to drinking my iced coffee black and watch out for added sugar in my pasta sauce and yogurt. But in a quest to lose 10 pounds, I've pledged to go cold turkey.
    Although some experts recommend scaling down your sugar fix over time, registered dietician Carole Bartolotto believes that cutting it out altogether is the best way to get through a detox. "It's worse for some people than others," she says. "I personally can't do moderation. If I take one bite, it sets me up to want more. But it really helps to remember that the cravings eventually do go away."
    Despite my best efforts, a week later, during my first Sunday "cheat" day, I find myself at a party, tempted by mango-basil and strawberry-mint mojitos. And then there's the red velvet gluten-free cupcake with cream cheese frosting that the hostess bought just for me. I give in. But the sugar urges don't end when the party does. The next morning I have to fight off a craving for cronuts.

    Sugar, an addiction, really?

    My overwhelming sugar cravings make sense when you consider that research shows you can actually get hooked on the sweet stuff. Scientists have found that sugar is addictive and stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain as cocaine or heroin. Just like those hard-core drugs, getting off sugar leads to withdrawal and cravings, requiring an actual detox process to wean off.
    It's not uncommon to find yourself feeling like a mess a day or so into a sugar detox. Princeton researchers who fed rats sugar water discovered that they ended up bingeing on it. When the rats were deprived, their feel-good brain chemical dopamine dropped, and they suffered from anxiety and the shakes. Except for headaches, I've had all the classic withdrawal symptoms: the blah mood, anxiety, fatigue — and daydreams of bathing in a pool of Cinnabon frosting.

    Hooked on the taste

    If you had any doubts about the ability of sugar to wreak havoc on your tastebuds, consider this study as evidence. Bartolotto asked 20 people from Kaiser Permanente's California facilities to cut out all added sugars and artificial sweeteners for two weeks. As a result, their tolerance for that sweet taste completely changed. A whopping 95% of subjects reported that the foods and drinks they used to consume now tasted "sweeter." Over half reported that the intense cravings stopped after two to three days, and 87% no longer felt withdrawal effects after six days.
    Another advantage of detoxing: You'll reset your palate, Bartolotto says. Not only will you require less sugar to feel satisfied (the recommended amount is six teaspoons per day for women and nine teaspoons for men), you'll appreciate the flavors of food more, she says.
    Here's how to manage your cravings and get to the other side of your detox.

    4 ways to fight your sugar addiction

    1. Sub whole fruit for sweets

    Fruit contains fructose, which is metabolized differently than gummi bears — and it's still a satisfying treat. But be careful to restrict your intake to a few servings a day. Eating too much has been linked to increased belly fat, which increases your chance of type 2 diabetes. Also, go easy on grapes or cherries, which have high sugar content, says Bartolotto. Some patients can't stop popping them, she says.

    2. Ditch artificial sweeteners

    Although diet soda or sugar-free gum has been known to help many dieters get through a rough patch, Bartolotto advises cutting out aspartame, sucralose, saccharine — even stevia — since large amounts can make you desire sweet food. "It actually changes your palate, so you need more and more to feel satisfied," she says. Perhaps that's why this Purdue study found a link between increased consumption of the fake stuff and weight gain.

    3. Clean house

    That means getting rid of any sugary temptations at home and work (including that old Halloween candy). "We can't control all the environments we're in, but we want to control the ones we can," explains Adam Gilbert, a weight loss coach who founded the program My Body Tutor. "We don't get bonus points for using hero-like willpower."

    4. Create a backup plan

    If sugar cravings feel uncontrollable, think proactively about what kind of distraction will help you overcome them. "Eat a piece of fruit. Go for a walk. Listen to some music. Call or text a friend. Read a fun article," offers Gilbert. "Knowing what we're going to do ahead of time is what makes all the difference."

    5. Manage your magnesium levels

    Craving chocolate in particular? Research shows this reaction may be particularly common among people deficient in the mineral magnesium (ask your doctor to check your levels). Head off cravings by eating plenty of magnesium-rich dark leafy greens, tofu, legumes and nuts. (Check out this list.)
    You know what ultimately helped me? Actually eating the chocolate I was craving. Yep, I resorted to one of the oldest dieting tricks out there: Indulging in a square of super dark chocolate. By the third day, the cravings had stopped, and I enjoyed the food on my program — including a decadent fresh peach — rather than wishing for a processed sugar bomb. I also had more energy and didn't struggle as much through my yoga class. As for my next cheat day... I resolved that it would be sugar-free.