Sometimes, making healthy choices is easy—I mean, it doesn’t sound so terrible to take more baths, have more orgasms, or go on more vacations in the name of wellness, right? But in other cases, like cutting back on sugar, doing what’s good for you can be really rough.
Sure, you likely know by now that phasing out the sweet stuff is a good idea, but the prospect of making such a massive dietary change is enough to freak anyone out. If you’ve delayed your plans due to fear of the unknown, don’t stress—according to Ian K. Smith, MD, breaking up with added sweeteners isn’t as torturous as it sounds, even for the most hardcore dessert-lover.
“If you’re able to gradually reduce your sugar intake and replace it with something else, you can stay off of it [indefinitely].”
“The truth is, if you’re able to gradually reduce your sugar intake and replace it with something else—like more fiber and more protein—you can stay off of it [indefinitely],” says Dr. Smith, the author of the book Blast the Sugar Out.
He adds that it really helps to know what to expect during the course of a come down, so that if you do hit a rough patch, you’ll have the foresight to not let it throw you off course altogether. Because the end result is pretty, well, sweet.
First thing’s first: According to Dr. Smith, no one can technically “quit” sugar, since it’s the fuel our bodies run on and is present in lots of healthy foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Instead, it’s about learning how to eat the sweet stuff in moderation, since even if you think your diet’s healthy, you’re probably getting more sugar than you should.
While there are lots of methods for kicking the habit—like a three-day starter detox—Dr. Smith recommends weaning yourself off over the course of five weeks, decreasing your consumption by around 20 percent every seven days. By the end, you’ll have shaved off about two-thirds of your average sugar intake from when you start. And as long as you stay under the recommended daily intake of 25 grams on most days, you can still have ice cream every now and then. Not so bad, right?
Here’s what happens to your body when you cut back sugar.
Week 1: Expect less energy and ‘withdrawal’ (but it’s temporary!)
Okay, let’s get the bad news out of the way first: Dr. Smith warns that you should brace yourself for withdrawal symptoms during the first three to five days of reducing sugar. “The first thing people notice is they typically get headaches, similar to caffeine withdrawal,” he says. “They also report having decreased energy levels and mental acuity, as well as gastrointestinal distress.”
It’s not totally clear why this happens from a biochemical standpoint, but research shows that giving up sugar creates a similar reaction in the body as ditching drugs. Dopamine levels fall, while acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that regulates pain perception, rises—and this chemical combination is said to be linked to withdrawal symptoms.
Science aside, it’s important to remember this phase is only temporary. Dr. Smith says, “Not everyone experiences it, and if you do, you have to believe that it’s going to get better.”
If it all becomes too much to bear, he recommends eating some fruit to take the edge off—some options are lower in sugar than others, so stock up on options that won’t give you a glycemic spike.
Week 2: Your energy returns, but your sugar cravings persist
By the time your second week starts, your brain fog has probably lifted and you’ve likely got a lot of your energy back. But your body might still be wondering where all the sucrose went.
“In week two, most people talk about residual cravings,” Dr. Smith explains. “They’re beyond the withdrawal symptoms, but they’re missing certain types of sugary substances.” (Hey, it can take a while to acclimate to keto “fat bombs” if you’re used to Chunky Monkey.)
To combat this, he says, make sure you’re eating plenty of protein, healthy fats, and fiber with each meal, which will help you feel fuller, longer. Healthy snacks will also help—like the smoothie Karlie Kloss swears by when she’s jonesing for dessert.
Week 3: Sugar ‘withdrawal’ should be over
You’re halfway through the game, which means you’ve likely ditched the biggest sugar offenders. Maybe you’ve given up rosé for LaCroix, switched to unsweetened almond milk, or stocked up on plain Greek yogurt rather than fruity flavors.
Prepare to be rewarded for your efforts. Week three is when you really start reaping the benefits of that low-sugar life. “People usually have no cravings, no symptoms, and are losing weight,” Dr. Smith says. (That’s because excess sugar is stored in the body as fat—and when the surplus goes away, so does the weight gain.) “They feel energized and encouraged that they can actually do this.”
You may also find your taste buds are hyper-sensitized to anything sweet at this point, making cupcakes a lot easier to turn down when they cross your path.
Week 4: Your sugar levels are low, but you’ve never felt better
After a month, the game you’re playing with glucose is more mental than physical. “This is a psychological week—that final, purifying push,” Dr. Smith says. “While you’re still having some sugar, the amount you’re having is less than any of the previous weeks.”
Now’s the point in your detox when you might be hearing that sweet siren song in your head. Turn down the volume by scouring nutrition labels for sneaky, hidden sources of sugar to ensure you’re not inadvertently feeding your sweet tooth. You might want to start with your salad dressings, juices, and instant oatmeal. For this week, you should also favor low-glycemic fruits and opt for zero-added-sugar meals as much as possible.
Week 5 and beyond: Maintaining your low-sugar habits
By now, you’ll probably find that your relationship with sugar is a lot healthier than it was when you started—you’re more of a friendly acquaintance than an obsessive stalker. “From a psychological standpoint, you realize you don’t need sugar anymore,” says Dr. Smith. “You also understand the affect sugar once had on your body, because you feel so reinvigorated in week five.”
Going forward, it’s okay to have some sugar here and there, but to think of it as a treat, rather than a mainstay of your diet. “Portion control is very important, and you want to stay away from added sugars,” he advises. “But after five weeks, you should have no problem making smart decisions.”
Celebratory unicorn lattes for everyone! (Just hold the sprinkles.)