Sugar elimination diets are increasing in popularity the world over. Many of these diets not only cut out refined carbohydrates and sugars, artificial flavours, colours and preservatives, but also omit wholegrains, starchy vegetables, fruits and natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup. Let’s explore whether you need to cut all the sweetness out of your life to obtain good health.
Is sugar a dietary villain?
Sugar has been labelled a dietary villain and a cause of many of our health concerns in the media. Some have even declared that sugar is addictive and stimulates the same pleasure receptors in the brain as cocaine.
Unfortunately, the messages we receive about sugar have been oversimplified and sensationalised to present a specific view on sugar. This can lead to extreme diets that do not take a balanced view of nutrition and our relationship with food.
Refined sugar is not a necessary part of our diet
One of the issues with oversimplification of the research on sugar is the distinction between refined sugar and the sugars that form the building blocks of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy.
Unlike whole foods, refined sugar has been stripped of the very vitamins and minerals that are required for its metabolism. For this reason, consuming excess refined sugar can deplete the body of vitamins and minerals and can displace nutritious foods.
Therefore, most dietary guidelines recommend people reduce consumption of refined sugar, and there are no negative nutritional consequences with eliminating it from your diet.
Consuming excess refined sugar can deplete the body of vitamins and minerals and can displace nutritious foods.
Natural sugars are an essential part of our diet
Conversely, the sugars as found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains are essential to our life. They are packaged with vitamins and minerals that are essential for metabolism and provide energy to our brain. Substantially limiting sugars in the diet can result in mood issues, depression, fatigue and poor sleep. This is not a surprise as the brain requires sugars to function, and sugars are essential for transportation of the amino acid tryptophan into the brain, where it is converted to serotonin and then melatonin, our good mood and sleep hormones, respectively.
Is there such a thing as a sugar ‘detox’?
Proponents of sugar detoxes proclaim that you may experience headaches due to detoxifying effects of reducing sugar in the diet. They recommend you ‘soldier on’, as it's worth it to reduce your cravings and/or dependency on sugar. However, there is no scientific evidence of a sugar detox effect on the brain. Rather, the symptoms attributed to sugar detoxing, such as headaches, tiredness or moodiness, are more likely the result of the brain receiving insufficient sugar. Unfortunately, ‘soldiering on’ is unlikely to have any significant health effects for an otherwise healthy individual, and could be risky for those with low blood pressure or blood sugar, metabolic disorders or other health conditions.
An effect of depriving ourselves of all things sweet may be experiencing immense cravings that can result in unnecessary guilt and shame should we eat a piece of fruit or chocolate whilst on a sugar detox, or overeat sugar laden foods once the detox or challenge has ended. If you are enticed by a sugar detox, I’d rather see you enjoy a piece of fruit or some baked starchy vegetables to curb the sugar cravings, than persist with such a restrictive diet, headaches and moodiness, which may propel you to gorging on all things sweet.
Finding your sweet spot: the right portion of sugars in your diet
Rather than a sugar detox that you embark on for a short period of time, I recommend a gradual reduction in sugar consumption over time, to allow your body and taste buds to adjust. This could involve identifying the ‘worst offenders’ in your diet or hidden sugars, and starting there to reduce your sugar intake. So, for example, you may begin by choosing sugar free sauces and dressings for your salads and stir-fries, or cutting back the sugar in your tea or coffee, or switching your daily biscuits for a handful of fruit and nuts. As you reinforce these new habits you could adopt another, then another, and another, until you have sustainably reduced your sugar consumption. This approach probably won’t generate the same congratulatory messages on social media, but will have a greater contribution to your long-term health than a short-term ‘detox’, which potentially creates stress and feelings of deprivation that drive cravings and splurges on all things sweet.
If you are compelled to quit sugar short-term or ongoing, this is a personal choice, and could be a valid approach if you feel that you are ‘addicted’ to sugar and have found it hard to quit sugar in the past. If you wish to take this approach, I would recommend that you focus only on cutting out refined sugars, not complex carbohydrates and fruits. Not only will this ensure your diet remains nutritionally balanced, it will minimise cravings for carbohydrates and provide you with options should you wish to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Adopting an approach of gradually reducing refined sugars and refined carbohydrates in your diet, can help you to find your ‘sweet spot’; that is the portions of sugars that suit your body. Drawing your awareness to how your body responds to sugar can be a much more successful approach to create long-lasting change, as the change is not in response to what is perceived as good or bad, but based on how your body responds to sugar.
Personally, quitting sugar because it is supposed to be good for me was always hard. However, when I truly acknowledged how sugar made me feel and affected my energy and concentration it was easy to quit the sugar habit.
Adopting an approach of gradually reducing refined sugars and refined carbohydrates in your diet, can help you to find your ‘sweet spot’.
Disclaimer: The purpose of this article is to share a more sustainable approach to reducing refined sugars in your diet, without feeling deprived or creating a rebound effect. There is so much more information I could share on the health effects of refined sugar and the essential role natural sugars play in our diet. If you have any questions feel free to submit them in the comments section below.
Drewnowski A, Bellisle F. Is sweetness addictive? Nutr Bull, 2007. 32 Suppl 1:52–60.
DiNicolantonio J.H., Berger A. Added sugars drive nutrient and energy deficit in obesity: a new paradigm. Open Heart, 2016. 3(2): e000469.
Rao S.T.S., Asha M.R., Ramesh B.N., Jagannatha Rao J.K.S. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian J Psychiatry, 2008. 50(2): 77–82.
Afaghi A., O'Connor H., Chow C.M. Acute effects of the very low carbohydrate diet on sleep indices. Nutr Neurosci, 2008. 11(4):146-54.