Exactly How To Cut Sugar Out Of Your Diet
If you get hangry and you know it, raise your hand. Hungry and angry’s evil spawn is a frustrating way to feel, and more and more people seem to relate, probably because being “hangry” boils down to blood sugar, and blood sugar problems are at an all-time high, with half of American adults and millions more worldwide (1) are prediabetic or suffer from full-blown type 2 diabetes. But this chronic disease epidemic isn’t just about raging towards the refrigerator. Blood sugar problems are also the leading driving force of heart attacks, strokes, and inflammation-spectrum problems at large.
The good news is that most blood sugar issues are surprisingly easy to reverse, prevent, and manage, whether or blood sugar issues are mild or diagnosable because the foods you eat wield amazing power over the state of your blood sugar. Every bit you take either fuels health or feeds disease. What do you choose to do?
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To help you out in this quest, here, my friend, is your blood-sugar-balancing list of superfoods, along with a meal plan and recipes!
1. Healthy fats
Your brain is comprised of 60 percent fat and your body functions best when it is burning fat instead of sugar. Fat is the longest-lasting source of energy for you and your brain, but you have to eat more fat to burn more fat. That’s nothing new for you, though. You’ve been taking it in since you were a baby, relying on the fat from breast milk for optimal brain development and energy. While fat intake tends to wane over time, keep up the brain boost by eating more healthy fats in the form of coconut oil, salmon, and avocados.
Protein helps balance blood sugar by slowing down the absorption of the sugars from the starchy foods you eat. The cleanest, most bio-available sources include wild-caught fish and grass-fed beef. Just don’t overdo it – too much and your body will start converting the protein you are eating into sugar through a process called gluconeogenesis. Shoot for 40 to 70 grams of protein per day, depending on your lean body mass.
3. Low-fructose fruits
Sometimes you just want a sweet treat, but you already know processed sugar is no health food, and even high-fructose fruits can set you on a blood sugar rollercoaster. Instead, eat fruit that is low in fructose such as raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cantaloupe, and kiwi for a nutrient-dense, blood-sugar-stable sweet treat.
4. Leafy greens
Non-starchy vegetables should be an important part of your diet. They are among the world’s most nutrient-dense foods and they help to keep your blood sugar balanced. Dark leafy greens are the stars of the non-starchy veggie world, so eat foods like spinach, kale, and chard. These low-carb greens have been shown to actually lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. In addition, they provide your body with a ton of B vitamins and folate, which will help with methylation and opening up detox pathways. (2)
Adaptogens have been used for thousands of years for their medicinal properties and ability to relieve stress and balance hormones. When you experience stress, the hormone cortisol flows through your body, releasing glucose from your liver and increasing your blood sugar levels. Chronic stress means chronic blood sugar rises, and adaptogens counter the effect by balancing cortisol levels. Incorporate more of these herbs and plants – some of my favorites are reishi and chaga mushrooms – into your diet for better health and a greater sense of calm.
Spices add taste and interest to your food, but they also boost your health. For example, studies have shown (3) that the regular consumption of cinnamon, even in small amounts, can actually lower blood sugar. Additionally, turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties are essential for reducing inflammation, which can perpetuate insulin resistance.
Your one-day blood sugar bliss meal plan:
Breakfast: Morning Adaptogenic Coconut Refresher
This smoothie will have you starting your day feeling balanced and energized.
- 1 cup coconut milk (ideally full-fat)
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- 1/2 cup frozen organic blackberries, blueberries, or raspberries
- 1/2 teaspoon each schisandra and rhodiola
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon chia seeds
Combine ingredients in blender, blend, and enjoy!
Lunch: Grass-fed Burger Salad
Grass-fed beef provides all the protein you need to stabilize your blood sugar. Serve this over a bed of your favorite greens and topped with a bunch of super-food fixings for a power-packed lunch.
- 1 pound grass-fed ground beef
- 1 bunch each spinach, kale, and arugula
- 1/2 cup reishi mushrooms
- 1/2 organic white onion, diced
- 1 whole avocado, sliced
- Himalayan sea salt to taste
- Garlic powder to taste
- Organic ketchup
- Organic mustard
- Form beef into patties and season with garlic and sea salt to taste.
- Cook over skillet with preferred cooking oil or grill to desired doneness.
- While burgers are cooking, saute mushrooms and onion together in a medium skillet.
- Place greens in a bowl and top with burgers, mushrooms, and onions. Serve with ketchup, mustard, and sliced avocado.
Dinner: Turmeric + Coconut Fish Curry
Turmeric’s potent anti-inflammatory properties amplify the healing benefits of this dish. Any white fish you like will work in this recipe.
- 1 can full-fat coconut milk
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 head of broccoli, chopped
- 1 cup carrots, chopped
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 2 cloves of chopped garlic
- 1/2 shallot, chopped
- Juice of half of a lime
- 1 pound wild-caught white fish
- Heat coconut oil over medium heat in a large pot.
- Add in garlic and shallot and saute until cooked.
- Add in coconut milk and water and bring to boil for 3 minutes. Add in turmeric and bay leaves.
- Add in broccoli and carrots, boil for 2 minutes, then reduce to simmer for 20 minutes.
- While broth is simmering, saute fish in skillet until cooked.
- Add in fish to broth and let simmer for another few minutes.
- Serve over cauliflower rice with lime juice and cilantro.
No spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down here. Taking sugar out of the foods you eat is difficult. Anyone who has left sugar behind for a real food plan or detox protocol can understand. So why does going off sugar leave some people feeling like an addict craving one more fix?
Sex, Drugs & Sugar
Sugar and all its forms fill most foods. At times its label sounds more exotic, i.e. agave nectar, evaporated cane, or turbinado, but ultimately is still sugar. As if added sugars in our foods aren’t enough we add sugar to foods like grains which are already turned into sugars themselves by the body. This has a specific effect on the brain. The nucleus accumbens, a brain structure that is part of our pleasure and reward system, is triggered by the sugar (4) we consume.
The biochemical reaction that occurs when the nucleus accumbens receives a signal from dopamine, (5) a pleasure neurotransmitter, is the same response that happens during sex or from drug use. Problems in the body arise when constant stimulation from sugar and the prolonged dopamine signal build up a tolerance in the brain.
In time, deeper neuronal pathways are created, and more sugar is needed to give the body the same old fix. When we decide to cut out sugar, we naturally detox and withdrawal symptom appear. At times the tight grip of sugar has led me to feel that it is easier to ask someone to change religion instead of the food they eat. Sugar is found at the core for these cravings.
As a functional medicine practitioner, I see the struggle and addictive pattern of behavior with my patients. Suggesting leaving sugar out of their diets often leads to hostility, defensive attitudes, and even tears. If you are considering a sugar detox or are amid one, here is your go-to guide. I’ll explain the most common symptoms I see in patients, and actions to counteract their hold during the withdrawal period.
Exactly How To Conquer The 9 Hurdles of Finally Quitting Sugar
1. The Problem: Cravings
The dopamine response in the brain and the ensuing insulin spike throughout the body elicits strong cravings. Going off sugar awakens the hangry monster like nothing else does, leaving willpower and best intentions in the dust.
What to do:
Eating healthy fats is arguably the best way to feed cravings. I am a fan of fat bomb treats. These dessert- like snacks are filled with good for you fats, and are sweetened instead with natural sugar alternatives like the stevia plant or sugar alcohols like xylitol. Soothe a carb craving with whole food starchy tubers such as sweet potatoes. Try Japanese sweet potatoes, a personal favorite.
2. The problem: Digestive issues
The trillions of yeast and bacteria that live in your gastrointestinal system consume what you eat. The adage should be, you are what your microbiome eats. A shift in your gut microbiome happens when foods that contain or break down into sugar are removed from your diet. Certain opportunistic yeast and bacteria thrive off of sugars in our food, and when they do not get their regular fare it creates “die-off” symptoms. You will see this as bloating, diarrhea, and constipation which is common as the microbiome adjusts to it’s new diet.
What to do:
3. The problem: Fatigue
Since many individuals are fueling their energy with abundant amounts of sugar, they experience exhaustion and fatigue when they decide to leave sugar and carbs behind.
What to do:
Replace the sugar fuel you were consuming with healthy fats. Again, healthy fats are here for the win giving your body back fuel it needs to operate without feeling sluggish. Some sources of this fuel that are especially good for your brain and metabolism are coconut, olives, avocados, and wild caught fish.
4. The problem: Flu-like symptoms
Just like in other chemical dependencies, coming off sugar can prompt flu-like symptoms for some people. This withdrawal is not a sign that your body needs sugar! On the contrary, this is simply the body’s attempt to re-calibrate from its addiction and dependency.
What to do:
Detox supporting supplement NAC (n-acetyl cysteine), dandelion root, and adding cilantro to meals will aid the body when it is detoxing from sugar. Supporting your body’s natural detoxification pathways is being kind to your body.
5. The problem: Headaches
In some individuals all the dopamine and microbiome fluctuations that happen when detoxing from sugar can trigger miserable headaches.
What to do:
Two of my favorite natural medicines to calm headaches and migraines are turmeric and magnesium. The curcuminoids of turmeric assist in down-regulating cytokine (inflammation) activity. Magnesium is nature’s chill pill and supports many biochemical processes in the body.
6. The problem: Hunger
If you try to avoid sugar and any sugar laden food, this eliminates a large portion of calories that you may have been consuming daily. If the calorie deficit is not accounted for and replaced with other foods you are going to feel hungry and miserable. You may doubt your good decision to eat clean, and give up all together.
What to do:
As the body calibrates to your new way of eating, be mindful to nourish your body with delicious, filling foods. Munching on kale all day like a rabbit is not the only way to eat healthfully. Eat real foods until you are satisfied. Check out my elimination diet video class for direction, support, and a plan.
7. The problem: Mood changes
When the sugar that was included in some way with every meal stops, it impacts the brain. As the chronic dopamine stimulation slows down, this triggers withdrawal symptoms: irritability, moodiness, anxiety, or depression. Sugar itself, aggravates and triggers anxiety and depression. Therefore, when the body comes out of a detox the brain will be more balanced.
What to do:
I love adaptogens for brain and mood balance. One adaptogen, mucuna pruriens, is particularly great at supporting healthy dopamine function and is a personal favorite of mine. Mucuna contains the L-dopa compound, a precursor to dopamine. Lean on the support adaptogens can give your body during a sugar detox, and for a full guide on adaptogens geek out with my guide. You’re welcome.
8. The problem: Muscle aches
One of the benefits of cutting out sugar is the reduction of inflammation and edema in your body. This reduction causes water weight loss as well which leads to some loss of electrolytes (magnesium, sodium, calcium and potassium) and can contribute to flu-like symptoms (keto flu) as well as muscle aches and cramping.
What to do:
You can focus on foods that are naturally full of electrolytes like greens such as spinach, avocados, nuts, seeds and sea salt. Adding a powdered electrolyte supplement to your water is another option.
9. The problem: Shakiness
When your body is used to sugar and one sugary fix after another getting off of this blood sugar roller coaster can leave you feeling dizzy or shaky.
What to do:
If you are susceptible to low blood sugar, make sure that you are getting 15 to 25 grams of clean protein (and the accompanying healthy fat content) with each meal. Think wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, and/or organic nuts and seeds. If you find yourself “hangry” before the next meal, this means that your body needs more protein.
The Best Sweeteners To Choose From, Ranked From Worst to Best
We eat a lot of sugar in the United States – an average of 765 grams of sugar every five days – the amount in 17 cans of soda! (In 1822, we had the equivalent of one can of soda every 5 days in sugar consumption.) That translates to about 130 pounds of added sugar every year, and about 3,550 pounds of sugar over the course of a lifetime. That’s like eating 1.7 million Skittles or an industrial-sized dumpster of cane sugar.
You might wonder about these numbers if you aren’t chomping on fistfuls of candy or drinking 2-liter bottles of soda at one sitting, but much of this sugar consumption comes from hidden sources of the sweet stuff – it’s in condiments, kombucha, crackers, soup, salad dressing, and almost everything else that comes in a package. Even so-called “health food” like granola or health bars, smoothies, and yogurt. Sugar is often disguised, hidden behind euphemistic names, so it can be hard to recognize, but let’s be honest, most of us don’t want to have to worry about going without a single grain of sugar for the rest of our lives.
So let’s get practical. Here’s my list of the sweeteners to avoid completely, which ones are not great but okay in moderation, and which ones should be your go-tos when you want something sweet.
These are the worst of the worst. The most common culprits, on colorful display wherever coffee is sold, include:
- Sucralose – Splenda
- Aspartame – Equal, NutraSweet
- Saccharin – Sweet N’ Low
- Neotame – a chemical derivative of aspartame found in various food products
- Acesulfame – often found in sodas and fruit juices as well as dairy and ice cream products
The truth is, there aren’t many large-scale studies on the subject of autoimmunity and artificial sweeteners, but let’s look at what is out there:
- One case study from the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists saw a complete reversal of autoimmune thyroiditis (6) (Hashimoto’s) in a patient by changing only one thing: eliminating artificial sweeteners and diet soda!
- Another study out of the Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology correlated the rise of irritable bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, with sucralose and its inhibitory effect on beneficial gut bacteria.
- Research out of the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health (7) also points to sucralose’s ability to weaken the microbiome. The artificial sweetener was shown to reduce the good bacteria of the microbiome by up to 50% and also to raise gut pH levels. I believe it is plausible to theorize that this could trigger autoimmunity, considering that the microbiome is home to 80% of the body’s immune system.
These chemical sweeteners actually change the bacterial makeup of your microbiome, which can lead to weight gain (the very thing you were probably hoping to avoid by choosing zero-calorie sweeteners), along with an increased change for autoimmune problems, diabetes, and other metabolic disorders.
High-fructose corn syrup
This sweetener is so ubiquitous that it’s mind-boggling. Even foods that you wouldn’t think would contain any sweetener contain HFCS, which is derived from stalks of corn and converted to syrup through an intensive chemical process. Due to its chemical makeup, it does not need to be digested by your body so it makes a beeline straight into your bloodstream, which can lead to insulin spikes that contribute to hormonal problems like leptin resistance, which in turn increases weight gain and weight-loss resistance.
Often considered the “healthy” alternative for sugar, we now know that even though it is low on the glycemic index (a way of measuring how fast certain carbohydrates will raise your blood sugar), it is extremely high in fructose. Your body still converts fructose into glucose, glycogen, lactate, and fat in your liver. This puts stress on your liver and can contribute to insulin resistance and fatty liver disease.
Also known as raw cane sugar, this type of sugar is not so “raw” and unrefined as it makes itself out to be. It is still highly processes, which removes not only some of its natural impurities but also nutrients. While it’s still far less processed than refined white sugar, it’s still not much better for you.
This sweetener is made from the combination of brown rice and enzymes. The enzymes break down the starch, and then it is boiled down to create a syrup. The fermentation actually makes the sugars easier to digest. The big issue though is that barley enzymes are often used, which contain gluten. Unless you are specifically looking for gluten-free brown-rice syrup, you could be unknowingly perpetuating health problems if you are sensitive to gluten. It is also important to not that arsenic can build up when large amounts of rice. Studies have shown (8) that arsenic levels have been found to be high in organic brown-rice syrup used in a lot of different products. I advise against too much of this product, to decrease toxin exposure.
A zero-calorie low-glycemic sweetener that’s also natural and doesn’t mess with your microbiome or your blood sugar? Sounds almost too good to be true – and in some ways, it is. As long as you use raw organic stevia that is still in its green form you will get the best health benefits of this sweetener. However, other forms are more processed and often bleached and filled with preservatives, so you are still exposing yourself to other chemicals and toxins. Also, some types include added ingredients and are not pure stevia. Plus, a few studies show stevia’s ability to impact hormones.
Forget that bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s – that’s not real maple syrup. Instead, look for 100% pure organic maple syrup. What makes this a much better alternative to traditional sugar is the fact that it actually contains good-for-you minerals like zinc and inflammation-fighting polyphenol antioxidants. And since it’s sourced straight from tree sap, it goes through minimal processing. The darker the maple syrup the better, because it contains higher amounts of antioxidants – up to 24 different kinds!
Nature’s perfect sweetener, honey has enormous benefits, as long as it is in its raw unpasteurized, unfiltered form. It contains many powerful antioxidants like polyphenols, which have been shown to help combat cancer and promote heart health. It is also great for fighting off sickness since it also still contains bee pollen, which boosts immunity. The creme de la creme of honey is manuka honey, from New Zealand. It has a far superior nutritional content compared to any other honey, and also boasts vigorous antimicrobial properties.
This sweetener is made by boiling raw sugar down multiple times. As the sucrose crystallizes out, the remaining dark viscous substance has concentrated nutrients from the cane sugar plant. Blackstrap molasses is the most nutrient-dense form of molasses with the least sugar, and is achieved by processing the syrup three times to remove as much sucrose as possible. Blackstrap molasses contains more iron than any other natural sweetener. Iron is important to help fight fatigue since it helps with red blood cell health.
When they come without added sugar (check the label!), these sweet fruits are completely unprocessed and can be eaten fresh or dried or pureed into a paste to add to many different recipes. Since they are very high in fructose, it is still important to keep their intake to a minimum. Dates in particular, are very nutrient dense and can help those struggling with constipation and help improve overall digestive health (9) by increasing growth of beneficial bacteria thanks to their high fiber content.
Although fruit juice contains fructose, it is a better option than many other types of sweetener because – especially if you juice it yourself – it is only lightly processed. Fruit juice contains all the same antioxidants present in it’s whole fruit form, but drink it in moderation and only choose ones without any added sugar.
Often found in “sugar-free” foods, these include sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol and are derived through chemically processing the carbohydrates found in fruits and berries. These don’t even have to be included on a product label unless it is specifically labeled “sugar-free.” Unlike other sugar-free sweeteners that have zero calories, sugar alcohols do contain up to three calories per gram but they do not have an effect on blood sugar. However, they can have a laxative effect so they don’t work for everyone. For some, they can seriously flare up (10) digestive problems like IBS and SIBO. Your body does not completely absorb these, and they end up fermenting in the large intestine, which can cause gas and bloating. If they don’t bother you, however, they can be an acceptable option.
Like stevia and sugar alcohols, monk or luo han guo fruit is another low-carb sweetener option. It’s fermented from the pulp of the fruit, and this fermentation process removes the sugars but leaves a residual sweet flavor. Used for hundreds of years in Asian countries where it is harvested, monk fruit contains beneficial antioxidants called mogrosides, which has made this fruit a natural anti-inflammatory tool in Chinese medicine. If you decide to try it, make sure you get pure monk fruit without additives. Also, be aware that like sugar alcohols, too much can trigger stomach issues in some people.
Coconut-based sweeteners are derived from the coconut blossoms of the coconut tree, not the coconut itself. They contain small amounts of nutrients like zinc, potassium, and short-chain fatty acids, but you’d have to eat a lot ot make a difference. These sweeteners are processed but coconut sugar does contain inulin fiber, which has been shown to help improve diabetic health, because it helps to slow the absorption of glucose and keep blood-sugar levels balanced.
The Bottom Line
The ideal situation when it comes to sweet foods is to only eat those that are naturally sweet, like fruit and to still not go overboard. However, I am a realist and I know that sometimes, you want a little added sweetness when it comes to desserts or added to your coffee. In those cases, I always recommend raw organic stevia, monk fruit, maple syrup, molasses, and dates. With any of these, moderation is still important – no more than a couple tablespoons per day is ideal. The other sweeteners in the first two categories should, I believe, be avoided as much as possible to promote optimal health. However, for those with chronic health conditions, you may have to avoid all sweeteners, at least while you are healing. Of course I also recommend working with a functional medicine practitioner to determine your individual needs.
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- Menke A, Casagrande S, Geiss L, Cowie CC. Prevalence of and Trends in Diabetes Among Adults in the United States, 1988-2012. JAMA. 2015;314(10):1021–1029. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.10029
- BMJ 2010;341:c4229
- Davis PA, Yokoyama W. Cinnamon intake lowers fasting blood glucose: meta-analysis. J Med Food. 2011;14(9):884‐889. doi:10.1089/jmf.2010.0180
- Olsen CM. Natural rewards, neuroplasticity, and non-drug addictions. Neuropharmacology. 2011;61(7):1109‐1122. doi:10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.03.010
- Lennerz BS, Alsop DC, Holsen LM, et al. Effects of dietary glycemic index on brain regions related to reward and craving in men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;98(3):641‐647. doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.064113
- Sachmechi I, Khalid A, Awan SI, Malik ZR, Sharifzadeh M. Autoimmune Thyroiditis with Hypothyroidism Induced by Sugar Substitutes. Cureus. 2018;10(9):e3268. Published 2018 Sep 7. doi:10.7759/cureus.3268
- Abou-Donia MB, El-Masry EM, Abdel-Rahman AA, McLendon RE, Schiffman SS. Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats. J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2008;71(21):1415‐1429. doi:10.1080/15287390802328630
- Holtcamp W. Suspect sweetener: arsenic detected in organic brown rice syrup. Environ Health Perspect. 2012;120(5):A204. doi:10.1289/ehp.120-a204a
- Eid N, Enani S, Walton G, et al. The impact of date palm fruits and their component polyphenols, on gut microbial ecology, bacterial metabolites and colon cancer cell proliferation. J Nutr Sci. 2014;3:e46. Published 2014 Oct 8. doi:10.1017/jns.2014.16
- Mäkinen KK. Gastrointestinal Disturbances Associated with the Consumption of Sugar Alcohols with Special Consideration of Xylitol: Scientific Review and Instructions for Dentists and Other Health-Care Professionals. Int J Dent. 2016;2016:5967907. doi:10.1155/2016/5967907
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.