A Functional Medicine Guide to Cutting Sugar Out of Your Diet
Why cut out sugar?
One of the best ways to tell if you need a sugar reset is if you experience being “hangry” often. Being “hangry” boils down to blood sugar. Blood sugar problems are at an all-time high, as half of American adults and millions more worldwide (1) are pre-diabetic or suffer from full-blown type 2 diabetes.The good news is that most blood sugar issues are surprisingly easy to reverse, prevent, and manage, whether your blood sugar issues are mild or diagnosable because the foods you eat wield amazing power over the state of your blood sugar. Every bite you eat either fuels health or feeds disease. What do you choose to do?
What happens when you cut sugar out of your diet?
Inflammation also plays a large role in stubborn weight, so for any wondering “can you lose weight by cutting out sugar?” The short answer is yes, but there is so much more to it than that. Cutting out sugar is beneficial to the overall health of your body systems, starting with that blood sugar reset. Apart from weight loss, you may experience more energy, improved mood, and reduced risk of serious illnesses.
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Why getting off sugar is so difficult
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?
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.
Top foods to decrease sugar cravings and reset blood sugar
Wondering what foods to eat when you cut out sugar? To help you out in this quest, here is your blood-sugar-balancing list of superfoods, along with a meal plan and recipes!
1. Healthy fats
Your brain is 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 bioavailable 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 not a 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.
Exactly How to Cut Sugar Out of Your Diet
Many may wonder, “is it healthy to cut off sugar completely?” There are definitely some side effects that you may experience when trying to eliminate sugar, but that is what this guide is for. There are better ways to get the glucose your body needs than refined sugars and processed foods. Below is a list of the problems that normally can occur when quitting sugar, and how to overcome them, as well as some better alternatives for sweetening things up.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
One day meal plan for a blood sugar reset Your one-day blood
One day meal plan for a blood sugar reset 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, sauté 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 sauté until cooked.
- Add in coconut milk and water and bring to a 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, sauté 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.
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- 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, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
Healing The Shame-Fueled Relationship
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