Any expert on nutrition will tell you that trying to eliminate sugar from your diet – or at least, reduce it – is a very good idea.
Sugar – especially the refined sort – is linked to a host of medical conditions, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease, all of which are extremely prevalent in the UAE. Sugar also damages your teeth and if you are prone to depression, sugar increases the risk of your becoming depressed. That quick infusion of energy, the “sugar rush” you get from eating something sweet is swiftly followed by a sugar crash, which leaves you feeling even worse and can even leave you craving more sugar.
Some studies have found that sugar affects the brain in a similar way to nicotine, morphine and cocaine, by triggering the release of dopamine, while some experts in sugar research would argue that triggering the pleasure and reward center in the brain is not the same as addiction. Still, the effect on the body of coming off sugar can be hard. The craving for sugar and the quick fix it gives can be very difficult to overcome. But it can be done.
The problem with sugar is that it doesn’t just come in recognizable forms, such as chocolates, sweets, cakes and cookies. It is an unexpected ingredient in processed savory foods and most convenience foods from the supermarket, including ketchup, baked beans and mayonnaise. The American Heart Association recommends a maximum intake of six teaspoons of added sugar per day for women, nine teaspoons per day for men and five teaspoons per day for children. Yet a single can of soda contains 10 teaspoons.
But before you start, it is worth examining not only what you eat but how you eat.
“There is a bigger context. I am fully on board with trying to decrease added sugar intake, but one important issue to consider here is hunger awareness,” says Jeanne Bedard, head of dietetics at Perfect Balance Rehabilitation Centre in Abu Dhabi. “The distractions of work or a ‘to do’ list and other eternal factors all The majority of people have a poor awareness of hunger signals. The distractions of work, a ‘to do list and other external factors all affect the way we eat.
“What are the triggers for the sugar craving? Is it related to emotions? Is eating sweet things a coping mechanism for dealing with stress? Then there’s mindless eating, like having a bar of chocolate when you’re driving, when you eat without thinking about what or why you’re eating. Do you eat to procrastinate? Are you eating out of boredom? All these triggers are real.
“If you push yourself too far into hunger, you are likely to reach for something sweet because it’s the fastest source of energy and the shelf stable foods – the stuff that’s easy to grab in the supermarket – are often carbs. Planning ahead is a big help in tackling sugar intake.”
Detoxing from sugar does not feel the same for everyone but it can produce both mental and physical reactions. Withdrawal symptoms can last up to two weeks and vary widely in severity, depending on how much sugar you were consuming. The cravings might feel worse at different times of day or when you are under stress.
The most common withdrawal symptoms are:
- Depression — feeling low and unable to enjoy the things you used to
- Anxiety — feeling nervous, restless and irritable
- Difficulty in sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating and increased forgetfulness
- Cravings for carb-heavy foods such as bread, pasta and potato chips, as well as sugar
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
But whatever your symptoms, they will recede (although eliminating sugar should not be considered a cure for depression). According to the Cleveland Clinic, you can quit sugar and break the addiction in 10 days. But how to do it? Should you go cold turkey and cut out all sugar at once or wean yourself off gradually? And how sustainable are the changes you make?
“The dieting mentality of depriving yourself makes sugar even more attractive and in this country, where sweets are so often available and offered, telling people to cut out something they are constantly surrounded by is doomed to failure,” says Bedard. At Perfect Balance, the focus is on regulating blood sugar levels, improving body awareness and learning ways of navigating different food situations such as restaurants, buffets and social gatherings.
“The point is to stop the rollercoaster effect in blood sugar levels,” says Bedard.
The gradual approach might seem less of a shock to the system but it means any withdrawal symptoms might hang around for longer, whereas cutting sugar out at a stroke could mean your body adapts more quickly and any withdrawal symptoms don’t last as long. Whichever way you choose, you should also:
- Eat more protein to keep your energy levels up, so that you don’t reach for a bar of chocolate for a quick “hit” of sugary energy. Nuts and seeds are good high protein snacks.
- Eat more fiber to control blood sugar levels and help to avoid sugar detox side effects such as headaches and feeling nauseous.
- Drink more water to keep everything moving and avoid constipation and to help with cravings.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners. Your brain can’t distinguish between real sugar and imitations, and eating artificial sweeteners will actually encourage sugar cravings and maintain your taste preference for sugar.
- Eat something bitter. Research has shown that bitter-tasting foods such as coffee, rocket salad or rapini (a vegetable also known as broccoli rabe and widely used in Mediterranean cooking) shuts down the receptors in the brain that make us want sugar. Bitter food also slows down sugar absorption and helps regulate blood sugar levels.
- Manage your stress. Evidence suggests the more stressed you are, the more likely you are to crave sweet things.
- Exercise. It doesn’t have to be a full-on workout. A 2015 study found that walking at a brisk pace for just 15 minutes was enough to reduce cravings for sugary food. It also reduces stress and raises your energy levels.
- Get enough sleep. If you don’t, not only will you feel even more tired and low but you are also likely to crave sweets and other unhealthy comfort food even more.
Before you begin, it’s a good idea to think about why you want to cut out sugar. Write down what your motivation is so you can remind yourself when you feel yourself weakening. If you are the sort of person who likes lots of support via emails and messageboards, there are several online programs that can help you in your quest to quit.
“Techniques such as mindful eating can help you make peace with sugar. Imagine being able to have chocolate in the house without craving it – it is definitely possible,” says Bedard. “A clinical dietitian who is trained to go beyond meal plans and diets can help you get there. It starts with understanding the biology and psychology of eating and changing your default settings.”
And if you do give into temptation, don’t be discouraged. Try and learn from your slip-ups – for example, do they tend to happen around the same of day? If so, try and keep yourself extra busy around that time and have some water and high-protein snacks handy.
“We all have taste thresholds but those thresholds change. they can be trained up or trained down. They are a matter of habit rather than addiction,” says Bedard.
Cutting out sugar is not easy but the discomfort of withdrawal does not last, whereas the benefits will.
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.