A Dietitian-Approved Plan to Kick Your Sugar Habit for Good

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A sugar detox can help you learn how to eat a balanced diet that doesn't include lots of added sugars.
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You know the feeling: It's 3 p.m. and that craving strikes. Maybe it's a muffin, or a Coke, or a Frappuccino. Chances are, whatever you're hankering for, it's loaded with sugar.

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These sweets are fine once in a while. But if you're like most people, you're taking in far more than the recommended amount of sugar on a daily basis — and it could affect your health.

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One solution is trying a sugar detox, to help retrain your brain and taste buds. Sound scary? Here's why it might be easier than you think — and totally worth it.

How Much Is Too Much Sugar?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting added sugar to 6 to 9 teaspoons (or up to 150 calories) a day. But consider this: Just one 12-ounce soda contains 8 teaspoons of added sugar, aka a whole day's worth.

It's little wonder, then, that the average American adult eats too much added sugar — more than three times the recommended amount, in fact, according to the AHA.

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While it may seem sweet and innocent, too many calories from sugar may have some harmful consequences. Indeed, excess sugar consumption has been linked to obesity, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, as well as death from heart disease, according to an April 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Why Sugar Is So Hard to Shake

While it's pretty clear sugar is not exactly anyone's best friend, that doesn't make it easy to quit. Culturally, we associate celebrations with cake and break-ups with pints of ice cream. This is likely because sugar literally affects our brain chemistry — it "activates the reward and pleasure centers of our brains," according to the Cleveland Clinic.

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Sugar may also increase the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes us experience pleasure and reward. So it makes sense that you choose sugar's immediate pleasant effects, even if you know it could negatively affect you in the long run.

The cool thing about our brains is that they're capable of building new pathways and adjusting to new habits. We don't have to lean on sugar to give us a lift because exercise, time in nature, meditation and countless other activities also create "feel-good" pathways in our brains. Plus, there are plenty of low-sugar foods that are simply delicious.

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Ready to kick your sugar habit? Start by resetting your cravings via a sugar detox.

So, What's a Sugar Detox?

Basically, a sugar detox is a specified period of time (usually between 21 and 30 days) when you remove all sugar from your diet — including non-caloric sweeteners such as stevia — in an effort to retrain your cravings and your brain's reward pathways.

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You might be wondering: What about foods that naturally contain sugar, like fruit?

While some plans call for cutting out fruit, when I work with clients as a dietitian, I encourage detoxers to eat citrus, melon and berries because they are high in fiber, antioxidants and water content, and they're lower in sugar than other fruits. And the natural sugars in dairy, like lactose, are OK, too.

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Other than that, though, all foods during a sugar detox should be free of added sugars and non-caloric sweeteners. But keep in mind that sugar is tricky and may appear on ingredient lists in many innocuous forms, including corn syrup, honey, agave nectar and even maltodextrin or dextrose, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Sugar molecules often end in "-ose," so beware of any such ingredients, including maltose and fructose.

Sugar hides in surprising places, like condiments and bread, so it's important to read ingredients lists while participating in a sugar detox. One shortcut is to look for items with "Whole30 Approved" on the label. They're guaranteed to contain no sugar or sugar substitute.

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How to Crush Your Sugar Detox

Avoid sugary drinks like soda during a sugar detox.
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Skipping sugar does not mean you have to starve. In fact, a sugar detox is an excellent way to learn how to eat a balanced diet to control your blood sugar and appetite (because it's easier to cave to sugar cravings when you're truly hungry).

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The trick, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) is to balance your plate with protein and fiber-rich carbohydrates to keep your blood sugar balanced and help you feel full. The goal here is that by the end of your sugar detox, you'll have learned how to meet your calorie and nutrient needs through a balanced diet without added sugar.

  • Protein-packed foods:‌ Choose 20 to 30 grams of protein at meals from protein-rich sources such as lean meat, fish, egg whites, plain Greek yogurt, seitan, tofu, edamame, beans or tempeh.
  • Fiber-rich carbs:‌ Your carb requirement will vary greatly depending on your activity level. Reach for one-ingredient sources such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, beans or quinoa, which usually have more than 5 grams of fiber per serving (check your food labels!). You'll generally want to avoid processed foods, but some brands of processed carbs, like chickpea pasta, may serve as an excellent high-fiber choice sans sugar.

Keeping up with healthy lifestyle habits may also help keep cravings in check, according to the National Coalition on Health Care, so make sure you're drinking enough water, getting plenty of sleep and exercising regularly during your sugar detox.

Kick the zero-calorie sweeteners, too. Even though they aren't "real" sugar, they'll still keep your brain in sugar-craving mode, according to Sutter Health.

Your Sugar-Detox Meal Plan

Quitting sugar is no walk in the park, but it can be much easier when you plan your meals ahead of time. Here's what to eat your first day:

Breakfast: Feta Cheese Omelette

Instead of starting your day with simple carbs from granola, cereal or fruity yogurt, which can easily add up to over 100 calories from added sugars, choose a breakfast loaded with protein and fiber. The more than 20 grams of protein in this breakfast will keep your blood sugar stable and the fiber-rich carbs from the sweet potato and spinach will keep you fuller longer.

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Ingredients

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ounce feta cheese
  • 1 cup spinach
  • 2 teaspoons grass-fed butter
  • 1 small sweet potato
  • 1 teaspoon butter, plus more for serving

Instructions

  1. Bake or microwave the sweet potato until cooked through. Serve with melted butter.
  2. Meanwhile, heat a frying pan over medium-low heat. Add about 1 teaspoon of butter once hot, and melt.
  3. Scramble eggs with feta cheese and add spinach when the eggs are nearly cooked through.

And remember: No sugar in your coffee or tea!

Snack 1: Cheese, Cucumber and Crackers

Snack on two Wasa multigrain crackers with 4 tablespoons of low-fat cottage cheese and a few slices of cucumber. Add sugar-free seasoning (such as Everything but the Bagel) if desired.

This healthy take on cheese and crackers adds additional protein from the cottage cheese to keep you fuller longer. Plus, Wasa crackers are both low in calories and loaded with fiber. Fiber controls blood sugar, so you'll feel energized after your snack instead of sleepy.

Lunch: Italian Kale Tuna Bowl

Salads are often drenched in sugar-laden dressings. This bowl, on the other hand, is filling and balanced with fiber, fat and protein.

Ingredients

  • 1 can of tuna in water, drained
  • 1 cup kale ribbons
  • 3/4 cup cooked quinoa or lentils
  • 1/2 cup chopped cherry tomatoes
  • 3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Basil (dried or fresh) to taste

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Instructions

  1. In a small bowl, combine tuna with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Set aside to marinate for at least 5 minutes.
  2. In a large bowl, toss together quinoa, kale and tomatoes. Top with marinated tuna, then top with basil.

Snack 2: Fruit and Nuts

Enjoy a cup of orange slices with one-quarter cup of nuts, like almonds or pistachios.

Oranges and nuts are portable, but loaded with fiber, vitamins and minerals to keep your sugar cravings at bay. Choosing a fresh orange in lieu of dried fruit saves you at least 50 calories from sugar. Plus, nuts are loaded with magnesium, which can help you feel more energized as you're getting through a day without sugar, according to the AND.

Dinner: Tex Mex Beans and Protein

Beans are the ultimate sugar detox food because they give your body a fiber- and nutrient-rich source of carbohydrates to use for energy. Balanced with healthy fat from avocado and protein from fish or chicken, this meal will curb any late-night cravings.

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup black beans (cooked or canned)
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 1/4 cup red onion
  • 1/2 avocado
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 5 ounces broiled salmon or rotisserie chicken

Instructions

  1. Mash together beans, red onion, pepper, avocado, lime juice, chili powder and cumin.
  2. Serve alongside salmon or chicken.

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