From birthday cakes to Thanksgiving pie to cold summer treats, every holiday, season or special occasion harkens mouth-watering memories of a favorite confectionery craving.
But what if you’re trying to get healthy by shutting down the sugar in your diet?
Samantha Coogan — director of UNLV's Didactic Program in Nutrition & Dietetics and president of the Nevada Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics — explains how putting a halt on sweet treats affects the body.
How does the body react when you cease the sugar in your diet, and how long do symptoms last?
When you cut out sugar, you'll be cutting out a boatload of empty, useless calories, which should help with weight loss — as long as you don't replace those sugar calories with other empty calories!
Replacing sugar with things like fiber and protein will increase your satiety values, allowing you to feel fuller for longer while reducing your overall caloric intake. Sugar has a very low satiety value and causes sharp spikes and dips in blood sugar, causing you to feel that "shaky" sensation and almost ravenous levels of hunger soon after consumption.
Sugar is quite addictive, so some may experience withdrawal symptoms. It sounds silly, but it's true: When your body becomes accustomed to certain substances, removing that substance essentially leaves your body in a state of shock. It will cause some uncomfortable moments such as headaches, stomach upset, or disruption in bowel activity as your body starts to reset itself. Withdrawal symptoms could last anywhere from a few days to two weeks.
Once you get past the immediate withdrawal, what can you expect?
Once you weather the initial withdrawal symptoms — if they even occur — your overall energy should improve in all areas of your life. For example, you may notice your:
- Hair, skin and nails start to improve
- Cravings change drastically (once you remove sugar for enough time, you start to miss it less and less)
- Performance in the gym improves and you'll recover from workouts more quickly and potentially reduce your risk for injury
- Productivity at work should improve and you'll need fewer sick days
- Belly fat decreases because your body won't have any excess sugar to store as fat in your adipose tissue
- Sleep cycles become longer and more consistent (sugar can negatively affect your REM sleep if your body is constantly searching for its next fix)
It may be a harsh comparison, but think about how drug addicts live on a day-to-day basis. Work is either low quality or non-existent; workouts are either minimal intensity, or again non-existent; and their sleep patterns are constantly disturbed without ever feeling fully rested. Sugar is an addictive substance for some people, so it really is necessary to approach it in a similar manner to drug or alcohol detoxification.
How do you get through the withdrawal stage without backsliding?
You can get through the withdrawals by upping your water intake, or by chewing on gum or snacking on fruit for a sweet sensation without all the artificial sugar. Just give your mind and mouth something else to think about when a sugar craving approaches.
Sugar often makes us feel lethargic, fatigued and begging for more, which also takes a toll on the body. Some people may feel the positive effects of a sugar-free diet right away, while others may take a little longer. If you experience withdrawal symptoms, you may not even realize the benefits that are happening at the same time during that two-week period.
When do these positive changes start?
Everyone’s body is different, but for some people it’s possible to start to see, taste and feel changes in as early as three days. Fruit may start to taste sweet again — almost like candy — because your taste receptors have been given a chance to relax and stop searching for that sugar. Your sweetness tolerance starts to reduce in only a few days as well. The higher your sugar tolerance was, the longer it may take for naturally sweetened foods to taste as sweet as before. You may even find that certain foods are almost too sweet for your new preference.
Again, every person and body is different. Many factors — such as genetics, presence of or risk factors for certain chronic diseases and conditions, physical activity level, carb/sugar sensitivity, age, gender — may play a role in how, and how long, your body reacts to the removal of sugar.