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Symptoms, Side Effects, and Tips for a Low Sugar Diet

A number of studies have found that sugar affects the brain’s reward system. This reward system helps humans survive, but it’s also involved in addictive behavior.

Food is a natural reward, and sweet foods and drinks stimulate your brain’s reward system, causing you to eat more of the food.

According to a 2018 review, the most common foods associated with addictive symptoms are those high in added fats or added sugars.

Studies have found that sugar triggers the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens — the same area of the brain implicated in the response to addictive drugs.

Sugar can also cause the release of endogenous opioids in the brain, which leads to a rush that may cause future cravings.

Eating sugar regularly alters your brain so that it becomes tolerant to it, causing you to require more to get the same effect.

The average American consumes 22–30 teaspoons (about 88–120 grams) of sugar each day. This is considerably more than the recommended maximum, which is 6 teaspoons (about 24 grams) for females and 9 teaspoons (about 36 grams) for males.

Therefore, if your diet is high in added sugar, reducing your added sugar intake may come with some unpleasant symptoms.

Summary

Research suggests that sugar can be addictive, which is why reducing your sugar intake may lead to unpleasant symptoms in some people.

Cutting added sugar from your diet may lead to physical and mental symptoms.

How the body reacts to giving up sugar is different for everyone. The symptoms — and their severity — will depend on how much added sugar you were taking in through sweetened foods and beverages.

Some people find that their symptoms last from a few days to a couple of weeks.

As your body adapts to a low added sugar diet over time and your added sugar intake becomes less frequent, the less intense your symptoms and cravings for sugar are likely to be.

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You may find that your symptoms are worse at certain times of the day, such as between meals. Stress may trigger cravings for sugar, so you may find that your symptoms feel worse during times of stress.

Mental symptoms

Cutting added sugar from your diet may lead to a number of emotional and mental symptoms, including:

  • Depressed mood. Some people may feel down when they cut added sugar from their diet. This is partly due to a decrease in dopamine release.
  • Anxiety. Feelings of anxiousness may be accompanied by nervousness, restlessness, and irritability. You may feel like you have less patience than usual and are on edge.
  • Changes in sleep patterns. Some people experience changes in their sleep when detoxing from sugar. You might find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep through the night.
  • Cognitive issues. You may find it difficult to concentrate when you quit sugar. This can cause you to forget things and make it hard to focus on tasks, such as work or school.
  • Cravings. Along with craving sugar, you may find yourself craving other foods, such as carbs like bread, pasta, and potato chips.

Physical symptoms

When giving up sugar, you might notice that you’re feeling physically run down. Some people get headaches.

Other possible physical withdrawal symptoms include:

  • light-headedness or dizziness
  • nausea
  • fatigue

Summary

Giving up sugar can feel unpleasant, both mentally and physically. But rest assured, it will get better if you stick to it.

If you’re used to regularly eating sugary foods like cake, ice cream, sweetened breakfast cereal, candy, and cookies and regularly drink sugar-sweetened beverages, it may take time to reduce your reliance on added sugar.

For some people, cutting all forms of added sugar from their diet is helpful. However, others may find this method too extreme.

Fortunately, even making small changes to your sugar intake can significantly affect your overall health. Follow these helpful tips to slowly reduce your added sugar intake over time.

  • Swap sweetened drinks for water. Cut out sugary soda, fruit juice, and energy drinks and replace them with plain or sparkling water. If you need a boost of flavor, add some mint or slices of lemon or lime.
  • Start your day the low sugar way. Instead of reaching for that colorful box of sugary cereal or a frosted doughnut, fuel your body with a protein and fiber-rich omelet made with veggies and a side of avocado and fresh berries.
  • Read labels. Many foods and condiments are sneaky sources of added sugar. Read the labels of products like salad dressings, barbecue sauce, oatmeal packets, and marinara sauce to scan for added sugar.
  • Choose unsweetened snacks. Your favorite granola or protein bar may be packed with added sugar. Choose whole, nutrient-dense snacks like nuts and seeds, whole fruit and nut butter, hummus and veggies, or hard-boiled eggs when you need a refuel.
  • Rethink dessert. Instead of reaching for your favorite pint of ice cream or go-to candy bar after dinner, check in with yourself. Are you truly hungry or is your nightly sugar fix a hard-to-break habit? If you are truly hungry, reach for something high in protein and healthy fat like a handful of macadamia nuts or unsweetened Greek yogurt with berries and unsweetened coconut.
  • Focus on your whole diet. Optimizing the nutrient-density of your overall diet can help improve health and may help you cut back on added sugar. Focus on whole, unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, poultry, eggs, and seafood.
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Summary

The tips above can help you slowly cut back on added sugar and improve the quality of your overall diet.

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