I am not exaggerating when I say that giving up sugar for 30 days was the best dietary overhaul I've ever tried. I say this not just because it gave my energy and focus an unrivaled boost, all but cured my insomnia, and even gave me a peek at abs for the first time in, um, ever—but mainly because it was doable. So doable that once my 30-day goal was up, I kept going. I felt that great.
And maybe it shouldn't have been surprising, given that many scientists and experts denote sugar as the single-most destructive (and addictive) ingredient in the average modern diet. Most Americans eat more sugar in one year than our ancestors did in their entire lifetimes—and that's because it's everywhere.
"Because there are over 50 different names give to sugars, it can make it even harder when reading food labels to determine what foods actually contain added sugar," explains Emily Maguire, a UK-based nutritionist.
Prepackaged salsa, bread, you name it—chances are, it contains extra sugar, which means even the healthiest among us might not even be aware that we're addicted. And that's why cutting it out entirely was like the breath of fresh air for my entire body and mind that I didn't even know I needed.
I asked Maguire and psychologist and nutritionist Candice Seti, PsyD, to help devise a weeklong plan, which you'll find below—and best of all, we're inviting you to share your progress and any questions you have along the way. Get all the details below.
The beauty of this plan is that it has some allowances to keep you sane should cravings strike. While sugars and sweeteners of any kind—as well as refined grains and juices—should be eliminated entirely for the week, you are permitted to have limited amounts of dark chocolate, fruit, whole grains, and even alcohol. (A juicy glass of red? That's practically cheating—except it's not.) For the best results, you'll want to moderate that second category and indulge in the bare minimum.
On the flip side, you want to make whole, clean foods (the third category) your main focus—which, speaking from experience, is easiest when you take the time to prepare delicious, thoughtful meals. Does this all sound easier said than done? Keep reading for a step-by-step guide to negotiating the challenge without hating your life.
1. Plan and prepare
First things first: Clean out your pantry and fridge of any offending snacks or foods, because out of sight, out of mind(ish). Then your best strategy is to plan most of your meals. If you need some inspiration, there are so many websites and food blogs that specialize in recipes that are so tasty, you won't feel like you're missing out on anything—Minimalist Baker, Green Kitchen Stories, and Sprouted Kitchen are a few favorites.
"Look at the recipes and meal plans you want to follow, and get any ingredients you will need," advises Maguire. "Remember the age-old saying, if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail. Look at your schedule for the coming week. Are you traveling a lot or have any dinners out? Plan by looking at the menu beforehand or have handy go-to sugar-free snacks. It'll make sticking with this all the easier."
Once you hit the grocery store, the trickiest part is practicing a healthy amount of skepticism when it comes to prepackaged or prepared foods. "The hardest part of a sugar cleanse is avoiding all of the sneaky sugar hiding in even those most unsuspecting items, such as pasta sauce, dried fruit, juices, and yogurt," says Seti. "Be sure to check the ingredient list on everything you buy."
2. Spoiler alert: The first couple of days are the hardest
Because sugar is so addictive—studies show that it's even more addictive than cocaine—you might even experience some withdrawal symptoms in addition to cravings. "These symptoms usually occur in the first few days and can include headaches, stomach upset, irritability, and fatigue," says Seti. "They will pass, so stick with it!"
With that in mind…
3. Know how to tough out cravings and withdrawal symptoms
For me, gentle exercise and getting lots of sleep also helped immensely. Getting my fill of adaptogenic herbs also helped balance my mood swings and appetite, since they help regulate out cortisol (which is often the culprit behind these symptoms).
Maguire adds that in cases of extreme cravings, your best strategy is to allow your body to indulge—the healthy way. "The body is looking to satisfy the reward center in the brain," she explains. "If you find that any craving hits, then reaching for good low-sugar snacks such as dark chocolate (above 70% cocoa), nut butter, nuts and seeds, or berries with Greek yogurt can kill the cravings."
4. Drink lots of water
"A helpful tip while adjusting to a sugar cleanse is to drink a large amount of water throughout the day," says Seti. Water will help balance your blood sugar, keep your system running effectively, and minimize the impact of any withdrawal symptoms."
5. Eat a lot of protein and fiber
Protein is the category of food you want to focus on, with fiber coming in a close second. Those are the foods that will curb your cravings and keep your energy up. Stock up on lean meats and fish, as well as nuts and seeds to munch on when cravings hit between meals. Broccoli is high in both, and so is edamame. Avocados are high in fiber and fat. The key is to know which foods you should load up on and which you should avoid. Knowing what you intend to eat beforehand will make things much easier when making decisions on the fly.
6. Avoid trying to "replace" your day-to-day foods
Don't expect that you'll be able to eat the sugar-free versions of things you like, or replace sugar-filled coffee with tea, and just go on like everything is the same. You're making a major alteration—don't fight it.
7. Give yourself room to breathe
It's easy to press yourself, expecting that you'll be able to perform at the same level you were beforehand while you're detoxing. But you can follow all of the right steps to mitigate the side effects and still experience them.
Stress will actually cause you to crave sugary, easy-to-eat foods. Exercising will mitigate some stress, but you are going through a form of withdrawal and will likely feel cloudy. Try to avoid situations in which you need to perform at your peak at least for the first couple of days, and instead focus on taking care of yourself physically and mentally. This includes not being too hard on yourself if you break and have a piece of dark chocolate.
8. While some of these tools can help, a lot of it is mind over matter
"The most important thing when doing a sugar cleanse is to take it one day at a time," says Seti. "Simply focus on getting through the day ahead of you before focusing on the next. Each day's success will build on the one before it. And if you struggle or don't succeed immediately, each day represents an opportunity to try again." In other words: If you slip, don't sweat it. The fact that you're even trying is an accomplishment in itself.
And if you're ever waning on motivation, think back to your initial goals—even write them down so you have the constant reminder. "Maybe you are looking to lose weight, improve your skin, or stop mood cycling," says Maguire. "Whatever the reason, figuring out your goals will help you through this challenge. Anytime you feel like stopping or giving up, come back to why you started this in the first place, and it will give you the motivation to keep going or continue beyond your original timeline."
9. Get ready to see (and more importantly feel) results
The best news is that after you get over the hump of those first tough couple of days, you'll be amazed by how energized and how great you feel—your mood will start to regulate, you'll sleep better, and you might even see some improvements in your skin and body. Be mindful and observant of the good, because it will power you right through the end (and perhaps beyond).
10. Try and keep with it
After any detox, the worst thing you can do for your body is overload on the thing you were detoxing from the second you're "allowed" to. Instead, celebrate with some dark chocolate, bread and cheese, or a little wine—something sugary that isn't a piece of cake. Slowly integrate sugar back into your diet (if you want to at all); it'll be a shock your system if you eat too much so soon. Plus, you might not have as much of a taste for sugar anyway.
Next: Find out the common foods that secretly have tons of sugar in them.
Opening images: Peter Hershey/Unsplash and Bkr
This post was originally published at an earlier date and has since been updated.