Are you addicted to sugar? This is a question I've asked myself more than once. As a kid, you're warned about alcohol and drugs, but no one ever cautions against the addictive dangers and health detriments of a high-sugar diet. And the word "addiction" really is no exaggeration. According to a 2016 study, "increased sugar consumption has been shown to repeatedly elevate dopamine levels" in a manner similar to drug use.
As registered dietitian and nutritionist Lauren O'Connor told us, "Because the taste buds desire sweetness, we tend to want more sugary foods, thus leading to potential sugar binges." Lean in to these seemingly innocuous cupcake and ice cream cravings every day, and you may be in for myriad negative short and long-term effects.
Meet the Expert
Lauren O’Connor is a registered dietitian and yoga instructor. She has appeared on national TV and radio to offer her health expertise and is the author of You and Your Blood Pressure: Beating Hypertension.
Most of us are familiar with the immediate repercussions of excess sugar, even if we might not always make the connection. "Our appetites increase, and [we see] a greater desire for more sweets, which can lead to cravings, mood swings, and the all too familiar 'crash and burn," explains O'Connor. The damage a super sugar-laden diet can cause over time is even bleaker. Effects can include "weight gain, excess fat around the middle, potential for diabetic conditions, and risk for heart disease."
It all looks pretty grim, particularly if you love sugar. But you can prevent and even reverse much of the harm immediately, simply by cutting sugar out. Or even just cutting it out some of the time. The longterm effects of replacing a diet full of sugar with nutrient-dense, heart-healthy foods are even more impressive. With O'Connor's help, we broke it down all down in a timeline.
20 Minutes After You Quit
Not dissimilar to alcohol, consuming sugary foods just makes you want to eat more sugar. But 20 minutes after your first sugar-free meal, "You'll be more satisfied and less likely to reach for second helpings or dessert," says O'Connor. See? This is likely a result of strengthened willpower, so push through and stay on the upswing, as things may soon become more difficult.
One Hour After You Quit
An hour into your post-sugar existence, you should still find yourself on an upswing. "You should feel energized and be more productive," says O'Connor. "You will be less likely to have the urge to reach for a cookie or a handful of processed snacks."
One Day After You Quit
According to O'Connor, "Filling up on sugars limits our desire/potential to fuel up on nutrient-dense foods, including healthy fats, proteins, and plenty of fiber, which keeps us healthy, active, and productive." Now that you've gone the whole day without sugar, you've hopefully worked plenty of those healthier alternatives into your diet.
With the increased intake of vegetables and lean protein, your blood sugar will stabilize, your mood swings will temper, and you'll find yourself with fewer cravings.
Three Days After You Quit
Here's where things start to take an unpleasant turn. Sugar is an addiction, after all, and you can't kick most addictions without experiencing withdrawal symptoms. A few days in, you might experience sugar cravings, anxiety, headaches, and even depression in more serious cases (due to sugar's previously mentioned affect on dopamine levels). These effects often taper off after the first week, but depending on your body's level of sugar addiction, they could last an extra week or two. As always, it's essential that you stay hydrated to mitigate these effects. Additionally, drinking water may help you kick your sugar cravings—according to Heathline, "thirst is often confused with hunger. Having a glass of water may help you resist the urge to overeat and keep your cravings under control."
One Week After You Quit
A week after you quit, one of two things can happen to your body. If your previous lifestyle was dominated by processed foods, juice, soda, and desserts, you'll probably still be in detox mode. But if your sugar intake was on the moderate side (and if you're sticking to a diet of protein, fibers, and healthy fats), you should start to feel pretty darn good. "You will be less sluggish, have more stable energy throughout the day, and have an improved mood," says O'Connor.
One Month After You Quit
The one-month mark is when you'll find yourself completely out of the woods. Your desire for dessert will have disappeared, and you may even find yourself strangely craving protein and leafy greens, instead.
One Year After You Quit
Once you've stuck to a sugar-free life for a full year, your health will likely have improved. Your body is now adjusted to functioning on essential nutrients, and because it no longer has sugar to store as fat, you'll have probably lost weight.
It's also worth noting that at this point, you can afford yourself a sugary splurge every once in a while, if the occasion inspires it. Naturopathic physician Suneil Jain, MD, of Rejuvena Health & Aesthetics recommends following the 80/20 rule. "Aim to eat healthy 80 percent of the time," she says. If once or twice a week, you make a sugary exception, it likely won't derail you. You'll likely be so blissed out on a no-sugar lifestyle, you couldn't imagine going back.
Below, check out a few options for natural sugar substitutes so you can satiate that sweet tooth without the negative side effects.
Shariff M, Quik M, Holgate J, et al. Neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptor modulators reduce sugar intake. PLoS One. 2016;11(3):e0150270. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0150270
Cleveland Clinic. Bad mood? look to your food. Updated February 5, 2013.