Certain phenomena happen so predictably that they have become ordained laws of nature. For example, we know gravity will always bring things back down to Earth, and the Sun will rise each and every morning. Similarly, eating a lot of sugar will make us crave even more sugar—or that's at least how it seems.
Science backs up this seemingly inevitable sugar-craving cycle. Studies show that we can become biologically addicted to sugar, just as we would other substances like drugs or alcohol, which might explain why statistics on sugar consumption are so staggering. A report from the University of California San Francisco explains that the recommended daily added sugar consumption is no more than six teaspoons, or 25 grams. However, the average American consumes 17 teaspoons or around 71 grams, per day. It's scary stuff.
Fortunately, sugar isn't a necessity. And it can be removed from our diets, minds, and kitchen cabinets with a little bit of conscious effort and the right mix of nutritious foods to keep us full and satisfied. But, for most of us, our bodies are accustomed to all the sugar we routinely feed ourselves, so we are seemingly programmed to crave more. To reset and erase these cravings, a sugar detox—a deliberate effort to minimize as much sugar as possible from our diet—may be necessary. So, to help us craft the best sugar detox diet plan and determine exactly what to eat to kick the sugar habit to the curb, we turned to two nutrition experts who gave us a doable meal plan. The best part? A lot of it sounds mouthwateringly delicious.
Ready for a meal plan that will help you ditch sugar from your diet? Read on to learn what to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner during a sugar detox.
Meet the Expert
Why Do We Crave Sugar?
First, it's good to know we're not lacking in self-control or willpower when it comes to sugar cravings. "Our biological addiction to sugar comes from primitive neurochemical reward centers in our brains that light up when we consume sugar," Jackson explains. "These reward centers used to help keep us alive by signaling to our bodies that we need to eat more sugar to put on fat and stay alive when food was scarce. Now, food is everywhere, yet our bodies are still programmed to consume sugar when we see it." To counteract this natural response, Jackson says, "it's important for us to set our bodies up to control these cravings through a healthy diet and lifestyle."
But that doesn't mean quitting sugar all at once. "Start by recognizing how much sugar is in the food you are currently eating. Read the labels, look for 'hidden sugars' and stick to more whole foods,” advises O’Connor. “Then, wean yourself off by consuming less of the breads, crackers, chips, and even energy bars, some of which are practically candy bars in disguise." Consuming less sweet and processed foods is the goal, but she cautions against depriving yourself entirely. "Although it can be tricky, you’ve got to stick to your plan. Cold turkey may be easier in the short term because your body isn’t responding to sugar’s incessant and nagging effect on the brain and the body. Still, in most cases, deprivation can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food, and in some cases, binging."
Recommended Foods: Whole eggs (either scrambled or in an omelet) or a yogurt parfait with plain yogurt, nuts, and seeds.
Jackson agrees that slow and steady is best for a lifestyle change, and it all starts with the first meal of the day. "The easiest way to start is by adjusting just your breakfast for an entire week," she says. "Focus on foods in the morning that are high in quality protein as well as healthy fats, as these foods will keep you fuller longer and suppress cravings, but give you energy." She recommends eating whole scrambled eggs cooked in coconut oil, which will provide both that necessary healthy protein and fat (as a bonus, it's super easy and quick to make on early work mornings when we have zero motivation).
O'Connor similarly recommends a veggie-filled omelet with shredded cheese, though her favorite is a yogurt parfait. Just be sure to use plain, unsweetened yogurt and a low-sugar and high-protein granola. Then, sprinkle in some nuts, seeds, and berries.
Recommended Foods: A salad with a variety of veggies, legumes, and healthy fats.
For lunch, keep up with the protein, fiber, and healthy fats combo. "The best way to detox from sugar is to make sure that you are consuming protein and healthy fats. Protein will keep you feeling fuller longer and can also help reduce cravings, while healthy fats like coconut oil and avocado will help stabilize your blood sugar and give you the energy you need to power through your day," Jackson says. Try preparing a colorful salad that's topped with beans, quinoa, or lentils and drizzled with olive oil. It has the nutrients your body needs and will give you sustained energy all afternoon long (so you can avoid that 3 p.m. slump that usually requires a cup—or two—of coffee to escape).
Your lunch break is also a good time to check in with your hydration levels. Water is important to the body's metabolic processes and also helps keep you feeling energized and alert. Plus, it might prevent you from breaking your sugar detox to scarf down one of those conference room donuts. "When a person sees a sweet treat such as a glazed donut, pleasure signals are triggered in the brain," O'Connor explains. "The mind is a powerful thing. Simply seeing something pleasurable can elicit a desire. However, drinking water can delay your response and give you time to evaluate whether or not it’s a good choice to consume (or if just a bite or two will do)."
Recommended Foods: Roasted vegetables with wild salmon, avocado, and brown rice.
Again, it’s all about a vegetable-based meal that includes protein and healthy fats. "You can certainly include whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa, but limit (don’t restrict) the bread intake and other refined starches," advises O'Connor. Try a roasted vegetable medley with a serving of wild salmon, avocado, and brown rice. It's still warm and filling, but without the extra calories and unhealthy fat that comes with many hot meals, like cream-based soups and starchy pasta dishes.
Start with a base of spinach and cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower before adding carrots, sweet potato, broccoli, or radishes—all of which can be roasted in olive oil. Top it off with a freshly prepared salmon filet and some avocado. We don't know about you, but that sounds so appetizing, so filling, and so satisfying.
Recommended Foods: Hard-boiled eggs, a green smoothie, plain yogurt with berries, Wasa crackers and cottage cheese, edamame, or crudités and hummus.
O’Connor says that whether you choose to have snacks or not during your detox is up to you, and you should listen to your body to help you decide if you need one or not. “Some people do fine with just three meals, [while] others benefit from smaller meals and a snack or two,” she explains. “If you start to feel a little peckish between your meals, then please have a snack. ‘Starving’ or restricting to save on calories may lead to binges later on.”
Because they are a great source of satiating protein and don’t contain sugar, hard-boiled or deviled eggs are one of O’Connor’s top choices for a healthy snack during a sugar detox. “The yolk contains plenty of nutrients, including bone-protective calcium and B vitamins, which are essential for brain health.” She recommends enjoying them with a little Dijon mustard.
If you’re more in the mood for something cold and refreshing, grab your blender. “Try a green smoothie made with a handful of spinach, 4 to 5 cubes of pineapple, ½ a small avocado, and your favorite unsweetened plant-based milk,” says O’Connor. “It’s got just enough natural sweetness in the mix for a tasty balance, [and] the healthy fats and fiber will keep your blood sugars level.”
O’Connor says that plain yogurt with berries is also an excellent choice for a snack that will help keep blood sugar levels under control. The protein from the yogurt and antioxidant-rich berries offer a nutritious, satiating snack that can feel indulgent.
If you’re craving something more savory, O’Connor suggests Wasa crisp crackers and cottage cheese. “You’ll get plenty of whole-grain fiber from the crackers (3g per serving) and a good dose of protein in this low-sugar snack,” she notes. Or, opt for ½ cup of edamame, which you can buy fresh or frozen (and then thaw or heat to your liking). According to O’Connor, “These beans pack in fiber and protein for a convenient and satisfying snack-savvy option, [or for] more flavor, sauté them lightly with minced garlic and add a touch of sea salt.”
Lastly, O’Connor recommends crudités (carrot, celery, zucchini sticks, radish, etc.) with ¼ cup of hummus or ½ cup of plain low-fat Greek yogurt seasoned with lemon juice or zest and a pinch of sea salt or your favorite seasoning blend. “I recommend Tajine, Zaatar, or ‘Everything But the Bagel’ for ultimate flavor,” she adds.
If you have a strong craving for a piece of fresh fruit, it’s possible to make that work, even during a sugar detox. “If you are worried about the sugar (all fruit contains natural sugars), just add a loose handful of nuts or seeds,” advises O’Connor. “The healthy fat will keep those blood sugars stable and provide a little more satiation.”
If you do want to try and limit your snacking, especially mindless eating, O’Connor has a few tips:
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
- Space out your meals evenly during the day.
- Be mindful while you eat (sit down when you eat, don’t eat while distracted), chew your food, and eat slowly. “You’re more likely to recognize how much you are eating and better recall it at the end of the day,” she says.
Hidden Sugars to Avoid
During a sugar detox, you want to avoid snacks that are high in sugars or highly processed (pretzels, cookies, fruit snacks, low-fiber crackers, cereal bars, chips). But, there are less obvious foods that are better left on the shelf and out of your diet. For example, some “healthy” foods like packaged granola contain lots of added sugars, as well as partially hydrogenated oils. “There are hidden sugars in many of our packaged convenience foods. And often, many of these don’t necessarily taste particularly sweet,” explains O’Connor. “Some wheat bread, for instance, may contain barley malt and other 'sugars,' such as honey to balance the flavor, but we don’t consider this dessert."
Granola bars, and even “protein bars,” also often masquerade as something healthier than they are. “While some energy bars are formulated to be low in sugars and high in protein and/or healthy fats, there are so many that contain an excess of added sugars, chemicals, and fillers we don’t need. So, you’ve got to read those labels,” advises O’Connor. “Rather than decipher through a laundry list of ingredients, make your own trail mix—just be sure to limit the dried fruit (to one tablespoon) because it’s concentrated in sugars.”
Also, be aware of drinking too much alcohol. It's less satisfying than food but still adds a lot of calories to our day with its hidden sugars. "Not only that," says O'Connor, but "alcohol impairs our judgment, so we tend to eat 'more freely' as opposed to sticking to moderation."
Aside from packaged and processed foods and alcohol, also avoid eating too much fruit. Jackson says it can have adverse effects on the body and encourage more sugar cravings. "There is a place for a little fruit in everyone's diet and isn't something that should be completely cut out, but too much fruit can be very detrimental to your body," she says. "It's packed with sugar, especially in juice form, and is just setting your body up for an insulin crash. Be mindful when you pick up a 'green juice' and check to see how much sugar is in the bottle. If you are going to eat fruit, aim for lower-sugar fruits like berries, which are also packed with other nutrients."
A good fruit choice is a clementine or Mandarin orange because the segments help you eat more mindfully and savor each bite.
DiNicolantonio JJ, O'Keefe JH, Wilson WL. Sugar addiction: is it real? a narrative review. Br J Sports Med. 2018;52(14):910-913. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2017-097971
University of California San Francisco SugarScience. How much is too Much? the growing concern over too much added sugar in our diets.