All it takes is one bite of something sweet – a piece of cake, a single cookie, a scoop of ice cream – and your sugar cravings kick into high gear. At the same time, you just know that your body would be so much better off if you could just ditch the sweet stuff for good.
If so, the idea of a sugar detox may be appealing to you. A short-term diet plan to help cure your seemingly insatiable sweet tooth and rid your body of the toxic consequences of sugar consumption.
But with so much, often conflicting, information out there on sugar and detoxing, it’s hard to separate fact from falsehood. Is having some sugar in the diet really harmful? And, is a sugar-detox really helpful?
Before you start cleaning out your cupboards and whipping up liquid detox concoctions, here’s what you need to know.
What is a detox?
“Detoxing” is a term that is frequently used when describing certain diet and eating plans, but what does it actually mean?
Essentially, a detox diet is a short-term intervention that is intended to eliminate toxins from the body and promote health. They range from total starvation fasts to juices fasts to specific and restrictive food plans, and may or may not require supplement use¹.
While in conventional medicine, toxin generally refers to drugs and alcohol, and ‘detox’ refers to weaning an individual off of the addictive substance, commercial detox plans define the term ‘toxin’ more broadly allowing for the inclusion of many substances, including sugar¹.
Thus, a sugar detox is generally intended to wean an individual off of their reliance on sugar and as a result, improve overall health.
Why would you consider a sugar detox?
You might be considering a sugar detox for one or both of the following reasons.
- You feel that you are addicted to sugar. You experience intense cravings for sugar that leads to excessive sugar intake. You believe that once you can resolve your body and your brain’s dependence on sugar you will be able to maintain a healthier diet.
- You believe that sugar is toxic and it may be causing, or exacerbating, health problems – anything from chronic fatigue to fibromyalgia to weight problems.
Will a detox help?
The types of commercial detox diets and plans on the market are vast. Given that there is very little scientific evidence to support the claims that are made about any detox diet, whether a detox can help isn’t so clear¹.
But, here is what we do know about sugar addiction, toxicity, and detoxification.
- Contrary to claims in the popular media there isn’t conclusive evidence that sugar addiction is a real thing. Indeed, as a 2016 review of the evidence outlines, there are a lot of reasons to question the validity of arguments that claim sugar is addictive². Read this and this if you want to learn more.
- It’s true, excessive sugar intake is not good for the body. Neither is an excessive intake of water or kale. The truth is, nothing is good for our bodies in excess. And, because sugar-rich foods are often low in other important nutrients, when we consume a lot of sugary foods they may crowd out other nutrient rich foods, leading to inadequate intake of more health-supportive foods. That doesn’t mean that sugar itself is toxic; it just means that our overall intake may be out of balance.
- Our body has a lot of really effective built-in detoxification processes – our liver, kidneys, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and skin all play a role in clearing our bodies of dangerous and toxic substances.
Even if the evidence showed otherwise, that sugar addiction was real and sugar is in fact toxic, there is still no scientific study to support any proposed sugar detox plan as an effective way to resolve feelings of addiction, heal the proposed damage caused by the supposed toxic effects of sugar, or enhance our body’s existing detoxification mechanisms.
Moreover, sugar is simply a form of carbohydrate. Our bodies need carbohydrate. It’s our body’s preferred and primary fuel source. In fact, our bodies must convert all types of carbohydrate into sugar before it can enter into our blood and provide all of our cells with energy.
The problems we experience with sugar are not due to sugar itself but rather the abundant access we have to it, the rules we set around it, and the mindless ways we consume it.
What are the consequences of detox diets?
As a result of the severe energy restriction and nutrient inadequacy that are typical in detox diets, notable side effects include deficiencies in protein, vitamins, and minerals, electrolyte imbalances, pH imbalance, and, in extreme cases, death1. Certainly not consistent with the “health improvement” claims they make.
The rigid and restrictive nature of detox diets can also fuel disordered eating behavior. When we try to restrict foods that we perceive to be “bad”, their appeal grows. The foods can become irresistible. Our ability to deny ourselves access to the foods becomes an almost impossible feat. Eventually we give in and eat the foods. We likely even overeat the foods. We call this the restrict-binge cycle.
Research has shown a causal link between food restriction and overeating of restricted foods once they become available. A recent study supports these findings, specifically as they relate to sugar, showing that when sugar is restricted, it leads to subsequent compensatory sugar consumption when access is resumed³. This behavior is not observed when sugar is not restricted.
In other words, when sugar is restricted for a period of time, we are likely to respond by overeating sweet foods when we have access to them.
Contact us to learn more about our 44-year old philosophy for sustainable health and wellness – without counting calories, boot camp work-outs, or restrictive dieting.
We’re here to guide you, but give you tools to solidify your success at home. If you’re ready for real change, give us a call at 802-228-8885; we’re here for you.
What can you consider instead?
So, if you feel like you are in a constant tug-of-war match with sugary foods, and prospects of a sugar detox diet are not looking so promising, what can you do? Ultimately, the goal is to form a more balanced relationship with sugar. Here are a few tips to help you do that:
- Allow yourself to enjoy it! Just because you enjoy the taste of sugar doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. It simply means you are human and you have a brain. Sugar (like so many other things in life) activates the reward pathways in the brain. That triggers temporary feelings of pleasure and humans like to feel pleasure. Pleasure is a very important part of eating. In fact, when we don’t allow pleasure to be part of eating, by either denying ourselves access to good-tasting foods or beating ourselves up for eating foods we perceive to be “bad”, it often sets the stage for overeating. It leads us to do the exact thing we are trying to prevent.
- Eat in way that is enjoyable. Pleasure doesn’t just refer to the way food tastes, it also refers to the way food makes us feel. Eating to excess doesn’t typically feel good in our bodies. With time and practice and granting unconditional permission to eat it becomes easier to eat sweet foods without overeating them. That is in part because restriction creates feelings of scarcity. For example, “I need to eat as much as I can now because tomorrow I am going back on the diet and I don’t know when I’ll have this food again.” When we remove the restriction it reduces the scarcity and it becomes easier to eat in a way that tastes and feels good.
- Make intentional and deliberate decisions to eat sugary foods. Because we have such abundant access to sugary foods, and evolution has programmed us to be highly attracted to sweet foods, the decision to eat these foods can easily become automatic rather than intentional. We see the food and we eat the food, without giving much thought to whether or not we actually want the food. Forming a practice of pausing and checking in before choosing to eat can be helpful so we can understand what might be drawing us to the food to begin with (it looks good, everyone else is eating it, etc.) and to then determine whether or not this is a food we want to eat.There are no rules, no judgments here — just an opportunity to make an informed decision.
- Eat mindfully. If you do choose to eat a sugar-rich food, make a point of allowing yourself the opportunity to be fully present and aware as you eat, to savor each and every bite. If the food is as good as it looked, you will enjoy that much more. If it’s not as good as it looked, you’ll notice and can make the decision to stop eating it, if you wish. You’ll also be more attuned to how this food feels in your body and aware of the point at which you feel satisfied.
- Don’t set rules or restrictions. When we first begin to practice eating more challenging foods in this way, and are still working on learning how to trust ourselves, it’s common to want to set rules around these foods. For example, “I’ll allow myself to eat one cookie.” But, because we are autonomous beings and want to be in charge of our own decisions, and because rules infringe on that autonomy, as soon as we say “I can have just one,” we’ll likely want more. Instead, experiment with having varying amounts. Notice how those different amounts make your body feel. Notice how feelings of pleasure and satisfaction change throughout the eating experience. And use this information to help you determine how much to have, rather than setting arbitrary rules.
If you’ve read all of the this and you are still feeling like, “that might work for some people, but that will never be me,” I hear you. Many of the women who walk through the doors at Green Mountain each week share those sentiments. When we’ve spent years in a tumultuous relationship with certain foods, the thought of ever changing the relationship seems impossible. It’s not. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. The first step is reminding yourself that YOU are in charge.
A sugar detox won’t help you do that, but Green Mountain at Fox Run can.
We’ve has spent the last four decades helping women become their own authority on food again. Helping them to re-learn how to eat in a way that tastes and feels good – honoring their tastes buds and their bodies. We’d love to help you, too.
- Klein AV, Kiat A. Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. 2015;28:675-686.
- Westwater ML, Fletcher PC, Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. European Journal of Nutrition. 2016;55(Suppl 2):55-69.
- O’Reilly GA, et al. Sugar restriction leads to increased ad libitum sugar intake by overweight adolescents in an experimental test meal setting. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2017;117:1041-1048.