If you heard someone screaming into the void over the weekend, that was just me attempting to “quit” sugar. Sorry, my bad.
I already knew it would be unpleasant — I attempted to give up sugar for a month several years ago as a breakup alternative to getting bangs. But I prepared all the same by throwing out (or eating) all the sugar in my apartment during the week leading up to it (arguably the best part of quitting sugar), and then stocked up on vegetables like broccoli, peppers, carrots, cauliflower, spinach and zucchini, as well as plenty of eggs, cheese, almonds, yogurt, olive oil and coconut oil, like I was stockpiling for a Goop-themed apocalypse. I stayed up late reading all of the sugar-free recipes and started to think: Yeah, maybe eggs and meat can be muffins. It’s not like I had any parties to ruin with my intense dietary restrictions, and lockdown is so boring anyways. Really, how hard could this be?
If my dog could talk, she’d tell you that it wasn’t pretty. I spent two to three days on my couch making monster noises while watching Netflix. I wanted to workout but could barely do yoga. I called my mom, but I was moody and rude. I thought about posting a thirst trap just to feel something, but fell asleep instead. I was a mess. Could it possibly be worth it?
A growing number of wellness experts claim sugar is as addictive as hard drugs and that cutting it out of your diet will improve energy, reduce brain fog and give you glowing skin. As someone who goes back and forth between a pretty clean diet and pounding a burger and fries, going without carbs, candy and booze for a while didn’t seem like the worst idea. But a diet that doesn’t allow for fruit, like the 21-Day Sugar Detox and many other sugar-free meal plans, always seemed unnecessarily extreme to me.
There’s no question that there is way too much refined sugar in processed foods, which contain on average around eight times more sugar than less processed foods. And it’s true that consuming a diet that’s high in added sugar can lead to inflammation, and chronic inflammation has been linked to many health problems like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. In the short-term, too much sugar can also lead to blood sugar spikes and crashes, which leads to low energy, poor focus and increased anxiety, irritability and overall emotionality. In recent years, it’s also come to light that sugar lobbyists have spent decades suppressing a shit load of research regarding how harmful sugar can be.
Few scientists, dietitians or nutritionists dispute these unfortunate truths about added sugar in processed foods, but as for whether or not sugar in general is as addictive as drugs remains a matter of debate. Theoretically speaking, the more of it we eat, the more the pleasure centers of our brains light up with dopamine and the more we’re primed to crave that high. “The food industry is purposely creating food that will become addictive, and since sugar is so addictive, that’s why there’s so much added sugar in food,” says certified health and wellness coach Julie Pullman. “Once you’re hooked, cravings can be hard to resist, leading you down a slippery slope that for many people can spiral you toward obesity and other health problems.”
Still, eating any type of food triggers a dopamine release to a certain extent, as does sex, meditation, exercise and plenty of other activities that aren’t considered addictive. And while experts like Pullman argue that sugar is different, the premise that sugar is as addictive as a drug doesn’t check out in the scientific research. There are studies that demonstrate that the brain responds to sugar in a similar way as cocaine, but a vast majority of this has been limited to mice and rats. A 2016 review of more than 120 studies on the subject found that “the science of sugar addiction at present is not compelling,” researchers wrote in the peer-reviewed European Journal of Nutrition. “Nevertheless, sugar addiction remains a very popular and powerful idea.”
Lead author of the study, University of Cambridge PhD student Margaret Westwater, also noted that many of the studies didn’t distinguish between anxiety from “withdrawal” or from hunger. “However, since such ‘withdrawal’ often occurs in the context of extended fasting, we cannot say if the behaviors were precipitated by previous sugar consumption or by hunger,” Westwarer told Outside Magazine. As I ate another scoop of almond butter and dreaded cooking yet another egg, it felt very much like the latter, but maybe that was just my big bad sugar addiction talking.
Likewise, the signs of anecdotal “withdrawal” like fatigue, headaches, nausea and constipation could also be triggered by electrolyte imbalances and dehydration that occur when your body is adjusting to ketosis. Ketosis is a metabolic state that occurs when people don’t have enough carbohydrates to burn for energy, and the body switches to burning fat and making ketones, molecules formed from fatty acids in the liver used for energy instead.
Simply put, sugar isn’t a drug, it’s a carbohydrate, the body’s main energy source. “Sugar is actually the preferred fuel for our body, offering a quick source of energy when needed,” Kristin Gillespie, registered dietitian and certified nutrition support clinician, explains. She notes that added sugar is a huge problem, hence being the subject of so much health education and research, but “many people have taken this information and overcorrected by trying to completely remove sugar from their diet.”
Additional research suggests that it may not be an addiction to sugar or food in general that some people struggle with, but that this a behavioral addiction to eating, similar to sex addiction or gambling. “This can happen with a range of highly palatable foods, which makes sense. Obviously, broccoli or kale that people are usually eating simply for health isn’t going to stimulate the same dopamine response as something super yummy and appealing,” Gillespie says. “But highly palatable extends beyond sugar — it could include pizza, French fries, hamburgers.”
By day three of my diet, I wasn’t just craving sugar, I was craving a time where I didn’t feel guilty about shoving an apple and peanut butter in my face. I was so exhausted by the thinking part alone, it felt like not eating was easier than trying to eat within these parameters. That’s partially why many nutritionists and dietitians caution against cutting out full food groups.
“Cutting out carbohydrates altogether is risky behavior and a red flag for disordered eating,” registered dietitian Melissa Macher warns. Namely, the risk of developing orthorexia — an eating disorder characterized by obsessive healthy eating that can weaken the immune system, heart and kidneys, and lead to fertility problems, impaired emotion regulation and lowered self-worth — goes up significantly when most people try to cut out sugar completely.
That said, you don’t have to have an eating disorder to be negatively affected psychologically. As much as it might seem like a convenient time to quit sugar in quarantine without the peer pressure to drink beer and eat cake, “it’s a very isolating thing to be on a restrictive diet,” Macher adds. The last thing anyone needs is to feel more alone after a year of that.
It’s fair to point out that plenty of people report having positive mental health outcomes from cutting out sugar completely, and research shows that a ketogenic diet can be therapeutic for specific conditions like epilepsy and Parkinson’s. But what diet and mental health have in common is that they’re very nuanced areas, and it’s important for people to do what works for them. Even as my energy rebounded and focus improved on day four, I was sure that a sugar-free diet wasn’t at all for me. For a lot of people, it’s the restriction itself that causes more sugar cravings, because “it’s the fastest digesting macronutrient, which provides energy,” Macher explains. This leads to more binging, weight gain and obesity rather than addiction. “It’s a survival mechanism from when food was more scarce.”
In other words, making food more scarce may not be the best solution for most people. To be clear, Macher and Gillespie agree that added sugars in processed food are a significant threat to people’s health and should be limited, if not eliminated completely. But the solution to this problem is the addition of more whole grains and vegetables and limiting pre-packaged foods as much as possible, not subtracting an entire macronutrient.
Best-case scenario, if you give up sugar successfully, you’ll have more energy and focus and will benefit from having stabilized blood sugar. But it’s vital to note that “you’d experience a similar effect by simply reducing your sugar intake and consuming sugar from better food sources as opposed to cutting it out completely,” Gillespie says (fruits like berries and apples, vegetables like sweet potatoes and beets, oatmeal and other grains are all considered good sources of sugar). Or as Macher reiterates: “There’s no truth that cleansing the body of sugar is helpful.”
After four days without sugar, I finally accepted defeat and settled into a middle ground between diabetes and ketosis. If you were able to quit sugar successfully and are better for it, more power to you, but I’m going to keep on liking them apples.