It's no secret that excess sugar can sabotage weight loss progress. What's worse is that beyond the weight gain, it can cause a slew of health problems, including diabetes. But we're inundated with sweet food all the time — many of us from the time we're little kids — with candy, desserts, sodas, and more. Processed sugar can have a hold on us, very much like a drug. So how do we break the cycle? How do we end the addiction to and dependence on sugar?
This isn't a topic we wanted to guess on, so we consulted a few experts: Registered Dietitian Lara Felton, nutritionist Paula Simpson, and nutrition coach Carrie McMahon. The best part of asking these women with different nutritional backgrounds was seeing the similarities in their feedback, reinforcing that these are the best steps for breaking the habit and "getting clean."
Step 1: Educate Yourself
Knowing what sugar really is (and all its aliases!) and where you are consuming it is key. "There are about 56 different names for sugar that you'll find on food labels," said Felton. "Familiarize yourself with some of the more common names for sugar (rice syrup, dextrose, sucrose, and high fructose corn syrup)." These aliases for sugar can make unassuming foods inherently bad for you. "You'll find sugar added to foods you didn't even think of, like pasta sauce," said Felton. "Some marinara sauces have up to 12 grams of added sugar per serving. That's almost 25 percent of the recommended daily amount!"
Simpson echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the importance of educating yourself about sugar. "It's important to educate yourself to read labels for hidden sugars, and not to be fooled by 'no sugar added' or 'all natural' claims," she said. "Some of the most likely foods to contain processed sugar included sodas, fruit juice, refined cereals, and flavored yogurts."
Step 2: Identify the Source
What are you eating? Where is the sugar coming from? Is it an obvious source like candy and soda, or perhaps hidden sugar in processed foods? One of the first actionable steps that you can take is to "identify your key sources of sugar that you eat on the daily," said McMahon. "The idea is to phase out your sources of sugar SLOWLY. Don't go cold turkey, or your body will fight back" — that's the craving and withdrawal phase.
If you're struggling to figure out where your sugar is coming from, Felton recommends using smartphone apps like ShopWell that can help you "decipher the food label and find hidden sources of added sugars." The app also helps you find sugar-free alternatives to your staple, go-to groceries.
Step 3: Start to Cut Back
As McMahon mentioned, it's important to phase it out slowly. She recommended identifying one or two sources that you could easily give up tomorrow, like soda, sugary coffee drinks, or perhaps a supersweet mid-afternoon snack.
Five to seven days after your initial phase out, McMahon told us to identify another one or two sources of sugar in your diet, and slowly eliminate those, and to repeat once more about a week later. "If you go slow, you'll have a longer-lasting effect, and reduce the likelihood of a binge," she said.
Also, get that sugar out of sight. "Don't keep sweets in the house!" said Felton. "[It's] way too tempting when it's so close at hand."
Simpson told us that the first three to four weeks would be the most challenging, with some people experiencing withdrawal symptoms, but she told us that "your body will rebalance itself and cravings will become less intense and less frequent."
Throughout this process, it is imperative that you don't let yourself feel too hungry at any given moment. "We never make our best decisions on an empty stomach," said Felton. "When you're trying to wean down on the amount of sugar you eat, be sure to pack healthy snacks that'll keep you satisfied, and [keep the] hunger at bay."
Step 4: Make Healthy Swaps
Simpson reminded us to apply this phasing out method to our grocery list, too, yet still emphasized the slow speed, as to not shock your body and to create a sustainable change. "Slowly remove those foods from your grocery list, shifting toward unsweetened milks and yogurts, natural nut butters, whole grains, and simple swaps such as cinnamon or nutmeg to sweeten plain cereals and coffee."
"Try not to eat anything in a package, or anything pre-prepared food," said McMahon. Felton also said to focus on whole foods and natural ingredients. "I recommend starting with fruits and veggies, [to] make healthy substitutions," said Felton. "Be sure you know the difference between added and natural sugar; sugar naturally occurs in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, milk and yogurt, and beans and legumes — these are healthy foods that should be a part of your diet."
Need a snack? Felton encourages clients to "stock up on nuts, veggie slices and hummus, and natural nut butter (no sugar added!) with fruit for snacks."
Felton also noted that once processed sugar comes out of your diet, these naturally sweet foods will taste even sweeter, as your brain and taste buds adjust. "Because you're more sensitive to sweet now, some foods may even taste too sweet." This is promising news!