As of earlier this year, what’s become even more popular than our obsession with low-fat diets (at least according to Google Trends) is our infatuation with quitting sugar. And while I’ve seen enough nutritionists, herbalists, and health coaches in my time to know low-fat diets are complete BS, there seems to be some merit to the idea of cutting out sugar.
The woman who made me question my sugar-eating habits is New York Times best-selling author, Instagram sensation, and activist Sarah Wilson. Like a lot of wellness influencers, Wilson became an industry name after treating an illness by adjusting her lifestyle naturally. She suffered from an autoimmune disease (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) and was told by nutritionists to quit eating sugar to help alleviate her symptoms. She writes that she was a “covert addict,” convincing herself that because she ate “healthy sugars,” she wouldn’t be affected. “[I would eat] honey in my chai tea, dark chocolate every afternoon, and sweet treats after dinner,” Wilson writes on her website (sound familiar!?), adding, “But I soon learned, sugar is sugar, whether it comes from a beehive or a sugar cane field.”
After cutting out all sugar, Wilson lost weight, no longer experiences 3 p.m. slumps in energy, and reports being able to manage her disease much better—she’s still sugar-free even five years later. She’s since released an eight-week guide that includes meal plans and shopping lists, recipes, community support, and a video to help other people wean themselves off sugar too. The guide promises to help followers drop pounds; improve their sleeping patterns; feel more energetic; and have clearer skin, better moods, and a greater ability to concentrate.
Dr Lanae Mullane, the director of nutrition at LifeSpan Medicine, explained that the benefit to limiting sugar is improved glycemic control (stable blood sugar), which is fundamental for feeling good and for promoting long-term health. “Achieving glycemic control improves brain function and body composition and prevents accelerated aging,” she said. Basically, when your blood sugar crashes and skyrockets after eating sweet food, there’s an immediate effect on brain function, which “can lead to symptoms like fatigue, poor concentration, and anxiety,” Dr. Mullane explained. “Limiting sugar is one of the quickest ways to optimize your brain power and energy level.”
When it comes to your weight, consuming excess sugar can lead to what experts call “impaired glucose tolerance” (the inability to properly metabolize carbohydrates) and diabetes. “Instead of converting glucose into energy, you store it as fat, particularly in the midsection. Limiting sugar is an effective strategy for improving your body composition and preventing diabetes,” she explained. Seeing as improved concentration and more energy are both things I would like for myself—and the fact that there’s also a ton of research linking sugar with heart disease, signs of aging such as wrinkles, and even cancer—I too decided to try to quit sugar.
I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that after 14 long sugar-free days and two weekends of complete, uncharacteristic sobriety, I cracked. (Blame happy hour at my local Mexican restaurant and particularly wonderful—and sugary—margaritas.) Specifically, I’d been cutting out the dark chocolate I eat every night after dinner, sugary prosecco and cocktails after work, basically any processed foods, and fruit. In the evenings I started taking a magnesium supplement, recommended by an herbalist to help with my chocolate cravings, and while I didn’t notice any hard-core cravings for sweet food beyond the first couple of days, during that that two-week period I felt tired All. Of. The. Time. My gym attendance plummeted to an all-time low, as did my motivation to attend events, see friends, and generally act like a functioning 25-year-old. Another weird thing: I noticed that things that formerly didn’t taste sweet, were overwhelmingly sugary (even yogurt) when I tasted them again. Probably the only good outcome is that my stomach is noticeably flatter since cutting out sugar, and my chocolate cravings disappeared.
Dr. Mullane told me that symptoms like mine typically last up to a week after cutting out sugar before your body adjusts, but that you might not experience any side effects. “A small percentage of people feel tired or irritable when they drastically reduce intake, but majority of people feel remarkably better right away,” she explained, adding that because I exercise often, I might not need to quit sugar at all. “Small amounts of sugar can be beneficial within a certain context. Individuals who have good glycemic control and exercise regularly tend to metabolize sugar efficiently. Having small amounts of sugar or a dessert on occasion can make your diet more appetizing and prevent feelings of deprivation, thereby promoting healthy eating for a lifetime.
Now, I stick to a (much easier) low-sugar diet, cutting out the sugar found in sodas, sauces, candy, processed foods, and chocolate, but succumbing to the odd sugary cocktail. If this sounds like more your jam, know that dietitian Bridget Jane assures me that there are plenty of benefits to this less-extreme lifestyle. “When people omit processed foods from their diet—especially those high in refined and added sugars, they report clearer skin, mental clarity, even energy levels, little to no cravings, weight loss, and an overall feeling of well-being. Over a longer term, I’ve witnessed people ‘reverse’ diabetes and completely correct any sign of insulin resistance.”
Of course, sugar plays a big role in our diet, so there are always risks involved with completely cutting out the food group: “Sugar at its essence is the fuel our brain and immune systems use to run. We need to make sure we are having a well-balanced diet including lots of fresh fruit and veggies and whole grains or legumes. When we provide our bodies with these whole food sources of sugar, it can do what it does naturally and extract just the right amount of sugar from these sources,” she said, adding that if you’re more active, you may be able to justify higher amounts of sugar in your diet.
If you do decide to quit sugar, be wary about eating enough food to give you energy throughout the day. “If people cut back too drastically, they may not have sufficient energy to fuel their day. It’s important to know how much fuel your body needs to run optimally and to provide wholesome sources of this,” she said.