Quitting Sugar: A Former User’s Manual; UPDATE: CNN Has a Plan

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Written by Timothy Pfaff

If quitting sugar completely sounds completely impossible, that may be the strongest indication that you need to. The great news is you can—and soon enough not miss it at all.

Quitting Sugar: A Former User’s Manual; UPDATE: CNN Has a Plan

UPDATE: Now on its webiste, CNN has an article about sugar detox, with the idea of detoxing permanently, by Lisa Drayer. It's as good a one-source guide as we've seen. Read it here: 


In two previous posts we looked at artificial, i.e., chemical, sweeteners and natural sweeteners, both as substitutes for processed sugar, or sucrose for short. It’s not a matter of concern only for people with diabetes and anorexia.

But those to alternatives can also be the kinds of solutions that come with their own problems or bring new ones, as we have noted.

If you’re literate and health-conscious enough to be reading this at all, you know somewhere past the reaches of your self-arguing intellect that sugar is a no-no. So what’s an eater to do?

Stop eating sugar. If you’re among the fortunate few who have stopped eating sugar, you know the reaction, if only because it was once yours. Stop eating sugar? You say what?

When people—like, say, their doctors—tell people with sugar cravings to stop eating sugar, the sugar cravers typically look back at them as if they had suddenly, and rudely, started speaking Swahili. Or they laugh—“You can’t be serious?” Or they get mad and think they need to find another doctor, or deserve better friends.

For all the trips it puts people’s minds through, you’d think sugar was a hallucinogen. And when conditions mandate government food rationing, the two indisputable staples are sugar and salt. So there's that.

That’s how deeply sugar has seeped into our eating culture. And that the answer—Don’t eat sugar—is simplicity itself is just the last straw for many people. It can’t be that simple!

But how do you stop eating sugar forever?

Well, you stop eating sugar and then you don’t die. (Well, of course you’ll die eventually, but you’ll probably live longer sugar-free.) As you will see in what’s to come, there’s no lack of how-to’s in this quitting sugar business, about which our opinion is “Whatever gets you through the night.”

But you can make a decision. Then a commitment. And then stop. Just like that. The biggest things to be prepared for are that you may find you actually like it, a lot, and that other people may actually like you better (unless you tell them what you’re doing, that is, in which case all bets are off).

It’s not unlike quitting cigarettes but, for most people who have quit both, the withdrawal, if any, is way less bad. Some people legitimately complain of some withdrawal symptoms, mostly headaches, sometimes even the jitters. The withdrawal symptoms will be exactly as bad as you think they will be. The majority of people who quit sugar outright—cold turkey—have none.

Also, no seizures, Unless, of course, you have a seizure disorder and stopped taking your seizure disorder meds in protest. 

I speak from experience

The first time anyone told me to simply stop eating sugar, it felt like begin struck in the head by a two-by-four. I had never so much as entertained the idea, and it seemed crazy, morally suspect, and offensive the instant I did.

I’d been freed of a number of other killer addictions by the time someone first said it to me, and my response was a cool, level-headed “Where do you people get off?” “What’s enough?” (when you think about, the central question in recovery from anything), followed quickly by multi-word versions of “No.” When I was told, “You’ll really like it,” I wanted to hit.

When I asked if I should taper off, I got a shrieking laugh response: “Sure! Dragging it out will definitely help.”

I took a little time to let the idea settle in, which I recommend. But seeing the fury with which my panicked brain—I mean, brains in particular need sugar, don’t they?—I saw that I was at a tipping point and I then made the decision that I’d stop eating sugar. Period.

Fortunately, I got help. (Free advice: get all the help you can.) I was directed to give or throw away everything in my house that had processed sugar of any kind in it (and anything made of any kind of flour, but that’s another story). When the people I gave those things to said, appreciatively, that they’d pray for me, I got a little paranoid. Why?

But the cupboard was bare. So before I was allowed to quit sugar I was commanded, kindly, to go buy, you know, food. If you’re buying food without added sugar, allow extra time for shopping.

Then—and this proved to be the key—I was asked to make and write down a plan for the meals on my first day without sugar. This sounded like more fanaticism to me, but on the first day of eating planned meals to which I had committed—and nothing else—the wisdom of removing choice (of the impulse-counter variety)—for a while, I thought; for just a short while—became clear.

If I was going to stop, the second thing that had to go—after the added-sugar foods—was the question, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” I had never once come out on the right side of that one, so the point (if not yet the value) of sticking to the list was brought home.

Let me be clear: This does not happen to everybody but does happen to a lot of people. I started feeling noticeably better on day 2. And better yet the next day. And so on, until it settled into a comfortable place where I just felt reliably good. That got my attention, and held it for more than two years.

My doctor, who's no fool, when she examined me during that time said, "Whatever you're doing, keep not doing it."

What happened after that is the subject of the next post. Spoiler: I got my old self back. Pronto. Some of you reading this will understand when I say that this time is waaaaay harder than the last (that is, first) time.

So why would anyone stop eating sugar?

  • Because you can. This is really important.
  • Your brain—that is your thinking and your thought processes—clear up quickly in ways you can’t overlook. Your memory sharpens—and much more. Yes, the brain does need sugar, but it has its own ideas about how to turn other things you eat into the kind of sugar it needs.
  • Your moods (by nature fickle) rapidly disappear, or level out. They are shortly replaced by the emotions (authentic) for which you were substituting moods. That could be rocky for a while, but you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised at how much more willing those around you are do deal with your most negative real emotions than your wildest, most unpredictable moods.
  • You sleep better. Admit it, you’ve ben waiting all your life for this.
  • When you’re awake, your energy is steadier. Reliable. No postprandial narcolepsy, no pre-dinner sense that it’s all impossible. Everything. And everybody wants something from you.
  • You stop missing sugar.
  • You stop thinking about sugar.
  • You stop seeing sugar. In all the places it once led you by the nose, you don’t even see it.

Here’s the thing

We’re not going to do a chalk talk here. The scientists do it better, and the news, good or bad, is that they’re all over YouTube. If you need to hear it from a specialist, there’s one just a click away.

Sugar (and salt) are called flavor enhancers because they enhance flavors. They do that the same way perfumes and pornography enhance feelings of attraction and horniness. Not only will they do until the real thing comes along, they are designed to make the real thing come along much faster.

When you stop eating sugar, what you get back is flavor.

Not, probably, day one. Maybe not for a while, but usually not a long while. Quickly enough, your sensorium comes around to seeing that under and behind the additives, foods have distinctive flavors—often strong ones the “enhancers” are actually suppressing—and real flavors run deeper and last longer.

What you hear, over and over again, from people who had stopped eating and using sugar, is that eventually, when they bite into a ripe heirloom tomato, the intensity of flavor is almost overwhelming. This when only a month or so earlier, you would have wanted to “fix” it with salt or sugar or vinegar or what not.


If, until the real, deep flavors of healthy food reintroduce themselves to you, you have to resort to some mental tricks, go ahead. You’re abandoned on a deserted island and you have to make do with what’s there.

Suddenly survival takes precedence over sweetness, but you do stay alive. The problem with that particular fantasy is that what you’re likely to have all you want of—but only—is guavas. If you want to give up sugar, trying having access to nothing but.


Nutritionists and dieticians, understanding how difficult it can be for some people to get off sugar—the more so when they most need to—have devised a myriad of helpful tips.

We’ll give you a few here, and you’ll find more in the readings section at the end of the post. Note that many of the tips, not listed here, have to do with what you should eat instead, which is not per se the mission of this post.

  • Increase intake of vitamin C
  • Eat smaller meals with small snacks, particularly a few almonds
  • Reduce/eliminate caffeine
  • Take tryptophan to reduce sugar cravings
  • Increase intake of cinnamon (stick cinnamon tea)
  • Respond to sugar cravings with exercise
  • Eat regularly/Don’t get too hungry
  • Drink lots of water
  • Brush your teeth immediately after meals

What about the sugars in fructose and lactose?

Natural forms of sugar are hard to avoid and don’t necessarily need to be stricken from a diet. But as a general rule, and particularly in the early days of sugar abstinence, avoiding all dairy products—and particularly “healthy” yoghurt—is a good idea.

You can get along without lactose for a while. Some lactose intolerant people are of course abstinent with it. The problem with commercial yoghurts is the “low-fat” and “non-fat” syndromes. They almost always mean added sugar or added sugar substitutes, and neither one gets you “off sugar.”

Of course fruit is better for you than a candy bar. But it can easily sustain or even cause sugar cravings. In the early weeks of sugar abstinence it’s a good idea to hold yourself to 6 oz. per day of a fruit that is not high in sugar, e.g., certain melons and berries.

If you really want to make things easy on yourself--and we say this completely without irony--at first limit your fruit intake to one ripe tomato or one avocado per day. They're fruits. Eat them plain. Retun to them from time to time and notice how much deeper and stronger the flavors are each time.

When you’re stable and “solid” off sugar, you can advance to a whole fruit per day or perhaps more than one—as long as the fruit is not high in sugar. Your body knows how to find the sugar it needs in other non-sweet foods you eat and process it truly naturally.

What about alcohol?

Sorry, no. Alcohol “is” sugar to a significant degree that many people who abstain completely from alcohol suddenly find themselves with a “sweet tooth” they never had before. They were getting their sugar at a highly refined level in alcohol—of all types. If you’re not willing to say no to alcohol, there’s really almost no point to even try to abstain from sugar.

Just a little bit?

People who don’t have issues with sugar and alcohol can have a little bit, in some cases even without a resulting craving. If you’re one of them, sure, “a little bit” on “special occasions.” But if you’ve read this far, you’re probably not one of them.

Just do it

Because the body knows how to find and/or make the sugars it needs in the other foods you eat, you really don’t need to add any.

The single greatest benefit of going “cold turkey” on sugar is the sheer simplicity of it. Just decide no, and out goes the complex counting of carbs and glucose and the constant need to re-decide not to eat it, one sweet thing at a time.

The only way to stop the thinking about sugar is by stopping eating it. People who are off sugar for a considerable period of time look back on it like ex-smokers do on cigarettes. “What was I doing?”

The rewards are relatively quick, impossible not to notice, and all about finding pleasure—including if not especially in foods—in other ways. There’s a wild world of flavors out there, and the more their hidden behind sugars, “blends,” and “sauces,” the more you get to taste them and the stronger and more satisfying the tastes become.

And do yourself a favor. Plan you next day’s meals in detail and in advance. Then follow the plan. This always sounds like the deal-breaker to people who haven’t done it, but it’s really the deal-sealer. Sure, sometimes, plans change, and you can’t control that. But mostly they don’t, and if there’s one thing that’s surely true is that you can plan the next day’s meals more than your thinking tells you you can.

It’s a relief. No more secrets, no more guilt.

You don’t just feel better—though you do feel lots better. You feel better about yourself.

You won’t believe it until you’ve tried it and experienced it, but there really isn’t a downside to quitting sugar. And the health benefits are incalculably great. And it’s nowhere near as hard as it sounds.