Quitting sugar can be difficult partly because sugar shows strong signs of being addictive. Similar to a drug—and unlike most other foods—sugar activates the brain’s reward centers and releases dopamine each time it’s consumed. Also, as with many drugs, over time, greater sugar quantities are needed to get an equivalent dopamine response.
If you want to lower your sugar intake, many experts—including Nicole Avena, Ph.D., a research neuroscientist in the fields of nutrition and addiction—agree on what not to do: Don’t quit sugar cold turkey.
“That’s counterintuitive to the addiction model,” Avena concedes. “But sugar is such a big part of our American diet. I find that when people just cut it all out immediately, it sets them up for failure.”
Instead, Avena suggests identifying your greatest source of sugar—perhaps soda or candy. Then, analyze what you enjoy most about it—whether it’s the carbonation or the caffeine or a particular flavor or texture—and swap it out with a low- or no-sugar food that has the same trait. After that change has become a habit, repeat the process with other sources.
Nutrition expert JJ Virgin, author of JJ Virgin’s Sugar Impact Diet (Grand Central Life & Style, 2016), advocates a similar approach to quitting sugar by starting with small substitutions, building up to a two-week period with zero fructose, even from fruit. “What you’re doing during this time,” Virgin says, “is retraining your taste buds to appreciate natural sweetness, to appreciate savory and spicy. You begin to balance your blood sugar and your insulin levels. And, best of all, once you come off of high-sugar foods, you get to where you don’t even want them anymore.”