By far, the number one complaint I hear from people who are trying to upgrade their diets is that they can’t seem to ditch sweets. Even once they’re comfortable eating a Primal or keto diet, sweet cravings still hang around like a devil on their shoulder, whispering that they should go ahead and “cheat.” I’m using the term “sweets” here to encompass the wide world of candy, baked desserts (cookies, cakes, cupcakes), ice cream, donuts—that sort of thing. Let’s throw soda and sugary breakfast cereals on the pile, too. You know what I’m talking about: the sweet-tasting, uber-palatable foods we categorize as treats in the modern diet.
Note that I’m specifically not using the term “carbs” here—as in, “I need to quit eating carbs”—for several reasons. One, “carbs” is not really a type of food, it’s a macronutrient. Second, the way most people use the term, they also mean savory grain-based foods like bread and pasta. Certainly, lots of people crave those foods, and most of what I say here will apply to grains, too, but the focus is on sweets because that’s where most people have a harder time. Third, vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and even things like mollusks contain carbohydrates. People aren’t grappling with those.
But lots of people struggle to stop eating sweets. It’s why there are so many books and influencers promoting sugar detoxes, promising to help you break free of sugar cravings forever in three days, five days, a week. Of course, if it was simple, quick, and unambiguously rewarding to cut sweets from your diet, we wouldn’t need so many programs.
No, You’re Not Just Weak
Before getting into it, I want to validate that eliminating sweets from your diet can be very difficult. This might seem like a no duh, but I see so many people spiral into shame, guilt, and self-recrimination when they struggle. They believe it “should” be easy, if only they were stronger or more determined. “If I were just ‘better,’” they think, “I wouldn’t experience such strong cravings, and I definitely wouldn’t give in to them.”
They reproach themselves as if we aren’t hard-wired as humans to seek out quick and easy energy. As if we aren’t all surrounded by messaging and advertising that encourages us to indulge in foods that have been manufactured to be hyperpalatable. As if most of us haven’t learned through a lifetime of associations to use these foods for comfort and pleasure.
I’m not saying your efforts to quit sweets are doomed to failure, nor that you shouldn’t take responsibility for health. You can and should do hard things that help you achieve your goals. However, I firmly believe that unrealistic expectations cause a ton of angst and are a major reason people give up. When they inevitably struggle and stumble, people shame-spiral and quit instead of dusting themselves off and taking another step forward.
In the spirit of having realistic expectations, I’ll tell you up up front that I don’t have the one crazy secret that cures sugar cravings forever! I do have some ideas and perspectives you might not have considered before, and they start with (surprise surprise, if you know me at all) self-awareness and mindset.
Before You Begin
When it comes to quitting sweets, almost everybody skips the preparation stage. Or really, their preparation consists of thinking, “Starting tomorrow [or Monday or the first of the month], I’m turning over a new leaf. No more sweets for me!” Then they get ready for the big day by eating as many sweets as they can to get it out of their system before they quit for good this time.
Since when has tackling a hard problem with no forethought or planning ever really worked? Why would this be any different?
Get to Know Your Sweet Tooth
It will be easier—not easy, but easier, hopefully—to reduce your sugar intake if you understand why you eat sweets. Yes, they taste good, but there’s more to it than that. You’re trying to quit because you believe that eating sweets is not good for you in some way… but you eat them anyway.
Without judgment, examine the role that sweets currently play in your life. Are they truly just a source of hedonic pleasure, or do you use sweets to self-soothe or self-medicate? If you experience powerful cravings for sweets, what are your triggers?
- Sight, taste, smell – You crave them because you have learned they taste good. This is the relatively simplest one to deal with because you probably just need a break to build new habits. You can logic/think your way out of this one, for the most part.
- Environmental – You crave sweets at certain times of day, or in situations like nights out with friends or at the coffee shop. Again, these are mostly learned associations or habits.
- Emotions – You crave them because they feel good when you are sad, lonely, scared, angry, confused, even happy. If sweets help you cope with negative emotions, in particular, you’re going to have a hard time breaking up with them unless you find other ways to deal with these feelings.
- Restriction – You crave more sweets when you are also cutting out other foods, strictly tracking your macros, or eating in a caloric deficit. The science strongly suggests that food restriction can lead to overeating and bingeing behaviors, in some individuals more than others.
The “without judgment piece” is critical here. Get curious, and be honest with yourself. What is it about sweets that makes them so compelling? There’s a reason (or, more likely, several) you haven’t simply quit already.
Figure Out Your REAL Goal
So you want to stop eating sweets. What does “stop” mean? I know this sounds like a dumb question, but stick with me. Is your goal total abstinence? Less frequent indulgence? Is it the eating of sweets or the craving of sweets, or both, that bothers you? What would success look like for you?
I would argue that nobody really wants to stop eating sweets. Given the choice, we’d prefer that donuts and ice cream were nutritious staples that we could enjoy daily with no repercussions. What you want is to be healthy, to achieve a certain body composition goal, or to feel in control of your food choices—something bigger than not eating cake.
It’s cliche, but you have to identify your “why” and keep it front and center in your mind when the going gets tough. Humans don’t do great with restriction or denying ourselves things we want unless we have a good reason for it.
Make a Plan
Once you have a clear understanding of what you’re hoping to achieve, it’s time to make an action plan. The specifics of that plan will depend on why quitting sweets is a struggle in the first place. You’ll need to decide if you simply need to build new habits and break out of old patterns or if you need to find better ways to deal with stress and negative emotions to be successful long-term.
Be realistic. It’s unlikely that you’ll never let even a grain of refined sugar pass your lips again. Work backward from your long-term goal and identify a realistic short-term goal that puts you on the path to success. Then start.
Cold Turkey Versus Tapering – Which One is Better?
Whichever one sounds the best to you.
I find Gretchen Rubin’s abstainer versus moderator distinction helpful when it comes to diet goals. In a nutshell, the framework posits that some people should aim to eat few or no sweets moving forward (abstaining), while others are better off finding a way to incorporate occasional sweets in their diet in ways that allow them to feel satisfied and still achieve their health goals (moderation). Neither approach is inherently better than the other, but be true to your nature.
Don’t Rely on Willpower
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say a thousand times more: willpower is overrated. Very few people ever succeed with long-term goals that require them to call on willpower over and over.
A big part of any behavior change, whether it’s adopting a new diet, quitting smoking, training for a 5k, or starting to meditate, involves building new habits. Habits are behaviors that have become ingrained so you don’t have to think about them so much—you just do them. I wrote a longer post about this last year, but habit change boils down to getting good systems in place to help you be successful. This is where the typical advice comes in: purge your pantry of sweets, have lots of other food options on hand, engage some social support. Also, find ways to celebrate and reward yourself for your wins, even the small, incremental ones.
The more diet rules you place on yourself, the more effort it’s going to take to uphold them all. If your main goal is to vanquish your cravings for donuts, cake, or ice cream, it might not be the best time to also go keto or give up coffee. If you have an urgent medical need to overhaul your diet completely, then do what needs to be done. Otherwise, consider prioritizing and tackling one thing at a time.
Work on Your Mindset
Mindset is the overlooked piece that often makes or breaks people’s success without them realizing it. Here are four of my favorite tried-and-true strategies:
Look forward, not backward. Focus on what you are working towards, not what you are giving up. Don’t waste time reminiscing about the good old days where you could eat anything with no obvious ill effects. (Those choices had consequences anyway, you just didn’t see them.)
Make your mantra: progress not perfection. Expect to have missteps, relapses, and total blow-outs along the way. Decide ahead of time to try your best and keep moving forward anyway. You don’t fail when you mess up, you fail when you stop trying.
Watch the language you use, even in your head. You don’t have to give up sweets, you’re choosing to give up sweets. You can have sweets any time you want, but you’re acknowledging that they don’t serve you right now. You have agency and free will, and you’re exercising them now.
Practice self-compassion. When the going gets hard, acknowledge that you’re riding the struggle bus without getting sucked into despair or self-criticism. Everyone struggles sometimes. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.
Keep Moving Forward
They say the first step is the hardest, but when it comes to diet goals, that’s not true at all. People are great at starting. The maintenance is where people crash and burn.
Give yourself a fighting chance. In the substance abuse and recovery sphere, they use the acronym HALT to remind folks of four physical and emotional states that make them vulnerable to relapse: hunger, anger, loneliness, tiredness. This is a concept I’ve modified for my own life. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, or I want to reach for comfort foods or a glass of wine, I use HALTS (with an extra S for stressed) to check in with myself and see where I’m in need of deliberate self-care. (Side note: this works well with my kids, too.)
Cravings for sweet foods are exacerbated by hunger (and low blood sugar), stress,, and fatigue and sleep deprivation. Eat plenty of nutrient-dense food that you enjoy. Especially if sweets are comfort foods for you, you’re never going to succeed in scaling back if you also hate the food you are eating. Manage your stress levels, because stress and willpower are mortal enemies. I wouldn’t advise trying to quit all sugar cold turkey when you’re under a ton of work and life stress. Consider setting more moderate goals. And sleep. Always sleep.
Dealing with Cravings
Most of what we’ve covered so far is big-picture stuff. What about in the moment when you’re dealing with an intense sugar craving? The best thing to do is to go for a short walk or do a microworkout. Besides buying you some time and hopefully distracting you from the craving, exercise has been shown to directly dampen cravings. Exercise can actually reduce the degree to which sweet foods activate reward centers in the brain.
If you’re stuck in a meeting or otherwise can’t bust out a quick workout, try eating something else with a strong salty, sour, or bitter flavor. People in the Keto Reset group swear by dill pickles. Or—and I admit that this does sound like that one crazy trick—there’s some (very limited) evidence that certain smells like jasmine or peppermint might curb appetite, so bust out those essential oils. At the very least, your office will smell good.
Will Swapping Sugar for Artificial Sweeteners Help or Hurt?
We’re not big on artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose around these parts, but what about sugar alcohols like erithrytol or xylitol, stevia, allulose, or monk fruit that are popular with the keto and ancestral health crowds? Based on my years of working with the Keto Reset community, my opinion is this comes down to personal preference. For some people, using “approved” sweeteners keeps them riding the cravings roller coaster. They are better off abstaining and letting their tastebuds recalibrate to prefer savory offerings. For other people—the moderators—the occasional paleo-fied baked item or ice cream made with these sweeteners help them stay on track and allows them to enjoy their diets more. The question is, which one are you?
What if I’m Addicted to Sugar?
Some people feel truly addicted to sweets. When they try to quit, cravings become all-consuming, or they experience severe physical or emotional symptoms.
There’s an ongoing scientific debate about whether sugar is addictive in the same way as alcohol or drugs of abuse like cocaine or heroin. This debate is interesting on an academic level, and it’s important for practitioners, but it’s of little practical use for the people who feel like they are addicted. If this is you, seek support from someone who is qualified to help (and I don’t mean from a fitfluencer who is selling a three-day detox, I mean someone who specialized in disordered eating and food addiction).
How to Stop Eating Sweets – FAQs
Why is sugar addictive?
Sugar has similar effects on the brain, especially the dopamine and opioid systems, as other addictive substances, leading some scientists to conclude that sugar can be addictive. Detractors argue that although sugar is highly rewarding and pleasurable, it doesn’t meet the criteria for addiction in humans.
Do I need to do a sugar and carb detox to cleanse my body?
You don’t need to “detoxify” your body from sugar. Most detoxes or cleanses are just set periods where you don’t eat sugary foods and drink plenty of water. They could offer a mental boost to make a clean break from sugar, but your liver will handle the detoxing bit.
What are common sugar “detox” symptoms? How long does sugar withdrawal last?
When you first quit sugar, hunger and cravings are common. You might also feel lethargic, grouchy, or generally out of sorts. Some people experience headaches or migraines, brain fog, shakiness, or sleep disruptions. Most people find that symptoms largely abate within three days, or up to a week.
How do I prevent sugar withdrawal?
To stave off the worst symptoms at the beginning, eat plenty of satisfying foods, including protein and fat for satiety. Stay hydrated and active if you can, but opt for gentle movement instead of high-intensity, sugar-burning workouts. Budget plenty of time for sleep, and avoid added stress.
What are the benefits of cutting out sugar?
You’ll usually see weight loss touted as the biggest benefit, but I’d argue that the best reason to cut sugar is metabolic flexibility and everything that entails, including more efficient fat burning, sustained energy, improved metabolic health and gut health, and less inflammation, to name a few.
How to give up sugar—where should I start?
Start with your biggest offender, whether that’s soda, daily frappucinos, or late-night desserts. Decide whether to go cold turkey or taper. Make a plan: How will you replace the food(s) you’re cutting out? What will you do if you get tempted? Then take it one choice at a time.
How do I curb sugar cravings?
Prevention is key. Don’t get too hungry; eat satisfying, nutrient-dense meals. Don’t get too tired; get plenty of good sleep. Don’t get too stressed; practice self-care. When cravings hit, opt for gentle movement or a quick workout first, then try eating something with a strong flavor.