What happens to your body when you stop eating sugar?

In life in modern times, sugar can seem unavoidable. Juice, chocolate, cake and everything that might bring you joy seems to be packed with it, and the idea of quitting cold turkey conjures images of being the elephant in the room at a birthday party, having to refuse that slice of cake offered to you.

Sugar is an addictive substance, and can be as addictive as cocaine. When you quit eating sugar you go through withdrawal effects, just like with any drug.

In this post we'll tackle why you might want to quit sugar, the effects of quitting sugar on your body (the 'Keto fever') and how you can quit sugar reliably so that you don't binge on it.

If you've quit sugar or are either in the process of doing so or are thinking about it, feel free to tell us in the comments below or to drop us a message on social media telling us about it. We want to hear your stories.


 Spoonful of heaped sugar

What does sugar do to your body?

In this post I'll be talking about the simple sugars, which are most present in refined foods. These sugars are glucose, fructose and galactose. These 'simple sugars' are essentially carbohydrates, which break down very easily in the body to provide energy, however sugar consumption carries some dangers:


1: Addiction

Different types of people will be differently prone to sugar addiction, however the fact remains that sugar is a highly addictive substance, and affects the body as such. A 2018 systematic review (a review of previously collected data) found that the potential for sugar addiction was higher when the sugar was combined with dietary fats.

As an addictive substance, quitting cold turkey can have sudden effects on the body and can lead to you bingeing and getting back on sugar, and as such it is best to ease into a sugar-free or low-sugar diet (as I will discuss later).


2: Displacing nutrients

Studies have found that if sugar consumption makes up 25% or more of your daily intake of energy, that the consumption of other foods will decrease, meaning that you will consume less of the nutrient rich foods your body craves. Think about it - If you're eating 500 calories worth of sugar a day, you aren't eating an extra 500 calories a day. Instead you will reduce your consumption of other foods, which are important for your health and macronutrient balance.


3: Depression

Sugar is essentially a carb, and a study out of the British Journal of Psychiatry showed a link between high carbohydrate diets and depression. One reason for this may be that sugar has been linked to inflammation, which is thought to be a cause of depression.

Additionally, as an addictive substance, sugar opens itself up to substance abuse in depressed people, who may become addicted to sugar rather than seeking medication or help through therapy or counselling.


Additionally, sugar has been shown to contribute to dental problems and has been linked to rheumatoid arthritis in adults. As well as this, sugar in your bloodstream creates harmful molecules (known as AGEs), which damage the collagen in your skin, therefore contributing to wrinkles.

All in all, sugar is a substance better left avoided.


 Sugary donut

The effects of quitting sugar on the body:

Making the decision to cut out sugar is an important one (if that's what you're trying to do), but beware, the first few days aren't going to make you feel great, especially if you consumed a lot of sugar prior to cutting back or quitting.

When people go on the Ketogenic diet, for example, they experience what is commonly called the 'keto flu', where they suffer from a handful of symptoms such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Coughing
  • Weakness
  • Cravings for sugar

The more intense these symptoms, the more dependent you were on carbs before you began to cut back on sugar. Often if you're experiencing the 'keto flu' it will feel like you are ill.

Another symptom of sugar withdrawal is irritability and mood swings, the reason why is simple. When consumed, sugar causes our brain to release dopamine, the most infamous feel good hormone.

In a study by neurology professor Christian Lüscher, it was found that when rats are given a switch to administer dopamine at will, all they will do is flick the switch, they won't even eat or drink unless taken out of the cage.

Over time, as we continue to consume sugar, our brain begins to regulate that dopamine release, and less is released each time. What this generally means is that we begin to consume more sugar to get the same 'dopamine high' that we used to get. It's a grim cycle where you need to eat more and more to get the same feeling.

It is precisely this effect on dopamine that will cause mood swings and irritability. Without your previous source of the feel good hormone, you will be deficient in it for a period of time before other sources can begin to provide you with dopamine once again, meaning that in the meantime you may be irritable, moody or grumpy.

When you're going through the keto flu, or you're feeling a withdrawal from sugar, it's best to take it easy when exercising. In our instagram infographic (https://www.instagram.com/workoutsmatter/) shown below we explain you shouldn't work out when you're ill. Even though the keto flu isn't technically illness, you should still either stop working out or take it easy while you're experiencing 'the flu'.

Infographic below:

 When you shouldn't work out

Quick explaination - how sugar works:

During digestion, complex sugars such as sucrose or lactose are broken down into simple sugars such as glucose or fructose, which are then all converted to glucose (as it's the only sugar the body can actually use).

The glucose then enters the bloodstream where it is taken up by your body's cells to use for energy, however there can sometimes be too much (or too little) sugar in the bloodstream. This is where insulin comes in.

If there is too little sugar in our bloodstream, the pancreas will release glucagon, a hormone that signals to the liver to release stored glucose (glucose is stored in the liver as glycogen), into the bloodstream.

If there is too much sugar in our bloodstream, the pancreas will release insulin which causes the glucose to be taken up by fat cells and stored as glycogen.

Overweight people are, in general, less sensitive to insulin in their bloodstream, which is why obesity puts you at risk for diabetes.


Quitting sugar the RIGHT way:

To get it out of the way. I don't think cold turkey is a good idea. You're at much more risk for falling off the wagon or bingeing when you're trying to quit cold turkey than when you're easing yourself onto a different diet, although falling off the wagon isn't the end of the world.

One easy way to ease yourself off of sugar and onto a healthier diet is to first figure out how many grams of sugar you consume a day, alternatively you can calculate how many calories from sugar you consume a day. Aim to cut this back to whatever your desired amount is over the course of a few days or a couple of weeks. Cut it back in small increments that you know you can handle and, if you feel like it is a good idea, feel free to allow yourself some cheat days.

It should be mentioned that a cheat day is not a day where you allow yourself to binge on cake and ice cream, but instead one where you allow yourself a little treat. If you've been eating no refined sugar at all, allow yourself a small slice of cake or something like that.

The key thing to remember when 'cheating' is to be exact about what you'll let yourself have. Tell yourself "I'll have a small slice of cake and that's IT", otherwise if you just say you'll have 'some cake' then you will end up going overboard and eating too much (and therefore setting yourself back).



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