At this point, everyone knows sugar isn’t doing their health any favors. Nutrition experts don’t agree on much, but they can all get behind the recommendation to significantly reduce or eliminate added sugar in the diet. The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends keeping added sugar intake to no more than 10 percent of total calories. On a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s 200 calories (50 grams, 12.5 teaspoons).
Because of added sugar’s link to obesity, cavities, and chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, the American Heart Association (AHA) has proposed an even stricter limit of "no more than half of your daily discretionary calories allowance." The AHA considers this 100 calories for women and 150 calories for men. The average American, however, eats a whopping 22 teaspoons of added sugar every day (via The Nutrition Source).
If you’ve decided to take the plunge and finally quit the white stuff (or at least drastically reduce your intake), it can be helpful to know what to expect. Sugar can have a profound effect on both the mind and body, so you may experience some unpleasant symptoms as it leaves your system. But if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded with a lifetime of improved health.
You may get withdrawal headaches when you quit sugar
Although sugar may not trigger physical dependence in the same way that opiates or alcohol can, many researchers believe it’s just as, if not more, addictive than some drugs. A 2013 review published in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care noted that sugar and the sensation of sweetness stimulate the same reward centers in the brain that light up during drug use. Eating sugar causes a rush of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, the same chemical released when using other addictive substances. On top of this, the connection between the taste of sweetness and feelings of pleasure appears to be deeply hardwired into our evolution.
It’s no surprise, then, that quitting sugar can lead to withdrawal symptoms, including headaches. Medical News Today noted that both high and low blood sugar levels can cause a headache. When going through sugar withdrawal, the sudden drop in dopamine levels in the brain can trigger a migraine headache.
To avoid extreme fluctuations in dopamine levels, consider slowly tapering off of added sugar rather than going cold turkey. Thankfully, sugar withdrawal headaches are temporary and should go away within a couple days of quitting sugar.
Your sugar cravings may get intense, but only for a little while
According to WebMD, there are many reasons why people crave sugar. An affinity for sweetness appears to be built into our biology, as it’s the first taste we prefer as babies. Sugar causes the release of serotonin and endorphins, both of which make us feel happy and relaxed. We reinforce this positive connection by rewarding ourselves with sweet treats and linking fun events like birthdays and holidays with sugary foods and beverages.
If you decide to cut out added sugar from your diet, how you go about it could make a difference. WebMD noted that for some, slowly reducing sugar intake while still allowing yourself some treats is easier. However, others may prefer to cut out added sugar all at once. Eating regularly to avoid becoming overly hungry, walking or doing something else to distract yourself, and finding healthy substitutes for your sweet tooth (such as fruit) can all help combat sugar cravings.
Like the other negative symptoms of sugar withdrawal, intense sugar cravings are relatively short-lived. Most individuals will only experience cravings for a few days, although they may last a few weeks for others (via Insider).
You may be irritable after giving up sugar, but your mental health will improve in the long run
In the short term, cutting out sugar may leave you feeling lousy and not much fun to be around. According to Medical News Today, individuals going through acute sugar withdrawal may experience irritability, anxiety, and depression. These negative feelings should subside fairly quickly as the brain adjusts to life without sugar.
Despite initial discomfort, quitting sugar may be one of the best things you can do for your mental health. Healthline noted that consuming too many simple sugars can increase your risk for depression and mood disorders. Sugar promotes inflammation within the body, and inflammation may be an underlying cause of some forms of depression.
In fact, the link between sugar and depression is so compelling that researchers have begun to experiment with the use of diabetes drugs to treat depression. In one 2016 study published in Psychiatry Research, participants with depression were given pioglitazone, a medication that makes the body more sensitive to the effects of insulin, for 12 weeks. The medication improved their ability to regulate blood sugar, and this in turn led to improvements in their depression symptoms.
Your brain will experience some changes when you quit sugar
According to Healthline, cognitive issues, like brain fog, are a common symptom as your body "detoxes" from sugar. But when people complain about brain fog, what exactly are they experiencing? According to a 2019 article in Patient, "Brain fog is a general term for a set of symptoms affecting the cognitive processes. It isn’t a medical condition in itself, but rather occurs as [a] common feature of other conditions." Brain fog can cause problems with memory, information processing, concentration, higher-level thought, and speaking to or understanding others.
Both high and low blood glucose levels can cause brain fog (via Healthline). Enduring a little temporary discomfort as your blood sugar levels reach a new equilibrium is worth it though, because your long-term brain health will improve on a low-sugar diet. As a 2013 research review published in Appetite, researchers found that a high-sugar Western diet negatively impacted learning, memory, cognition, and hedonics (the ability to experience pleasure and displeasure).
You’ll get more Zs after giving up sugar
If you decide to remove added sugar from your diet, your sleep will likely improve. That’s because sugar can negatively affect sleep in a variety of ways (via The Guardian). Those who eat more sugar tend to be more restless at night and have more shallow sleep. Sugar is a rapidly absorbed form of energy, so a big serving of dessert shortly before bed primes the body for action and can leave you feeling wired when your head hits the pillow.
Sugar during the day may also drive us to eat later at night to counteract the inevitable sugar crash, and eating close to bedtime disrupts sleep. Metabolizing sugar also requires the body to use magnesium, a mineral that’s also critical for good sleep (via The Guardian). It’s probably no coincidence that the average American consumes way too much sugar and doesn’t get enough sleep.
Although cutting out sugar can improve both the quality and quantity of sleep you get each night, there’s often an adjustment period as your body gets accustomed to the dietary change. Healthline noted, "Some people experience changes in their sleep when detoxing from sugar. You might find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep through the night."
When you stop eating sugar, you’ll stop experiencing drastic swings in energy
There’s no denying that sugar can give you a quick burst of energy. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1 gram of sugar (the simplest form of carbohydrate) contains 4 calories, which your body uses as fuel. But anyone who’s ever overdone it on the sweets can confirm the energy provided is short-lived. This leads to the notorious sugar crash.
The Sanford Medical Center explained that these crashes occur when our bodies are flooded with tons of sugar and the pancreas must respond by pumping out lots of insulin. This sudden spike and then drop in blood glucose leaves us feeling tired, irritable, and shaky. While your first instinct during a crash may be to reach for another sugary pick-me-up, this only perpetuates the cycle of blood glucose spikes and dips.
Quitting sugar allows your body to maintain more consistent glucose and insulin levels, without drastic swings in either direction. If you’re struggling to remove all added sugar from your diet, Sanford recommends consuming sugary foods with sources of fiber and protein to help slow absorption and prevent the sugar from hitting your system all at once.
You could lose weight when giving up sugar, but probably not as much as you’d think
Many people hope giving up sugar will help them shed unwanted pounds. In addition to the empty calories it contributes, sugar affects hormones that influence weight. As a 2019 paper published in Medical Hypotheses pointed out, the body deals with the sudden spikes in blood glucose that sugar causes by secreting insulin. Insulin allows glucose to be used by cells but also causes any unneeded glucose to be stored as fat. If you eat large amounts of sugar long enough, your body becomes resistant to insulin’s effects and your pancreas has to secrete more and more insulin, leading to weight gain. In fact, as the paper noted, insulin resistance is a defining characteristic of obesity.
But swearing off sugar isn’t a magic bullet for weight loss. A 2013 study published in the British Medical Journal concluded that although decreases in body fat were correlated with limiting sugar intake, the underlying reason was simply a reduction in total calories. Those who swapped sugar calories for an equal number of calories from other, healthier sources didn’t lose any weight. In other words, there’s no escaping the simple rule of calories in versus calories out.
Your skin may clear up if you quit sugar
According to a paper published in 2014 in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, between 12 and 22 percent of women and 3 percent of men continue to experience acne into adulthood. If you’ve been dealing with breakouts through your 20s, 30s, and beyond, cutting out added sugar could be the solution you’ve been searching for.
One explanation for the link between sugar and acne, as proposed in a 2008 study published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, is that eating sugar causes a spike in blood sugar, which requires the body to release insulin. Insulin encourages the release of androgens (male sex hormones), a known cause of acne. Insulin may also trigger the production of other substances that stimulate the body to produce more pore-clogging sebum (oil).
This connection between sugar and acne has been noted in a number of studies, including a paper published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2014. The researchers found that individuals with no or mild acne ate significantly less added sugar and total sugar than those with moderate to severe acne.
Your joints will hurt less once you remove added sugar from your diet
Removing sugar from your diet could put the spring back in your step, thanks to a reduction in inflammation. According to Healthline, sugar promotes inflammation in several ways. It leads to excess production of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), inflammatory compounds that form when fat or protein combine with sugar in the bloodstream. Sugar also increases intestinal permeability, raises LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and leads to increases in body fat — all of which have been linked to chronic, low-grade inflammation. In turn, chronic inflammation is believed to underlie or exacerbate a number of health conditions, including certain types of arthritis.
Joint diseases (including arthritis) can be either inflammatory or noninflammatory (via the Merck Manual). Although osteoarthritis, the most prevalent form of arthritis, is generally considered noninflammatory, a paper published in Therapeutic Advances in Musculoskeletal Disease in 2013 pointed out that inflammation does in fact play an important role in osteoarthritis.
The Arthritis Foundation noted that nearly one in three Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 have arthritis. If you’re one of them, know that cutting out sugar could reduce symptoms such as pain and stiffness.
Your beneficial gut bacteria will thank you for giving up sugar
Many people experience improvements in digestion and more pleasant trips to the bathroom once they quit added sugar. This may be due to sugar’s negative impact on the gut microbiome.
According to a 2016 paper published in Current Opinions in Gastroenterology, the gut microbiome is an ecosystem of billions of microorganisms (mostly bacteria) that resides in your large intestine. It performs a number of important functions, including helping to break down food, producing certain vitamins, and protecting the body against foodborne pathogens. Everyone’s gut microbiome is unique, but for optimal health it’s important that this collection of microorganisms be large and diverse.
Per a 2017 study published in Physiology & Behavior, a high-sugar diet appears to decrease microbiome diversity and upset the balance between the two most commonly found types of gut bacteria, Firmicutes and Bacteriodetes. It also promotes inflammation in the gut and disrupts the nerves that allow your brain and digestive tract to communicate with one another. Cutting out sugar — and replacing it with foods that support your microbiome, like nutrient-rich vegetables and fiber-rich whole grains — could help rebalance and strengthen your friendly flora.
Stop eating sugar and your cholesterol will likely improve
An estimated 93 million American adults have a total cholesterol level greater than 200 mg/dL, and approximately 29 million of those individuals have levels higher than 240 mg/dL (via CDC). In addition, 18 percent of adults have an HDL ("good") cholesterol level below 40 mg/dL. High cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, the CDC revealed.
Sugar may be a bigger contributor to cholesterol than dietary fat, so cutting it out could make a big difference for your heart health. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2007 followed more than 15,000 women for about a decade and concluded that those who ate more sugar-rich refined carbs had higher cholesterol levels and were at greater risk for developing cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2020 looked specifically at the link between sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda, and cholesterol issues. They found that individuals who consumed more than one serving of sugar-sweetened beverages per day had lower HDL and higher triglyceride levels than those who consumed less than one sugary drink per month.
Your blood pressure could decrease after giving up sugar
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 45 percent of Americans have high blood pressure, defined as a systolic pressure greater than or equal to 130 mmHg or a diastolic blood pressure greater than or equal to 80 mmHg. High blood pressure increases your risk for both heart disease and stroke. While we often blame salt for high blood pressure, sugar may have just as important a role to play.
A 2014 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that children who consumed the most added sugar had higher diastolic blood pressure than those who consumed the least amount of sugar. Interestingly, the researchers found no significant correlation between salt intake and blood pressure.
If you’re having trouble giving up added sugar entirely, you don’t necessarily have to in order to see an improvement in your blood pressure. A study of older women published in Nutrients in 2019 developed a statistical model that predicted decreasing daily sugar consumption by just 2.3 teaspoons would lead to a drop in systolic pressure of 8.4 mmHg and a drop in diastolic pressure of 3.7 mmHg.
You’ll reduce your risk for diabetes when you quit eating sugar
Kicking your sugar habit can greatly reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. According to Healthline, eating a diet high in sugar can increase your risk for diabetes both directly and indirectly. Fructose, a type of simple sugar that gives high-fructose corn syrup its name and is one of two components of regular table sugar, can damage the liver, which in turn can lead to insulin resistance. When an individual becomes insulin resistant, their body’s cells don’t respond correctly to insulin and have difficulty using glucose for fuel. This leads to high blood sugar levels. Consuming too many sugary foods and beverages can also lead to weight gain and more belly fat, both of which are risk factors for diabetes.
A paper published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2015 concluded that reducing intake of added sugars to less than 5 percent of total calories would improve individuals’ glucose control and lower risk for diabetes. This is the target suggested by the World Health Organization.
According to the American Diabetes Association, approximately 32.6 million Americans have type 2 diabetes. Another 88 million individuals have prediabetes, a condition that, if not properly managed through diet and lifestyle change, can lead to full-blown diabetes.
You could live longer if you give up sugar
Eliminating sugar could add years to your life, based on findings from several animal studies. In a 2017 study published in Cell Reports, researchers found that fruit flies fed a high-sugar diet early in life before being switched to a regular diet had a 7 percent shorter lifespan than flies fed a regular diet from birth. The study’s authors concluded that the sugary diet damaged expression of the FOXO gene, a gene associated with longevity found in a number of species, including humans. It’s important to note, however, that the researchers fed the flies an amount of sugar far greater than what would be consumed by even the most diehard human sugar fiend.
Nevertheless, another study suggested that even relatively "normal" amounts of added sugar could be cutting our lives short. In a 2013 paper published in Nature Communications, researchers found that female mice who consumed 25 percent of their calories from sugar died at twice the rate of mice fed a regular diet. Although 25 percent may sound like a lot, it’s not far from the typical American diet. Americans consume about 350 calories of added sugar daily — 17.5 percent of a standard 2,000–calorie diet (via The Nutrition Source).