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  • Writer's pictureMarissa Mekelburg MS, RDN, CLT, HHP

The True Sugar Detox Benefits for Digestive Health

Is your sweet tooth harming your health and causing your digestive issues? You may be wondering if a sugar detox benefits your health.

The answer to both? Maybe.

While I am no fan of fad diets or "cleanses", there is some truth to merit cutting back on added sugars, whether or not you call it a detox.

Hi! I’m Marissa, digestive health dietitian nutritionist. In this blog post, I’ll be walking you through the facts about sugar, how much is too much and if you should consider a sugar detox…or not.

Let’s dive in!

many sugar cubes stacked up in front of a pink background

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

What is a sugar detox?

A sugar detox is simply a term for taking an honest look at what you're consuming on a daily basis. Sugar is sneaky and added to foods and drinks in surprisingly large amounts. The first step is to do some sleuthing so that you can accurately acknowledge how much sugar you’re consuming on a regular basis.

Enter the detox: this is where you make a conscious effort to reset your nutrition by reducing or eliminating sources of added sugars.

Why do a sugar detox?

Why do this?

Because excess sugar has been linked to an increase in many serious health conditions such as

● fatty liver disease

● heart disease

● type 2 diabetes

● obesity

In addition, added sugar can lead to poor immune function and can contribute to poor oral health (1, 2, 3, 4). Whew! That is a lot of potential risk associated with one sweet food group!

Bottom line: sugar is inflammatory.

Added sugar can worsen gut health and underlying infections. Too much sugar can lead to a scary downward spiral for your health.

If you’re ready to consider doing a sugar detox, the first step is to know what counts as sugar and how much of it you’re eating (and drinking) on a daily basis. Let’s explore that next.

What counts as sugar?

To gain the benefits of a sugar detox, we are targeting foods and drinks with added sugars. We are not needing to worry about fruits or vegetables that have naturally occurring sugars in them (more on this in a moment). Your bananas are safe!

For your sugar detox, I recommend taking a careful look at your usual packaged foods. On the nutrition facts panel, added sugars have to be singled out. The foods that come to mind first include sweet treats like cookies, cakes, doughnuts, pancakes, french toast, jam, soda, candy, energy drinks, and coffee drinks (I see you, PSL).

a bowl of colorful cereal with more cereal scattered around.

Examples of high-sugar foods

Let’s start with cereal, a food that is commonly promoted as a healthy food…but many times has a LOT of added sugar.

An example is Honey Nut Cheerios™ (5). While promoted as “heart healthy” – sugar is the second ingredient, honey is the 4th, and brown sugar syrup is the 5th. All that sugar together means that one cup has a total of 12g of added sugars (about 3 tsp). Even Multi Grain Cheerios™ has 8g of added sugars.

Another common favorite that my clients like is Special KⓇ Red Berries Cereal. Once again sugar is the 3rd ingredient; a serving has 10 grams of added sugars. And let’s be honest here, most people just pour a bowl, right? They don’t measure, so they could be getting twice that amount of sugar in one sitting. Not to mention, if additional sugar is added as well.

Instant oatmeal is another popular breakfast choice…and most people don’t choose plain, they get flavors like maple brown sugar (14g added sugar) or apple cinnamon (11g added sugar).

Breads, even “healthy” whole wheat bread can have 3g of added sugar per slice, so when making a sandwich with two slices, you have 6 added grams. So then if that is paired with a soda for lunch (a 12oz soda on average has whopping 39 grams of added sugar!) and they had an instant oatmeal for breakfast – it can add up really quickly.

Other foods are things like sweetened dairy products such as yogurt. Popular brands such as Yoplait ® Original Strawberry Yogurt has 13 grams of added sugar (6).

Sauces, dressings and marinades, granola bars, many protein bars, dried fruit, nut butters, and that super large, sweetened coffee drink all contain added sugars.

Ultimately, added sugar is sugar whether it comes from white sugar, honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, etc. and when trying to reduce added sugars in the diet, all forms need to be considered.

Do I need to cut ALL added sugar?

The answer to this depends on your goals. But probably.

My recommendation to you depends upon whether you’re trying to reduce your added sugar intake or cut it out completely.

Some people choose to do a no-sugar detox for a certain number of days to really reset things and help reduce the desire for sugar. Having the chance to reset your taste buds can help things to go more smoothly when you begin an eating pattern that focuses only on natural sugars in smaller amounts.

What about artificial sweeteners?

I don’t love artificial sweeteners.

While the research on their potential risks and benefits continues to unfold, there is some research that is particularly important for the clients I help.

There is research on some artificial sweeteners that show they can alter the microbiome. In my work, gut health is the foundation of all health and so I am quite wary about anything that can set back my clients' hard work to heal (7).

Ideally, you want to reset your palate to appreciate natural sweetness instead of requiring the intense sweetness of artificial sweeteners. However, if you enjoy a plant-based sweetener such as stevia or monk fruit, and that helps you to reduce your overall added sugar intake, then in moderation, go for it.

Average sugar intake?

In the US, the average adult consumes between 17 and 22 teaspoons of added sugar every day. That is a LOT!

That’s between 6,205 and 8,030 teaspoons each year, which translates to between 65 to almost 84 POUNDS of sugar every year. OUCH! Remember those risks of too much added sugar we discussed earlier? Your usual choices really matter!

Having said that, I also know that reducing your usual sugar intake can be a big challenge. Sugar has a large pull…it can even seem to be addicting.

Is sugar addicting?

Yes! Here is a study that even though it’s in mice, showed that the mice chose sweet over cocaine so literally more addictive than cocaine (8).

Sugar stimulates the reward center in our brain. The more often we eat it, the more we are strengthening that connection to it. Taking a break is a challenge, but it can help to rewire our brains.

Here are some tips to manage sugar cravings…you’re probably going to need them!

a spoonful of sugar with a fresh raspberry on top

How to manage sugar cravings

Here are eight tips that have helped my clients to reduce their sugar cravings. While no tip can make sugar cravings go away completely, these tips can help you to move through these feelings of discomfort. You’ve got this!

  • Make a balanced plate. Make sure meals are balanced with whole foods representing healthy fats, fiber,and protein.

  • Eat meals and snacks at regular intervals. Don’t let yourself get too hungry, then the temptation is there for a quick sugary pick me up.

  • Enjoy fruit. The natural sweetness can take the edge off of a craving.

  • Get enough ZZZs. When we’re tired we crave sugar.

  • Manage stress which contributes to cravings.

  • Notice if there is a specific trigger for you. If you can’t pass by the Starbucks on your way to work without a large sugar-filled coffee drink, find a new route to work.

  • Try something new. If you crave sugar, you can try drinking a glass of water or a fruit-flavored seltzer or even take a walk. Sometimes, just changing the habit that you usually grab a sweet treat for can help.

  • Address root causes. Sugar cravings can also stem from candida overgrowth in the gut and/or nutrient deficiencies such as zinc, chromium, iron, calcium, and magnesium. So if someone is really struggling, it might be a good idea to run some functional lab testing.

Get support

Sugar is a tricky thing to navigate. It is added – by the bucket full – to so many of our usual foods and drinks. The risks of too much sugar are real, but it can feel really difficult to break ties.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist and health coach, I can help you to get to the bottom of your sugar relationship. If you are craving sugar because of a nutrient deficiency or candida, you’re going to feel like you’re spinning your wheels instead of gaining traction. The right gut testing will help us to craft your personalized plan for success. In addition, I can help you create a personalized, whole-food anti-inflammatory diet that will kick those sugar cravings to the curb for good! Get started by scheduling an initial visit.


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