Most of us know that sugar isn’t great for our health. There’s no shortage of scares—we hear how it’s linked to diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, and more. Yet in my work helping people fight obesity, sugar comes up again and again as a habit that can feel near-impossible to shake. I get it. It’s literally addictive. But I’ve also found great ways to help people change their relationship with sugar. And once you start cutting sugar out of your life, the habit only gets easier and easier to keep.
First, let’s start with a simple question:
Odds are, yes. According to the World Health Organization, for an adult with a normal BMI, daily sugar should be limited to about 6 teaspoons. An average American has about three times that. But, let’s put numbers aside. If you’re eating too much sugar, you may be able to just feel it. How?
Now, there could of course be other causes for these symptoms, but even so, if you’re consuming excessive amounts of sugar, that behavior is likely to exacerbate every single one of them. This is because what ties them together is the way sugar throws your system out of balance through how it affects your body’s production of the hormone insulin.
Insulin is the “key” for your body to unlock and use the energy that exists in the sugars you eat. When you eat sugar, your body triggers a surge in insulin so that it can process the sugar you just consumed really quickly. However, then you’re left with a bunch of excess insulin in your body, pushing you out of balance—and causing you to feel less than your best.
Sugar is tough to get away from. Studies show that it can actually trigger the same dopamine reward system as drugs can. But choices about your environment and daily life can reshape how you eat each day and reset the stage for successful change. Want to get on the path to feeling better? Here are some simple techniques for staying on track:
You’ve probably heard it before, but as a rule of thumb, think about “eating more color.” The pigment we see on fruits and vegetables is a reflection of the antioxidants they contain, so the more colors you consume, the more varied the benefits. Spend some more time in the produce section next time you go to the grocery store, stocking up on veggies and fresh food.
Sugar may be called by different names. Look for glucose, sucrose or fructose, any name ending in “-ose”, extracts, or the word “syrup.” On the nutrition label, you’ll also see “added sugars”—anything there is typically not a good sign. You’ll immediately notice some of the biggest culprits for hidden sugar are breakfast cereal, yogurt, condiments, and beverages. Replace them with options that have a cleaner label, generally defined as a short list of ingredients with names you recognize.
Sugar cravings, and even hunger in general, can be a sign that you’re actually thirsty. So before you go straight for the snacks, drink a glass of water, then reassess. Adding lemon or any citrus to your water can reduce the desire to eat sugar further. Plus, lemons reduce bloating, aid in weight loss, promote healthy skin, and boost energy.
Have some eggs or nuts with your breakfast. Or make sure your lunch includes some fish or poultry. Including protein in your meals may help prevent sugar cravings and overcome overeating issues. This is because when your body processes protein, it doesn’t have the same hormone spike-and-crash as it does with sugars. Instead, there’s a smooth rise and fall in your insulin levels. Plus, protein stimulates hormones that act on the part of your brain that makes you feel satisfied (this is called protein-induced satiety), so you’ll stay fuller for longer. The key is to ensure your diet remains balanced, if you start eating nothing but protein, it’ll also have negative effects on the function of your insulin, so balance your protein out with healthy fats like avocado or olives
Feeling stressed? Snacks, or some candy calling your name? Before you start munching, get moving. Studies show that something as simple as a brisk walk after a meal can help curb hunger and also help lessen the stress response that makes us react impulsively to it. If you want to rev up your fat burning and muscle-building as you move, try a short burst of high intensity exercise, which can lead to almost 30% more fat loss than moderate intensity exercise
My sweet tooth strikes after dinner. Rather than cookies or ice cream, I reach for raspberries. Along with other berries, they taste sweet, but their high fiber content means the sugar they do contain is absorbed slowly in the body. Additionally, berries are rich in plant compounds and have strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This means they may help reduce risk factors for chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
Being more intentional about the sugar we eat is one piece of the puzzle. Having a conversation with your doctor to understand your health risks and how your body deals with sugar is another. Since sugar has such a profound hormonal effect, it’s important to understand how it may have affected your body over time if it’s been a big part of your diet. Next time you see your doctor, it’s a good idea to speak to them about insulin resistance and diabetes if you have concerns.
As you start to remove sugar from your diet, your brain will stop getting the drug-like dopamine reward kick we mentioned earlier. You’re basically cutting off an unhealthy pathway: your brain isn't tricked by the sugar anymore, so you don't crave it. These tricks can give you the perfect nudge to get started, and with each day of less sugar you’ll be a step closer to a lifetime of healthier eating!
Dr. Aastha Kalra is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, and has extensive experience in managing a range of acute and chronic illnesses suffered by adult patients. She has a special interest and expertise in preventive medicine, medically supervised weight loss, and disease reversal via weight loss. Having completed her residency in Internal Medicine at Hofstra University - NorthShore LIJ Health System where she served as Chief Resident, Dr. Kalra is a member of the American Board of Preventive Medicine, the Obesity Society, the American Board of Obesity Medicine, the American Medical Association and the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs.