Raise your hand if you crave dessert after dinner, frequently find yourself buying a sweet snack as an afternoon “pick me up”, or tend to eat out or order in a few times a week. Sound like you? These seemingly small splurges can add a lot of sugar to the diet quickly, even if you’re not drinking soda or eating candy on the regular. In fact, it’s easy to go overboard on our sugar consumption, with the American Heart Association* recommending no more than 24 grams of sugar per day for women and no more than 36 grams per day for men (yes, that means you can easily reach your daily limit with just one juice or “healthy” snack bar).
Contrary to popular belief, however, craving sugar is not a simple matter of willpower, but rather it's in part your brain’s biological attempt to get a quick fix. Research has proven* that sugar activates your brain’s dopamine pleasure-centers, the same area of the brain that’s associated with substance addictions. Those feel-good chemicals can fuel your brain’s desire for more sugar and put you on a rollercoaster of desiring the sweet stuff more frequently. Parsley Health doctors recommend doing a sugar detox or sugar cleanse, which involves eliminating refined sugar and simple carbs from the diet and swapping them for a more balanced macronutrient intake inclusive of whole, complex carbs, can help you cut cravings and reverse some of the negative side effects you might be experiencing by eating too much sugar.
The most immediate effect sugar has on your body is through its impact on your blood sugar. When you eat things like simple carbohydrates in the form of bread, cookies, crackers, chips, juice, sweets, or anything containing added sugar, it is absorbed into the bloodstream quickly, causing a spike in the sugar content of your blood. When this happens, your body experiences a sudden peak in energy and your pancreas kicks into gear and releases the hormone insulin to take the sugar from your blood into the cells of the body. As your body works to quickly clear the excess sugar from your blood, this leads to the infamous sugar crash when your levels rebound. Constantly put your body through this cycle and your pancreas goes into overdrive, overtime leading to issues such as insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Chronic sugar consumption also feeds the ‘bad’ microbes present in your gut. Your gut is made up of trillions of bacteria and fungi (a.k.a. bugs) and what you eat influences which bugs are fed and proliferate. Sadly, bad bugs thrive on simple carbs, especially sugar. When you eat too much, you’re promoting the growth of candida and yeast—both of which, when in too great of a population in your gut, can cause brain fog , rashes, digestive issues , and more.
Overloading on sugar and refined carbs can also cause inflammation. Short-term inflammation is a good thing when your body is repairing a cut or a broken bone, but chronic inflammation, the kind that comes from consistently eating a sugar-packed, nutrient-lacking diet, can have serious long-term health implications. Chronic inflammation is associated* with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, eczema, arthritis, and bowel diseases like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis .
The good news is you can improve the state of your body’s inflammation and blood sugar response by changing your diet and cutting out the refined sugary foods that are negatively impacting your body’s optimal functioning.
If you’re constantly feeling low energy, experiencing unexplained digestive issues , or regularly complaining of brain fog , it might be worth taking a look at how much sugar you’re consuming and if you might benefit from a sugar cleanse. The first step in cleansing sugar from your body is focusing less on refined carbs and sugars from processed foods, snacks, and sauces. By reducing these added and refined sugars, your intake will naturally shift to include more real, whole foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, gluten-free grains, and high-quality, pasture-raised meat, eggs, and seafood (if you eat animal products).
Whole plant based foods specifically can naturally help to regulate blood sugar and promote greater satiety because they contain greater amounts of fiber. Adding more fiber to the diet can help slow the rate at which glucose is released into the bloodstream from the food you eat and leave you feeling more satisfied after a meal or snack, preventing you from overeating. Focusing more on whole foods and less on packaged and refined foods can therefore naturally help to improve digestion, lower inflammation, and boost your energy and mood.
A sugar detox implies a total elimination of sugar, but that may not be as simple as it sounds if you’re used to eating foods containing sugar. Parsley Health doctors and health coaches say you can start slower by including only one or two foods in your daily diet that contain added sugar (such as a small snack or sweetened coffee creamer) and slowly wean yourself off of sugar and these remaining sugar-containing products over the course of two weeks.
As a goal, we recommend sticking to the above recommendation from the American Heart Association* including no more than 24 grams of sugar per day for women and no more than 36 grams per day for men for the initial two week weaning period. In lieu of as much refined sugar in the diet, focus more on whole, complex carbs in the forms of fruit such as berries, apples, and grapefruit, starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes and squash, and gluten-free grains like quinoa, millet, and rice.
Once you’ve mastered lowering your sugar intake with the above 2-week weaning strategy, try to conquer layering in the next challenge of focusing on five full days of being completely refined-sugar free. Our Parsley 5-Day Clear Mind and Body Reset makes it easy by giving you a shopping list and recipes for five days of sugar-free meals and snacks. The five days are a realistic entry point for a sugar detox, but a long enough period of time to notice an impact on your energy level, mood, and quality of your digestion.
Eating lots of fiber, protein, and healthy fat will be essential as you transition off of a sugar-rich diet. Having enough of these nutrients will ensure you’re left feeling satisfied after each meal, balancing blood sugar appropriately, and meeting your daily nutritional needs. The Plate Method is a reliable tool that can be used to put together meals that are balanced, nutrient-dense, and delicious.
To follow The Plate Method, ensure half of your plate at meals is filled with non-starchy vegetables including dark leafy greens, kale, spinach, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts – just to name a few. This should be equivalent to about 2 to 3 cups of non-starchy veggies. One of the remaining quarters of your plate should contain your protein choice whether a plant based protein such as beans or lentils or a well-sourced animal protein such as pasture-raised eggs, grass-fed beef, or sustainably sourced seafood. The final quarter of your plate should contain your complex carbohydrate choice such as a half-cup serving of a gluten-free grain, starchy vegetable, or fruit. Top your meal with 1-2 tablespoons of healthy fat such as nuts, seeds, olives, avocado or high quality oils such as olive, avocado, or coconut. Out of all the macros, protein keeps you satiated for the longest, and healthy fats help slow digestion, making sure you feel fuller for longer.
Staying well hydrated is important all of the time, but it’s especially essential when your body is going through a period of detoxification. Water helps your system flush by supporting vital organs* such as the liver, kidneys, lungs, intestines and skin in moving toxins, waste products and stagnation out of the body faster. Increased water intake will also be essential to support the increased amount of fiber you’ll be intaking from incorporating a greater amount of fiber-rich plant foods into the diet. Drinking more water is essential when increasing fiber intake to support regular bowel movements and prevent constipation.
At Parsley Health we recommend drinking at least 64 ounces of water daily while on the sugar detox and more if you’re experiencing additional fluid loss through regular sweating. Be aware and careful of the dehydrating and diuretic effects of caffeine and alcohol. Beverages with caffeine, alcohol and any kind of sweeteners, including natural sugars in fruit juice, tend to pull water from the body and are not included in your 64 ounces of water daily.
Getting your heart rate up through regular exercise will not only get you sweating, which helps with detoxification in general, but it will help naturally boost your energy and normalize insulin levels while on the sugar detox. Exercise helps move sugar into your muscles for storage, immediately increasing your insulin sensitivity, according to a 2016 review*. The effects can last for up to 48 hours.
Don’t go overboard with too intense exercise, though, as your body will need time to adjust to a lower carb intake from fewer refined sugars in the diet. Demanding too much energy output too quickly while your body is adjusting to this change can leave you feeling more fatigued during a sugar detox when the goal is to feel lighter and more energized. Our clinicians and health coaches recommend aiming to stick close to the Department of Health and Human Services exercise recommendations* including getting at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week such as walking, yoga, jogging, dancing, running, cycling, or jumping rope. For strength training exercises, the goal is to incorporate routines for all major muscle groups at least two times a week using weights or resistance bands that are heavy enough to repeat exercises such as curls, lunges, and squats for about 12 to 15 repetitions.
Incorporating mindfulness at your mealtimes is a way to make more attentive decisions around your dietary choices in general. Research on mindful eating* has found that it promotes not only more enjoyment around food but more appropriate portioning of food. At Parsley Health , we recommend eating mindfully during your sugar cleanse by eating slowly and taking 2-3 deep breaths before starting a meal, chewing your food thoroughly with a goal of at least 20-30 times before swallowing, and eating in an environment free of distractions like electronic devices such as your television or cellphone. This will allow for more heightened awareness around mealtimes, hunger cues, and more complete satiation.
As you’re going through the sugar detox process, it can be really beneficial to track your symptoms before and during it. Pay specific attention to your mood, digestion, and energy. Are you less sluggish when you eliminate more sugary or carb-heavy foods? Do you notice a difference in symptoms of GI irritation ? Keep track in a journal, with as much detail as possible including your mealtimes, portions, what your bowel movements look like and how frequent they are, and how you feel following your meals and snacks. Then, you can discuss the changes you notice in your body and your mental state and energy with your health coach to better understand the progress you’ve made. Parsley’s health coaches can help use your personal account of your sugar detox experience to develop a long-term nutrition plan that works for you and will keep your energy, digestion, and mood improved for the long-term.
Dr. Robin Berzin is the Founder and CEO of Parsley Health, America's leading holistic medical practice designed to help women overcome chronic conditions. She founded Parsley to address the rising tide of chronic disease in America through personalized holistic medicine that puts food, lifestyle, and proactive diagnostic testing on the prescription pad next to medications. Since founding Parsley in 2016, Dr. Berzin has seen 80% of patients improve or resolve their chronic conditions within their first year of care, demonstrating the life-changing value of making modern holistic medicine accessible to everyone, anywhere. Parsley is available online nationwide.
Dr. Berzin attended medical school at Columbia University and trained in Internal Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Her book, Prescription for Happiness: How to Eat, Move, and Supplement for Peak Mental Health, was published by Simon Element in January 2022.