Published November 3, 2022 Could you ever imagine going a week, let alone months without sugar? Daunting, I know. I honestly couldn’t really fathom going a few days without my daily chocolate fix, but here I am… over 2 months later without any added sugar in my diet and I have so much to say about what this experiment taught me. While I do want to share why I did this and how I’ll go about adding moderation back into my life, in this article, I mainly want to give you the top tips I learned about curbing sugar cravings – and where they’re really coming from! Now, to clarify, I am most definitely still consuming natural sugars like those found in fruit. In fact, I’m eating a lot of fruit (way more than before) and a ton of protein to keep my body satiated. I’ve just been steering clear of what science is now calling “hyper-palatable” aka processed foods that combine added sugar with salt, fat, and flavor… which brings me to why I began this journey. WHY I DECIDED TO TRY “QUITTING SUGAR” As you may know, in April of this year I decided to stop using caffeine for the first time in 10 years. I figured out that it was contributing to my anxiety, making my nervous system feel flighty (aka counteracting all those beautiful, calming herbs I take haha) – and more than anything, I simply realized that I was dependent on it. My goal this year was to not allow any external substance to have *that* much power over me where I felt like I “needed” it, and I would be the first to admit that I absolutely “needed” my coffee to function or have the desire to get anything done in the morning. Soon after quitting coffee, I found that my body switched right over to reaching for sugar in its place. I wanted a piece of chocolate after every meal or a “pick me up” from something sweet when I was tired instead of caffeine. So, I started thinking about the concept of transference… and how often, when the body is relying on something to fill a need and we stop it, the body transfers and seeks something else that achieves the same response in the brain. And I realized the ‘root’ of WHY I relied on caffeine was apparently still there. My brain was still seeking something! As I continued to examine my relationship with sweets, I found that they were kind of always on my mind. I wasn’t binging on them like I used to, but every night I felt that same “need” to have something sweet. I was waiting all day to have a treat or thinking about how much I could have without going overboard. While I try to practice self control 90% of the time, that one piece of chocolate or one cookie never felt like enough. THE DOPAMINE + REWARD CONNECTION I started to ask myself why it never felt like enough, and why my body wasn’t enjoying or being present with sweets, but rather seeking more even while I was consuming them. All of a sudden it hit me: dopamine! My love for coffee and sweets was driven by my brain trying to get more dopamine. But why did I want so much of it? I thought of how much my mood was affected when I stopped coffee, and thought hey – maybe the sweets I’m now eating in coffee’s place have just been keeping my dopamine at the level I’m used to essentially being “addicted” to… because in the fast paced, instant gratification, constant-phone-notification world we live in, I think we’re all addicted to (or rather, desensitized to!) dopamine on some level. And boy, was I right. Without my hits of sugary treats throughout the day, my mood was 10x worse than when I quit coffee. I had no motivation, no desire, and was deriving no pleasure from the things I usually enjoyed for the first few weeks. As the days went on, I reflected on how “dull” I felt. How dull my beautiful life felt, without the continuous intake of things that kept my dopamine artificially elevated. It showed me how much I wasn’t present or appreciating so many of the little things in life that don’t release huge squirts of dopamine, simply because my brain was used to such a high threshold of stimulation and desensitized to life’s tiny pleasures. It was almost like I was numb to anything that wasn’t hyper stimulating. No wonder I wasn’t enjoying ‘simple’ foods – I wasn’t enjoying the simple things in life either. I began to connect how the dopamine I get from sugar ties into the dopamine I get from being on my phone, or from online shopping… because without the consistent intake of sugar and thus stimulating foods, I actually didn’t WANT to be on my phone or shop and browse as much! SUGAR’S NOT THE PROBLEM, IT’S THE “HYPERPALATABLE FOODS” SATURATING OUR PALATES AND BRAINS So now, I’ve been reading all about “hyperpalatable” foods, and how whenever there’s a processed combo of refined sugar + fat + stimulating flavor (throw salt into the mix and wow!) our brains can absolutely get ‘addicted’ to them and crave more and more, eventually messing with our dopamine levels… which absolutely can mess with our life and ability to focus, feel pleasure and be present. “Sugar” itself isn’t the problem (no one’s going to sit there and eat a whole bowl of white sugar), it’s actually the combination of the above that hijacks our primal, evolutionary brain’s quest to seek out the most rewarding, fat-and-carbohydrate dense foods in nature for survival! I thought I was cutting out “sugar,” but realized what I really wanted was to stop over consuming foods that were hyper-stimulating and hyperpalatable, which meant enjoying whole foods (and my life) exactly as is, no modifications. By doing this and eating whole foods only for the past 2 months, I retrained myself to enjoy regular, plain foods from nature in their true form. The fruit that used to taste “meh” to me in comparison to cookies, now tasted like a pure gift. I experienced it with pleasure and gratitude like never before. And as it turns out, this is spilling over into my life and relationships, helping my mood and my ability to be content and present in the moment at hand without *seeking something* additional (grabbing my phone, thinking about sugar, craving stimulation or chaos) more than it’s helped anything else. WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? + WHAT I LEARNED I ended at the 2 month mark because my goal was to not consume anything hyperpalatable until I could really feel what my brain is like at baseline, without so much externally lighting it up. After a month or so, my mood stabilized and the world felt a hell of a lot brighter without me being so obsessed with food, or my phone, or any of my other vices. I was just happier and more content as a human! And as I approached 2 months, I felt that my relationship with food as a whole was completely transformed. I understood that I absolutely didn’t “need” the chocolate or cookies that I used to have every night, but that I could have them in moderation if I wanted to. And the best part is, I actually feel like I *can* moderate now, because I’ve learned how much protein I actually need to feel satiated and no longer have that drive or desire to overdo it with sweets because I’m truly nourished and satisfied. Eating whole foods only these past 2 months and keeping it as simple as possible with my food, vs. getting a huge reward from what I’m eating and eating solely for pleasure, helped me not reset my palate and appreciation for food – but also helped me simplify other parts of my life and experience a lot more peace. Now I know that it’s not my fault that I used to binge and I understand why that one cookie never felt like enough: those foods are addictive because they’re made to be so palatable and hijack our evolutionary wiring. I’m so happy that I did this and allowed my taste buds to readjust, and also learned how to better cope with my emotions without the crutch of sweets. This is of course not something that I will be doing permanently since it can be limiting, and I think a healthy brain is able to moderate. I’m not here to tell you that you should micromanage your sugar intake for the rest of your life, but I think an experiment like this can be highly valuable to reset your dopamine levels, taste buds, and learn about what your body actually needs. This has been a really eye-opening experience and I am feeling such a difference in my overall mental clarity, energy levels, mood, body composition, and so much more. HOW TO CRUSH YOUR SUGAR CRAVINGS A lot of you have been asking how to navigate the sugar cravings now that I completed this experiment, so here are my top tips to curb those ravenous cravings: 1. EAT ENOUGH PROTEIN: It’s amazing how much real food you need to eat when you’re not having as many calorie-dense processed foods throughout the day. You might be surprised at the volume you need on your plate (in the form of protein and whole foods) when you make the transition. The body is wise so think of it this way – what if your sugar cravings are actually just HUNGER, and your body needs more protein? My herbalism teacher explained that protein actually has a slight ‘sweet’ flavor, and when our bodies are craving the grounding that ‘sweetness’ brings us, protein can provide that instead of looking to candy or processed foods as a quick fix. Most of us are not eating enough protein to help us preserve or build muscle mass and feel truly satiated (ie: 2 eggs at breakfast isn’t cutting it and it took me so long to realize that). I’d suggest aiming for at least 30-40g per meal. 2. HYDRATE WITH MINERALS AND ELECTROLYTES: Highly palatable foods that give us a hit of refined sugar and excitement can do wild things to our dopamine levels, so when you take a break from these foods and get back to a simpler plate, your brain (and body) can feel a bit stressed trying to find a new baseline. You may feel bored, emotional, restless, exhausted, dehydrated, or all of the above… and minerals can help by deeply hydrating us and protecting us against that stress. My three go-to’s are Quinton mineral shots, Pique BT Fountain beauty electrolytes (bonus for skin), and homemade nourishing herbal infusions made with mineral-rich plants. 3. WALK AND EXERCISE WHEN YOU CAN: Not only does this get your mind off of things while you’re making a lifestyle change, it helps to rebalance those neurotransmitters when your brain isn’t getting as much dopamine from hyper-stimulating foods. If we only chase dopamine (the reward we feel from scrolling on TikTok, eating a sweet treat, shopping online, etc), we get momentary highs followed by difficult lows. In order to avoid the pendulum swing from dopamine high to depressed, you have to tap into some of the more sustainable hormones like serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. Walking and other forms of exercise are an excellent way to boost serotonin and endorphins, along with being creative just for the hell of it (ie doing something fun and relaxing that ISN’T tied to an outcome, goal or reward). Yes — resting and having fun will actually help you rewire your brain away from quick fixes and instant rewards! 4. FIND OUT WHAT’S UNDERNEATH THE CRAVING: This was an important one for me on the emotional side; our nervous systems are reaching for processed foods that are high in refined sugar for a reason, they’re simply trying to cope. I noticed that I would always crave more sugar at the end of an exhausting day when what I really needed was self-care (a bath, time with myself to process my emotions, self-massage, to be seen and witnessed). Sometimes, that self-care felt even more exhausting or too difficult to give to myself; whether I didn’t feel deserving of it or just wasn’t used to really dedicating that time and energy to myself bc it’s easier to numb out on my phone or with food! Now when I feel that emptiness or craving, I try to figure out what nourishing activity would help to fill that void instead of going right to sugary foods. 5. LEAN ON ADAPTOGENS: Similar to protein, having a slightly “sweet” flavor in the traditional view of the 5 flavors of foods and herbs, adaptogens are earthy roots that also have “sweet” notes and phytochemicals. Going back to feeling exhausted, we so often reach for sweets (a dense source of nutrition and calories, evolutionarily speaking) when we are stressed, burning the candle at both ends, and the body needs love. Adaptogens provide that grounding, sweet energy we’re looking for and help to strengthen us during times of stress and burnout to help take care of cravings on a root cause level. I’ve been really leaning on our Adrenal Recovery formula, a unique blend of adaptogens that I created when I was dealing with chronic fatigue, help to support your body’s intrinsic resilience. I hope you find these tips helpful! And most importantly, if you do choose to experiment with cutting out sugar, be easy on yourself. The emotional component of our ‘addiction’ to certain foods or habits is usually the most challenging part to navigate.