What Happened When 11 People Tried To Quit Sugar

Photographed by Laura Murray.
You can always tell when a person is "off sugar," because they have an insatiable urge to tell you about it. Whether it's your friend, family member, or that random wellness Instagram blogger you follow, many of us are under the assumption that cutting all sugar from our diet will solve all of our health issues. But for every no-sugar evangelist, there's another person who can rationally explain why you shouldn't give up sugar.
Here's the thing: sugar has been demonized to a ridiculous degree, and the infamous claim that sugar is "as addictive as drugs" is way oversimplified. Our bodies and brains run on carbohydrates, and sugar is the smallest unit of carbohydrates, Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, a registered dietitian and intuitive eating coach, told Refinery29. Sugar is found in lots of nutrient-rich foods, including fruits, and sometimes your body craves those foods. So, deciding to give it up altogether is likely not a good solution.
Advertisement
Calling one food or ingredient "the devil," and cutting it out of your diet completely, has never worked. Restriction intensifies cravings, which can lead to binging and overeating, plus can harm your overall relationship to food. It's absolutely possible for added sugars (in foods like baked goods or dairy desserts) to have a place in a person's diet, but what's tricky is that sugar is often added to foods that you wouldn't expect (like salad dressing or pasta sauce). Those sneaky sources of sugar can confuse your brain, and make it more difficult to listen to your body's internal hunger cues.
Even knowing all of this about sugar, plenty of well-meaning people will likely decide to give up sugar as part of a health-related New Year's resolution. Some of those people may even decide they feel better without added sugar, and never eat it again. To get a better understanding of people's relationship to sugar, we asked 11 people what it's really like to quit sugar, and whether or not it's worth it in the long run.
1 of 11

The instant I made a decision to reduce sugar, all I wanted was sugar.

Mary

Why did you give up sugar? "I was trying to get pregnant, and an acupuncturist suggested it."

How'd you "give up" sugar? "I've never been a fan of trying to cut things out entirely, so I was just generally trying to reduce sugar intake."

What did you notice when you were off sugar? "The instant I made a decision to reduce sugar, all I wanted was sugar. I don't even eat a lot of sugar! I don't think I actually made any changes to my diet, and may have ended up eating more sugar than normal because the restriction just made me want it so badly."

Did this change your relationship to sugar? "I think it opened my eyes to how trying to deprive yourself of certain kinds of foods is just a fool's errand. Taking an intuitive approach and giving your body what it asks for, and trying to be healthy generally, works so much better. If you tell yourself you can eat as much sugar as you want, suddenly it doesn't seem so fun and forbidden, and you tend to eat a not-wild amount of it."
2 of 11

It was like the volume got turned up on the sugar.

Liv

Why did you give up sugar? "Health reasons (endometriosis), to reduce inflammation."

How'd you "give up" sugar? "Cut out all sugars! Basically had to cut out all processed foods. I kept in anti-inflammatory fruits."

What did you notice when you were off sugar? "Great! My health improved and I had more energy. I had to cut out caffeine at the same time and thought I would die but actually I was totally fine and had more energy than before."

Did this change your relationship to sugar? "Definitely! Sugary foods made me feel ill! I would get a headache or feel lethargic if I slipped up. The taste was also so strong! It was like the volume got turned up on the sugar because I wasn’t used to it and it was gross. I also noticed how the cravings would come back if I had sugar again which revealed more strongly how addictive it was. That was a big motivator to keep avoiding sugar."
Advertisement
3 of 11

I’m still a dessert person, that didn’t change.

Jessie

Why did you give up sugar? "I eat chocolate basically every day and thought it would be impossible to give up. Turns out it wasn’t!"

How'd you "give up" sugar? "I did Whole30, so I cut out all forms of added sugar, natural sweeteners (honey, maple syrup) and most carbs."

What did you notice when you were off sugar? "The big thing I noticed was how clear my skin was. Physically I felt good, and I definitely felt accomplished, but the main takeaway for me was my skin."

Did this change your relationship to sugar? "It made me check for unnecessary added sugars in foods and sauces. I’m still a dessert person, that didn’t change."
4 of 11

All I could think about was the chocolate I couldn’t eat.

Jill

Why did you give up sugar? "I watched a documentary that said it was toxic and as addictive as heroin. But mostly because I was under the assumption it would jumpstart my weight loss, give me a flat belly, make my skin glow, help me think clearer, and fly like Superman."

How'd you "give up" sugar? "Added sugar and high sugar fruits were all out, so, bananas, pineapple, mango, grapes (like all my faves) were a no-go. Berries were okay, and the occasional apple."

What did you notice when you were off sugar? "At first, like shit. Tired and headache-y and all I could think about was the chocolate I couldn’t eat. But after a while I felt amazing and didn’t crave it anymore. I lost a few pounds — not from eliminating sugar."

Did this change your relationship to sugar? "I eat much LESS sugar now and I’ve learned to realize that it’s not really *sugar* that’s the issue, it’s overdoing it because sugary foods are usually hyper palatable and easier to overeat. I’ve learned to outsmart my sweet tooth — though this isn’t easy for everyone. I now take sugar 'breaks' whenever I feel bloated or like I’ve overindulged, but I always go back because I like my treats!"
5 of 11

Definitely highs and lows in mood.

Beck

Why did you give up sugar? "To have more energy."

How'd you "give up" sugar? "Everything low glycemic index, no fruit. I recall carrots being considered high sugar with this mindset."

What did you notice when you were off sugar? "Definitely highs and lows in mood. But ultimately my skin improved and I lost weight."

Did this change your relationship to sugar? "I think eliminating certain foods from your diet gives you a comprehensive understanding for how they impact your life. I now know sugar, but only refined sugar, is not supportive for healthy body and skin."
6 of 11

It also made me perceive sugar as 'the enemy.'

Zoe

Why did you give up sugar? "I tried to give my body a bit of a break in the weeks between Thanksgiving and the holidays."

How'd you "give up" sugar? "No added sugar and cut down overall sugar intake."

What did you notice when you were off sugar? "Not that different, but maybe crankier..."

Did this change your relationship to sugar? "It made me aware of how much unnecessary added sugar is in a lot of foods, but it also made me perceive sugar as 'the enemy' and made me think of food in terms of 'good' and 'bad,' which is a really unhealthy mentality to have about food."
7 of 11

Hoping after a few weeks without sugar I won’t crave sugary foods.

Liz

Why did you give up sugar? "To see if it will clear up my acne."

How'd you "give up" sugar? "Still trying to figure it out but currently doing no added sugars."

What did you notice when you were off sugar? "I’m on day three and I have a cold, so not great."

Did this change your relationship to sugar? "TBD but hoping after a few weeks without sugar I won’t crave sugary foods (I’ve heard that happens)."
Advertisement
8 of 11

Fruits tasted different.

Gaby

Why did you give up sugar? "I was doing a detox and cutting sugar was a part of it."

How'd you "give up" sugar? "No added sugar! Anything with natural sugar (fruit basically) was fine. I stopped eating anything that had sugar added so I was reading a lot of nutritional labels. Why is there sugar in salad dressing?! It’s absurd."

What did you notice when you were off sugar? "Definitely had more energy, but I’m not sure if that was solely due to the sugar cut. One thing for sure, after cutting out sugar my taste buds changed. Fruits tasted different."

Did this change your relationship to sugar? "I’m just a lot more aware about what goes into what I’m eating. I try to avoid processed and pre-packaged foods as much as possible. However, I still indulge on occasion! The holidays just ended and of course I ate pie and cookies! Everything in moderation."
9 of 11

My energy was better, my sleep was better, my stomach felt better.

Morit

Why did you give up sugar? "I’m addicted to it."

How'd you "give up" sugar? "I cut out all sugar; I’ve done the Whole30 five times."

What did you notice when you were off sugar? "So many things. My energy was better, my sleep was better, my stomach felt better."

Did this change your relationship to sugar? "Yes and no. I still want them, but it made me more aware of those feelings. It also made me realize and learn how much better I feel if I didn’t give into emotional eating."
10 of 11

I’m more aware of when I’m eating sugar.

Tierney

Why did you give up sugar? "It causes brain damage." (Editor's note: consuming sugar does not cause brain damage.)

How'd you "give up" sugar? "All sugar. No fruit, too, or alcohol."

What did you notice when you were off sugar? "More consistently energetic and I didn’t really want it after about a week."

Did this change your relationship to sugar? "I guess a little. It made me discover how much sugar is in everything (because I was reading all the labels) so now I’m more aware of when I’m eating sugar, which makes me eat less. I used to eat candy every day and I don’t anymore."
11 of 11

I think it's equally important to be gentle with yourself.

Dom

Why did you give up sugar? "I have PCOS, which causes insulin resistance. Sugar is doubly bad for people with hormonal imbalances. I've never been huge on sugar to begin with (more of a savory person), but it's shocking how much we consume unless we put in a concerted effort to avoid it."

How'd you "give up" sugar? "Giving up sugar to me primarily meant no added sugars, but I was also careful to try to stick to food low on the glycemic index if I ate fruit or something. And I wouldn't touch something 'sugar free' which is just as awful for you."

What did you notice when you were off sugar? "Pretty great and full of energy. To be fair, I was off sugar, dairy, soy, and gluten at the time, so it could've been a combination of all these things, but even when I stopped adhering to this super strict diet, the one that still stuck was no sugar."

Did this change your relationship to sugar? "It did. I used to crave sugar every now and then, but once I nixed it from my diet, I stopped craving it full stop, which is pretty cool. I think it's equally important to be gentle with yourself. I like to think of it as changing your relationship to sugary food and shifting a habit to be more mindful about what you're putting in your body."
Advertisement

More from Diet & Nutrition

R29 Original Series