Quitting Sugar: Cold Turkey vs. Cutting Back

Quitting Sugar: Cold Turkey vs. Cutting Back

Video | Sugar Withdrawal | Sugar Addiction | How to Quit Sugar

Eating sugar and weight loss don’t mix. However, sugar is a drug, and when you stop using it, your body goes through withdrawal. So, what is the best way to break free from sugar? Should you go cold turkey and quit all at once, or should you ease yourself off it by reducing the amount that you eat. In this post, we look at each of these options to help you decide your best path to a sugar-free life. 

Quitting Sugar At-A-Glance


  • Going cold turkey intensifies sugar withdrawal but allows symptoms to pass within a few days. 
  • Going cold turkey requires willpower but frees you of the biochemical (hormonal) addiction to sugar that makes it hard to resist. 
  • To make quitting sugar easier:
    • Add healthy fats and vegetables to your diet as you subtract sugar
    • Use short-term goals to limit fear and anxiety when quitting sugar

Quitting Sugar: Cold Turkey vs. Cutting Back [Video]

In this video, you’ll learn…

  • The two different ways to quit sugar.
  • Strategies for quitting sugar cold turkey!
  • Additional tips on a healthy eating.

Consider This When Quitting Sugar

There are two things you want to consider when you decide to quit sugar. 

  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Sugar addiction

Dealing with Sugar Withdrawal

Sugar withdrawal happens when we stop eating sugar. As I mentioned earlier, sugar is a drug. When you eat it, chemical changes occur in the pleasure center of your brain, not unlike the changes that happen in the brain of a drug addict.

When a drug addict stops using their drug, they go through withdrawal and develop symptoms. They may get shaky and experience cloudy thinking and a general ill feeling. They also crave the drug they are trying to quit because that “fix” will temporarily take away their symptoms. 

Symptoms of sugar withdrawal

The same thing happens in us when we go from eating sugar every day to not eating sugar. Stop your sugar habit, and you’ll experience sugar addiction withdrawal symptoms. These may manifest as feeling shaky, experiencing brain fog, and being low on energy. Also, your body and brain will crave sugar. Ironically, if you give in to cravings for sugar, you will feel better, at least momentarily, until the cycle repeats itself. 

Sugar Withdrawal: Cold Turkey vs. Cutting Back

The hard truth is that sugar withdrawal will happen when you stop eating sugar, but having that knowledge can work in your favor. 

The most severe sugar withdrawal symptoms only last a few days. So, if you decide to go cold turkey, meaning you go from eating sugar one day to not eating it the next, you can choose a time when you don’t have any significant events to attend.

In other words, don’t go cold turkey the day before a major presentation at work that’s going to determine the trajectory of your career. Instead, pick a time when you can afford a little downtime to allow your body to adjust. 

quitting sugar cold turkey

What about cutting back on sugar slowly? If you gradually reduce your sugar intake over time, can you avoid withdrawal symptoms? You can make an argument for that method producing less intense symptoms, but it has been my experience in coaching people to a sugar-free life that you don’t do yourself any favors by prolonging the shift. 

Your body and brain need separation from the intense sweetness of sugar to reset. This is also why I don’t recommend relying on sugar substitutes to get off of sugar.

You wouldn’t advise a heroin addict just to reduce how much of the drug they were using or switch to cocaine to get past their addiction because neither of those options is going to solve their problem. What those options will do, however, is keep the addict’s biochemical addiction active.

When you make a clean break from sugar and sweeteners, your taste buds and the chemical receptors in the pleasure center of your brain downregulate, and your desire and cravings for sugar diminish. This fact is supported by research that shows that following a low-carb/no sugar diet reduces your desire for sugar (1) (2).

Dealing with Sugar Addiction

Another consideration when deciding to quit sugar cold turkey or slowly is the addictive nature of sugar and how it affects you.

It can be argued that some people are more susceptible to sugar addiction than others. Regardless of whether you feel that you are highly vulnerable to sugar addiction or not, there is no denying that eating sugar makes you want more sugar. 

Let’s look at two case scenarios:

Case #1: Cutting Back on Sugar. If you go to a birthday party and tell the hostess, “Just give me a small piece of birthday cake,” you’ve saved yourself some calories, but you’ve also given your body a hit of sugar, which brightens up the addictive pleasure center of the brain, making you crave more.

This puts you in a tough position because not only are you fighting the biochemistry of cravings; you must rely on willpower to get through the rest of the party. Sometimes willpower works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It is not something to rely on. 

Case #2: Cold Turkey. If you abstain from eating the birthday cake altogether, you will still need some willpower, but that’s all you need. You are not fighting your biochemistry, and ultimately, that makes you stronger.

Quitting Sugar: How to Do it Right

You can likely see that I am a proponent of going cold turkey, yet I understand that fears pop up when we think about stopping a habit that is so much a part of our daily lives. Therefore, I want to share a couple of tricks that I’ve found beneficial both from my own journey away from sugar and from coaching many people to a sugar-free lifestyle. 

tips for quitting sugar

Add Before You Subtract

Quitting sugar is made easier when you remember to “add as you subtract.” What I mean by that is that you want to fill your body with nutrients and volume before or as you are cutting out sugar. 

A diet high in healthy fats that contains a lot of high-volume foods, like non-starchy vegetables, controls hunger and cravings.

The nutrient-dense vegetables also help your body flush toxins out of your system, allowing your experience of withdrawal to diminished and your recovery time to shorten. Therefore, add healthy foods as you quit sugar, and you’ll make the transition much more manageable. 

Set Short-Term Goals

Another trick is to quit sugar but do so as a short-term goal. In my Freedom Health Weight Loss Coaching Program, members set 40-day diet cycles. Day 41 is a “free day,” and it is up to you what you eat on that day. However, at the end of that day, you recommit to your next 40-day cycle, and that is how you progress until you reach your ideal weight, 40 days at a time. 

What I’ve found is that 40 days, will challenge you, but it is doable, and it gives your biochemistry time to reset, which makes sugar less desirable.  

Having a “Day 41” not only serves as something to look forward to, but it also builds your confidence because you find that sugar has lost a lot of its intensity.

Final Thoughts

I was addicted to sugar up until my early thirties and spent years thinking I could not live even one day without it. I do not have that attachment to sugar anymore. There is life on the other side of sugar addiction. You just need to get yourself there. 

If you’d like some help, I encourage you to watch my free four-part video series that shares my 0,1,2,3 strategy. It will teach you how to get off sugar and start your healthy diet. 

Thank you for reading and have a wonderful week!

References: 

(1) Wise, Paul M., et al. “Reduced dietary intake of simple sugars alters perceived sweet taste intensity but not perceived pleasantness.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 103.1 (2016): 50-60.

(2) Sartor, Francesco, et al. “Taste perception and implicit attitude toward sweet related to body mass index and soft drink supplementation.” Appetite 57.1 (2011): 237-246.

About the Author

Becky Gillaspy, DC graduated Summa Cum Laude with research honors from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1991.

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