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How Giving Up Refined Sugar Changed My Brain

How Giving Up Refined Sugar Changed My Brain


She explained that eating too much refined sugar—which is found in most sweets, sodas, white breads, and pastas, virtually all "fat free" and "low fat" snacks, fruit juices, yogurts, energy drinks, most Starbucks drinks (including many coffees), sauces (ketchup, BBQ sauces, mayo, pasta sauces), and countless other packaged foods—has now been shown to make us cranky, make us make rash decisions, and make us stupid. My friend’s point was clear: Just because I’m thin and my blood tests show no sign of diabetes, it doesn’t meant the amount of refined sugar I’m eating isn’t negatively affecting my health.

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Giving up refined sugar isn’t easy from a practical standpoint. 

It’s found in virtually all packaged foods and drinks and most food at fast food restaurants (a large Big Mac meal deal has 85 grams of sugar—236% of your daily allowance). That means if I were to escape refined sugar, I was going to have to spend more time at home cooking fresh foods than I was used to. Further, not only would I have to cut out my once-a-day sweet treat, but also all canned drinks (soda, energy drinks, and fruit juices), white breads and pastas, and those deceptively "healthy" yogurts with fake fruity sauces added for taste. I also gave up sugar and milk in my coffee.

You basically have to give up all processed foods. 

Sugar fuels addiction. Detoxing is very, very difficult.

The first day I eliminated refined sugars from my diet, I thought it was going to be a cakewalk. I ate plenty of fruits, had fish for lunch, and a steak with a side of vegetables for dinner. I missed the sugar and milk in my coffee and I did miss my daily sugary treat—but it wasn’t such a challenge giving them up.

Things changed radically on the second day. Even though I had had a filling breakfast and lunch (two oranges, eggs, and whole-grain rice with vegetables), around 2 p.m. I suddenly felt like I had been hit by a truck. I felt foggy and had a headache, which never happens on my normal diet. This fogginess and the headaches continued intermittently for the next two to three days. During that time, I had intense cravings for both soda and sugary treats. On the third day, I actually got the shakes for a period of time. It was very, very hard not to have something sweet.

"As you were not feeding your addiction, your brain was shouting out to have sugar to satisfy its cravings," says Rebecca Boulton, a nutritional therapist who specializes in hormonal health and sugar cravings, whom I contacted to help me make sense of what was happening in my body. "This is a period of adjustment, and starts with the cravings being more intense before they start to get better."

Intense? By the end of Day 4, I would have sold my dog for a brownie. The fogginess and lack of focus at one point got so bad, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the stories I needed to file that week. I seriously considered having an energy drink "for the good of my health" (I resisted). Needless to say, the continuing brain fog and resulting lack of focus made me very irritable and even depressed. I became cranky and impatient, and was unable to concentrate on things for significant lengths of time.

"Your body was still having a hard time adjusting to the new foods and reduction in sugar," explains Boulton. "It is programmed to get energy from sugar, and it takes time to get used to getting it from a different source. It almost feels like a hangover as your body is getting used to the withdrawal of sugar."

But then on Day 6, something happened. The fogginess began to disappear along with the lingering headaches. The fruits I were now eating on a daily basis began tasting sweeter. By Day 8 or 9, I felt more focused and clear-headed than I had at any time in recent memory. This translated into greater productivity—for example, I was more engaged when interviewing sources for stories. I was better able to focus on what they were saying and could rapidly respond to their answers with new queries and reformulated ideas with a speed and clarity I’ve never possessed before. While reading a book or article, I felt like I absorbed more detail and information. In short, I felt smarter.

Boulton says that the increased sweetness I began to taste in fruits was a sign my body was adjusting to being freed from nonstop refined-sugar intake. My tastebuds were adjusting to the newly recognizable natural sweetness of fruits. In turn, my headaches stopped because my body was no longer fighting the sugar cravings. "Your blood sugars are balanced without the constant roller coaster of sugar highs and lows," says Boulton, "which reduces your brain fog and increases mental clarity."

And talk about clarity: By the final days of my diet journey, I felt so focused, it was as if I were a different person. This translated to a change in mood that not only I noticed, but my friends as well. As dumb as this sounds, I just felt happier than I had been two weeks earlier.

Mood and mental clarity aren’t the only benefits of a refined-sugar-free diet.

Sleep is a critical part of mental health. Not only does it give the conscious mind respite from the day’s activities, it helps flush out toxins from the brain. A good night’s sleep also helps make us smarter.

"Your insulin levels are regulated when your blood sugars are balanced," explains Boulton. "[This] promotes good sleep patterns and gives you consistent energy, which also reduces fatigue and means you can focus more. This has a knock-on effect on the rest of your hormones as they work synergistically, which also improves energy, sleep, and brain function."

I had no expectation that giving up refined sugar would help me sleep better, but it did. On average, by Day 6 or 7, I fell to sleep within 10 minutes of lying down. Before I cut refined sugars from my diet, it usually took me about 30 minutes to fall to sleep. I also discovered I began waking earlier and more naturally, and that it wasn't as hard to get out of bed in the morning.

Unexpected Weight Loss

The final thing I want to mention about my refined-sugar-free diet was its affect on my weight. I did not undertake this experiment to shed pounds, and since this wasn’t a weight-loss diet, I kept to eating the same number of calories as before. I also ate plenty of fats (red meat, avocados) and plenty of carbs and natural sugars (from fruit, veg, and whole grains). The only thing that I changed about my diet is I eliminated any calories from refined sugars.

The only thing that I changed about my diet is I eliminated any calories from refined sugars. And I lost 12 pounds in two weeks.

The reason is because though my calorie intake remained the same, my body was no longer fighting a constant deluge of refined-sugar intake it needed to process nonstop, says Boulton.

"Sugar spikes your blood sugar and insulin levels, as well as disrupting your neurotransmitters in the brain, which increases fat storage," explains Boulton. "Eating more protein, fiber, fruit, and vegetables increases your metabolism, and your body burns it off more efficiently. It really isn’t just about the calories but about the quality of foods you eat and the way your body processes them."

A Veil Has Been Lifted

After two weeks of eating a refined-sugar-free diet, I can say my simple assumptions about the effects of my previous diet on my body and cognitive function were wrong. After giving up refined sugars for only two weeks, I feel as if a veil has been lifted and I can see clearly for the first time.


Refined sugar is hidden in tens of thousands of foods and its addictive effect on the brain is more powerful than that of cocaine. Its presence and its marketing power are everywhere, which makes it nearly unavoidable unless you are willing to do what I did and prepare all of your meals using only fresh foods—something time and work commitments don’t always make possible.

Refined sugar is toxic. 

Refined sugar is poison unplugged. Very dangerous. Very destructive. If I had any legislative power, I would ban it

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