Sugar – America’s favorite drug. Too much of this can lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. But what if you eat too little? Low carb diets have become very popular in recent years. While these diets often have many beneficial effects on the body, cutting out sugar completely can be more difficult than you think. People who switch to the popular ketogenic diet suffer from sugar deprivation so often that they even have a name for it: the keto flu.
Sugar is a tricky thing. Many of the healthy foods you eat contain sugar, including fruits, breads, and dairy products. When we talk about sugar from a health perspective, we are usually talking about the refined sugar that is added to things like bread, candy, and soda. These include table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and white flour.
Whether or not you can actually become addicted or physically dependent on sugar depends largely on your definition of addiction. However, it seems that many people experience withdrawal symptoms when they give it up.
Sugar causes endorphins to be released in the brain. These are your body’s natural opioids. It is possible that your body may crave these extra opioids when they are gone, resulting in withdrawal. Sugar also causes the release of dopamine, which plays an important role in habit formation.
If you’ve removed all sources of sugar from your diet, including fruits and dairy products, you could end up with the keto flu. People on a ketogenic diet consume less than 10% of their calories from carbohydrates per day – that can be less than 20 grams of carbohydrates..Without access to sugar or other carbohydrates, the body has no source of glucose. Glucose is like fuel for our cells, and without it we begin to starve. The body is forced to turn to its fat stores for an alternative source of fuel that causes a condition known as ketosis. Ketosis can be uncomfortable.
Signs and symptoms
Believe it or not, there is an evolutionary basis for your ice cream cravings. Our early ancestors were biologically motivated to seek out high-calorie foods like fruits and honey..Consuming sugar helped our ancestors build body fat, which was essential to surviving times of scarcity. The brain rewarded this survival instinct by releasing feel-good neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are the brain’s chemical messengers. There are billions of these molecules constantly at work sending messages in your nervous system that allow you to think, move, breathe, etc.
Addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine produce high value because they either disguise themselves as neurotransmitters or cause the nervous system to release a deluge of them. These types of changes in your brain chemistry lead to dependence, withdrawal, and addiction.
As it turns out, sugar also affects your neurotransmitters. It triggers the release of endorphins, the natural opioids commonly known to relieve post-injury pain and improve post-exercise happiness. Sugar also triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to food cravings...
In animal studies, researchers have found that sugar withdrawal mirrors withdrawal from other drugs such as cocaine and heroin. But animals seem to be more prone to sugar addiction than we are. In one study, cocaine-addicted rats mainly chose sugar when choosing between cocaine and sugar...
In humans, sugar withdrawal is usually less severe. If you cut added sugars out of your diet, the following can occur:
- Intense desire for something sweet
- Intense cravings for other carbohydrates such as french fries or pasta
- Depressed mood
Within days of giving up sugar, these symptoms can become so unbearable that we end up binging. Binge eating is part of a vicious cycle of sugar addiction and withdrawal. Often times, people feel guilty, depressed, and angry after a seizure. How do you feel better? You’re eating more sugar to get those endorphins flowing again!
Endorphins will make you feel better about eating, but won’t stay long.
If you follow a ketogenic diet, your symptoms can be more severe than those caused by reducing your added sugar. This drastic drop in carbohydrates causes the body to enter a state of ketosis that works differently for everyone. You can enter ketosis after cutting your carbs down to 50 grams per day while someone else may need to cut them down to 10 grams or less. It can take a few days for your body to go into a state of ketosis.
Common ketosis symptoms
Once ketosis starts, you may notice symptoms such as:
- a headache
- Muscle cramps
- Bad breath
- Constipation or diarrhea
Basically, ketosis feels like a mild flu. These symptoms usually go away on their own in about a week. It just takes time for your body to get used to its new reality.
Coping and Relief
How you deal with symptoms of sugar deprivation will depend on your goals and reasons for reducing your sugar intake. If you want to switch to a ketogenic diet, you need to give your body time to adjust.
The ketogenic diet can have health benefits, especially in some people with epilepsy and other neurological disorders..If you start a ketogenic diet for health reasons, you may have to suffer from the uncomfortable symptoms for a while. Think of it like the real flu – you just have to endure it. If your symptoms don’t improve after three weeks, talk to your doctor.
If you are on a low carb or keto weight loss diet, you may want to consider changing your approach. A low-carb diet has many of the same health benefits as a keto diet, including weight loss. The only difference is that your body doesn’t go into a state of ketosis. Ketosis can lead to rapid weight loss, but it is usually temporary.
To switch to a low-carb diet and put an end to the keto flu, all you need to do is eat some fruit. When the body has access to glucose (from sugary foods), it no longer needs to burn fat for fuel.
It is important to speak to your doctor before starting a low-carb or ketogenic diet. These diets are usually healthy, but can be dangerous for certain people. Because these sugar-free diets are so restrictive, they can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies..Vitamins and minerals are important for the body’s growth. For this reason, children and teenagers shouldn’t be on low-carb diets. Neither should pregnant women.
The long-term health effects of low-carb diets have not been fully studied. Some doctors fear that this could lead to bone loss and various chronic diseases. To reduce the risk of heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends a balanced diet high in lean protein, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables...
Long term treatment
Sugar withdrawal does not require long-term treatment as it goes away relatively quickly. The main problem people face is maintaining a low-sugar diet. These restrictive diets are too much for most people. So don’t feel guilty if you fall off the cart.
The key to a successful diet is finding something to live with for the long term. If you are sugar-free for three weeks for the next month, try a less drastic diet.
Eating a diet high in lean protein, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables will help you maintain a healthy weight and give the body the nutrients it needs to thrive. Avoid processed foods as these are usually filled with added sugars. Instead, get your sweet fix from something that contains fiber, like berries, oranges, or apples.
For tips and tricks on planning healthy meals for the whole family, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov.
You can also check out the American Heart Association’s excellent collection of recipes specifically designed to change your eating habits for good.
If you are concerned that you are struggling with a food addiction or eating disorder, consider peer-to-peer support groups in your area, such as: B. Food Addict’s Anonymous or Overeater’s Anonymous.
A word from Verywell
Reducing your sugar intake is an admirable goal. Remember that the best diets are not diets at all, but changes in your eating habits. Old habits are hard to break, especially when trying to quit the cold turkey. Instead, start with small changes. Try to be proud of the small steps you take instead of being guilty of what remains to be done. Each small step builds on the last and leads you straight to a healthier tomorrow.