James Haggerty Recovery

How Cutting Out Sugar Can Improve Your Mental Health

January 2, 2024
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Mental Health Benefits of Cutting Out Sugar

The road to recovery is not always easy, and it sometimes includes making changes in other aspects of your lifestyle besides your substance use. For many people, that includes eating habits. So, where do you start?

Most people are aware that sugar isn’t healthy: it’s essentially empty calories that can lead to negative health consequences such as weight gain and fluctuating energy levels, as well as diseases like chronic inflammation, cardiac disease, and type 2 diabetes. However, the consequences don’t end there. Sugar’s impact on the brain and a person’s mental health is much more extensive than previously known.

I decided to start cutting out sugar to improve my own mental well-being as part of my ongoing recovery journey, and I can honestly say it was well worth it. Not only has it helped increase my physical energy levels and drastically reduced my brain fog, but it has also had a consistently positive impact on my mood and mental outlook.

Was cutting down on sugar easy? Not at all, and there were many times I wanted to throw in the towel and go back to my old eating habits. But, I knew I was leaning too heavily on sugar for a “quick fix” and that it was harming my health, so I stuck with it. Every change and every journey starts with one small step and a conscious commitment to keep trying. Even when you make mistakes, and we all do, each day is a new opportunity to believe in yourself and a better life for you and your loved ones. I know because I’ve been there, and my own journey is far from over! Stick with me to find out more about the benefits of reducing sugar on both your physical and mental health and how to take the first life-changing steps.

Does Quitting Sugar Improve Mental Health?

Quitting sugar has many mental health benefits, especially when it comes to the brain’s ability to process and retain information. A brain impacted by a diet heavy in consistent sugar intake can suffer from chronic inflammation, as can other organs in the body that affect weight and energy levels.

Chronic inflammation, according to current research, has been linked to a decrease in cognitive abilities that control learning and memory. This inflammation essentially causes the brain to age more quickly than it should, causing symptoms such as forgetfulness, confusion, and the dreaded “brain fog.”

Inflammation itself does not cause depression, but depression, anxiety, and inflammation are all consequences of sugar consumption and addiction. When we become accustomed to consuming sugar, we feed into a vicious cycle that can soon become addictive.

I know for a fact that I often reached for sugary sweets and snacks when I felt strong emotions, stress, or exhaustion, searching for that quick hit of dopamine and adrenaline to perk myself up. The taste itself, coupled with the fleeting high, was temporary relief, but I knew the serious long-term ramifications were impeding my progress along my wellness journey. After dedicating myself to cutting down on sugar, I can attest to more mental clarity, better mood regulation, and more conscious acknowledgment of my emotional responses to various situations.

What Are the Mental Benefits of Cutting Sugar?

Mental Benefits of Cutting Sugar

If you suffer from anxiety or depression, often experiencing feelings of worry, panic, sadness, and fatigue, sugar can intensify these symptoms. Once you cut down, your brain will soon be able to better regulate your emotions and responses to everyday stress. Your ability to make confident, calm decisions will be stronger, and your mind will feel clearer and more present.

For many of us, myself included, a diet heavy in added sugar can cause too many adrenaline-fueled highs and lows, which impacts our minds by making them get stuck in rumination cycles of worry, hyper-sensitivity, and alertness – and this, in turn, compounds fatigue. Once we reach for a sugary treat to “help” our energy level and get a hit of dopamine, the whole process repeats itself.

How Does Eating Sugar Affect Your Mental Health?

Food affects our emotions more than we think. I know from experience that when I’m hungry, my emotional regulation skills take a nose-dive. In other words, I get “hangry”! Grumpy, upset, short-tempered – you name it. When I have a craving, it takes over, and if I satiate that craving with something sweet, I get an instant boost of euphoria and satisfaction.

Unfortunately, trying to solve a temporary mood swing with sugar can have long-term implications for your health. This includes increasingly common disorders like anxiety and depression. Although we come across sugar naturally in forms like fruits, veggies, and grains, when it’s consumed in more refined foods like pasta, soda, bread, candy, cakes, and cookies, these simple carbohydrates cause complicated problems in the long run. The American diet is so high in these easily digestible carbs that we often don’t notice we are missing out on all the delicious, mood-balancing, and healthy complex carbohydrates.

As a male, I also found that I am more susceptible to the mental impacts of a sugar-rich diet. It was a tough fact to face that my diet may have been contributing to my mood swings and increasing feelings of depression and anxiety. I had so long looked at sweets and foods consisting of simple carbohydrates as a treat I “deserved ” that I couldn’t imagine my life without them. But facts are facts, and even the American Heart Association recommends no more than 36 grams of sugar per day for men and 25 grams for women. When I tallied up my total consumption, it was much higher. I also found out that a lot of my go-to snacks were packed with hidden grams of sugar I hadn’t been aware of.

What Happens to Your Body When You Cut Down on Sugar?

Detoxing from sugar can be intense. Like other addictive substances, it can cause physical and mental distress and discomfort. After all, your brain isn’t wired to receive constant, high levels of sugar. When it does, the brain’s reward center gets a massive boost of stimulation, which cancels out any self-control mechanisms in place. The pleasure immediately outweighs everything else, even logic.

Luckily, the longer you stick to cutting down on sugar, the more your brain and your palate will adjust. At first, I experienced some brutal sugar withdrawal symptoms, and I’m not exaggerating. During the first few weeks, while still in the early stages of decreasing my sugar intake, I felt much more depressed, anxious, and preoccupied with both worry and fatigue. Let’s not forget the cravings, either. I had to work through those times by acknowledging and naming the craving itself, sitting with my thoughts and feelings, and talking myself down from seeking what my addiction told me it needed.

I distinctly remember even experiencing some nausea and gastrointestinal discomfort, too. I was shocked to find out this is normal. The body has to get accustomed to processing more complex carbohydrates and whole foods as opposed to refined ones, and this initially can cause people to perceive there is something “wrong” with what they are doing. On the contrary, pushing through can pave the way for better physical and mental health, but it only happens one day at a time.

How to Start Cutting Down on Sugar Consumption

Cutting back on Sugar - checking grocery labels

Cutting down on sugar to benefit your mental and physical health happens with small steps, conscious commitment, and a lot of self-love. You are literally loving your body and mind to give yourself the gift of health, clarity, happiness, and longevity with this decision. Here are some intentional practices that helped me to make a positive change.

Eliminate Obvious Sources of Sugar

For me, this meant cutting out certain drinks since I’m a sucker for fruit juices and soda. I never thought I drank them to excess, but when I took a good, hard look at how many grams of sugar I consumed daily, I knew this was a big culprit. If you’re a fan of energy drinks, sweet coffee or tea, soda, juice, or any other beverage with added sugar, consider swapping out.

You may feel like upping your water intake will help, but if you need more variety, opt for sparkling water or unsweetened tea. There is a ton of variety out there! Even squeezing a lemon or lime or making your own infusion with fruit like blueberries, strawberries, or raspberries may quench your craving.

Deviate to Healthier Desserts

I was accustomed to desserts laden with simple carbs, like cookies, candy, and ice cream. I found my sweet tooth could still be satisfied with more nutrient-rich options like fresh fruit, dried fruit, a piece of dark chocolate, or a sautee of fresh fruit sprinkled with enticing cinnamon.

Make Your Carbs Count

Carb quality can truly enhance your mental health, so don’t get too caught up if you’re worried about having too many grams of sugar in a day. Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains are vastly more beneficial to your mental and physical health than white flour, white pasta, white rice, and, of course, sugary sweets.

Choosing the whole-grain variety of a favorite will decrease a spike in your blood sugar as well as provide more nutrients to your body and your brain. I made some simple switches from more highly processed versions of everyday foods and experienced not just satiety but mental clarity and calm, as well.

Check Your Labels

Hidden sugar grams are sneaky. Even savory foods like soups, sauces, and breads can have added sugar just to make them “tastier.” I found a lot of staples that listed sugar as one of the first five ingredients and switched them out for others immediately! I also learned that sugar has a lot of aliases, like “sucrose” and “agave nectar,” so I had to put on my sleuth hat for sure.

Try a 2-Week Challenge

Try cutting down or eliminating artificial sugars and added sugars for two weeks. It will be challenging, but you will also have moments of epiphany as you notice your taste buds begin to reset, your mind starts to clear, and your cravings slink off once you’ve given them their say but not their reward.

I reminded myself during tough moments that the reason I was cutting down on sugar was to continue on my journey of recovery and to benefit my mental health, and I just tried to breathe through the discomfort and emotion. Addiction has many forms, and it is possible to take small steps to break free from it.

Sugar Reduction for Better Mental Health

Making changes to your diet and eating habits is no small feat. Many moments of my journey have been about staying with the discomfort, the emotion, the fear, and whatever other physical or mental symptoms try to make me return to old, destructive ways. Sticking with my sugar reduction journey through the first few weeks was difficult but also enlightening and energizing.

I did not try to demonize sugar or turn it into something “bad.” I simply told myself I was cutting down on unnecessary, addictive, processed sugars that were causing short and long-term harm to my brain and mental fortitude. A healthy diet doesn’t have to be restrictive, and I reminded myself that I could have tasty, delicious foods that would be beneficial to my physical and mental health whenever I wanted.

It Starts With One Step

Cut Sugar to Improve Mental Health

The bottom line is that sugars found in simple carbohydrates are linked to many mental health issues. If you feel ready to start cutting down on or eliminating processed sugar from your diet, start with some of the steps I outlined above. You may even find a friend or family member who has been thinking about doing the same thing, and you can use their support to help you through your journey.

As you start to notice changes in your mindset, memory, energy levels, and emotional regulation, notice and celebrate these achievements with yourself and each other. This is truly a reward that you have earned by making yourself and your health a priority. There is no failure in this process, either, because you are approaching it from a place of love for your body and mind.

Every step, no matter how small, is progress toward self-love, happiness, and health. I will be right there with you to cheer you on at whatever point in your journey you may be! Reach out to me anytime for more information or to begin your journey of recovery.

Stay Strong,



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  2. Ma, J., Karlsen, M. C., Chung, M., Jacques, P. F., Saltzman, E., Smith, C. E., Fox, C. S., & McKeown, N. M. (2017). Potential link between excess added sugar intake and ectopic fat: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Nutrition Reviews, 75(1), 18-32. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuw053
  3. Harvard Health Publishing. (2022). The bitter truth about added sugar. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-bitter-truth-about-added-sugar
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Get the Facts: Added Sugars. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/added-sugars.html
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Be Sugar Smart. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/be-sugar-smart.html
  6. Medical News Today. (2021). What does sugar do to your body? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318818
  7. BBC Future. (2021). What happens when you quit sugar. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210818-what-happens-when-you-quit-sugar
  8. American Heart Association. (2021). Added Sugars. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/added-sugars
James Haggerty

A Time to Heal: Family Interventions offers personalized SUD Interventions, Addiction Recovery Planning, Case Management, Sober Companionship and Family Support. Call 310-450-6627 to connect with us.

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