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How to Cut Out Sugar Without Noticing

A different approach to the "cold-turkey" method of quitting sugar.

Key points

  • Many people struggle to cut out processed sugar.
  • Instead of trying to quit "cold turkey," we can reduce sugar intake by staying below the "Just Noticeable Difference" (JND).
  • By staying below the JND, it's possible to cut out processed sugar without noticing any change has occurred.

I grew up in rural Appalachia — the land of "Mountain Dew Mouth"— where our teeth rot and our waists expand, thanks to our overindulgence in processed sugar.

According to the National Institutes of Health, experts agree that we "eat and drink way too much sugar, and it's contributing to the obesity epidemic. Much of the sugar we eat isn't found naturally in food but is added during processing or preparation."

We love sugar. We crave sugar. We sacrifice our health for sugar.

Excess sugar consumption has been associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancers, tooth decay, and a host of other health issues.

Most of us have grown up with sugar as a staple in our diet, which makes it incredibly difficult to cut out despite its negative effects.

But there's a glimmer of hope.

There's a simple strategy that takes virtually no effort to implement, and most people don't notice anything's happening. In fact, it relies on you not noticing.

Here's how the psychophysics of thresholds can help you cut back on processed sugar….

Understanding the Power of Thresholds

Let's say you're holding two dumbbells. The one in your left hand weighs 2 lbs, and the one in your right weighs 1 lb. Can you tell which is heavier? What if one weighed 1,000 lbs and the other weighed 999 lbs?

The absolute difference is the same: one pound. But the relative difference is undetectable. Relative to 1,000 lbs, 999 lbs is virtually the same, so your brain can't perceive the difference between them.

Understanding how our brains perceive differences and how thresholds work is critical to cutting out processed sugar without noticing.

Just-Noticeable Differences

The just-noticeable difference (JND), also known as the difference threshold, is the minimum level of stimulation that a person can detect 50 percent of the time. It's based on Weber's Law, which says the JND is a constant proportion of the original stimulus — meaning if one dumbbell weighs 999 lbs, it will take a lot more than a 1-lb difference for your brain to perceive it.

So how does this relate to cutting out processed sugar?

Because there are two ways to approach it….

The Hard Way

The hard way is better known as the "cold-turkey" method. Like a light switch, you suddenly go from being "on" processed sugar to "off" it.

When your palate is used to being saturated with processed sugar, it can be difficult to switch to naturally sweetened foods like fresh fruit or switch to low-sugar or no-sugar beverages.

  • Fresh strawberries can taste sour compared to cookies.
  • Water can feel unsatisfying compared to full-sugar soda.
  • Black coffee can taste bitter compared to coffee with tons of sugar or sweetened creamer.

It's too stark of a contrast, too noticeable of a difference.

But there's another way...

The Lazy Way

If the hard way is a light switch, the lazy way is a dimmer switch, allowing you to slowly fade from a lot of sugar to less and less while staying below the JND.

It's the "lazy way" for a reason: It shouldn't feel effortful.

Switching from using five packets of sugar in your coffee to none is a huge difference. But going from five packets to four and three-quarters? Virtually undetectable.

With enough time and patience, it's possible to cut out processed sugar—as long as you stay below the JND (and check with your physician).

For example:

  • Slowly taper down packets of sugar in your coffee in 1/4th-1/8th increments.
  • Drink progressively smaller servings of soda (and a little more water).
  • Bake your own cookies and gradually use less sugar in the recipe.

Make tiny, microscopically-small changes. If you can notice a difference, you're doing too much or going too fast.

If you start to taper down another step and feel like it's too big of a change, remember the JND is relative. Meaning once you get down to two packets of sugar in your coffee, going down another quarter packet may be relatively too much of a change. You may need to allow sensory adaptation to occur so that two packets will become your new baseline of sugar consumption (e.g., maybe stay at two packets for a few days or weeks) before resuming a smaller-increment taper.

Cutting out processed sugar doesn't have to feel like a Herculean effort.

You can do it the hard way or the lazy way.

Which will you choose?


Parts of this post also appeared here.

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