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Cut Back or Go Cold Turkey?

When it comes to breaking a food habit, which works better: quitting cold turkey, or just cutting back and continuing to enjoy the food in question in moderation?

In today's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column about cutting back on sweets, Dr. Neal Barnard notes that most people do better by going cold turkey. But others, including dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, believe you can keep sweets or other temptations in your life, so long as you start by meeting your daily nutritional requirements. Fill up first on nutrition-packed foods, then use any remaining calories from your daily allotment to indulge in a treat.

I've tried it both ways, and, frankly, it depends on my mood and where I am in my life. Right now there's a whole bag of chocolate chips in my pantry, and I'm not the least bit tempted to taste them. But 10 years ago, those chips would have haunted me; I might have started by counting out a calorie-conscious handful, but that modest serving would tune up my taste buds, taunting me to scarf down the rest of the bag.

Here's something that works well for me: Rather than focus my energy and attention on actually eating the foods I'm trying to cut back on, I think of ways to cook with them. Somehow I find I can enjoy being around those foods (including chocolate chips) without putting them in my mouth. The trick, of course, is to wrap up and give away most of what you've cooked or baked.

How about you? Can you savor 5 Hershey Kisses and call it a day? Or do those 5 lead to 15 -- or more -- meaning you should stay away from them altogether?

Results of last week's poll:

Thousands of readers voted for their favorite no- or low-calorie sweetener. The hands-down winner was sucralose, which garnered 63 percent of the vote. Stevia came in at 13 percent; saccharin and aspartame got 9 percent apiece.

This week's poll:

Explain your choice in the Comments section. I'll report on the results next Tuesday.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  February 24, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: And Now, Some Good News About Peanuts
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I believe the rule is that it takes about three weeks to change a habit. I find if I can forgo sweets (cookies, cake, pie, candy, chocolate, etc.) for about two weeks the cravings go away. But one taste and I'm back where I started. I call it the "suger switch", once I turn it on it is very hard to turn it off. Sometimes eatting something spicy will kill the craving or I'll have some figs or raisins.

Posted by: tvaillant | February 24, 2009 9:19 AM | Report abuse

I agree, tvaillant. I have to kill the cravings before I can go back and eat in moderation.

Posted by: mannc | February 24, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

I will buy a bag of the one or two bite pieces of chocolate. If I have a craving I can alleviate it by popping one or two in my mouth vs eating a whole bar. Which I would. If it was there. So it can't be.

Posted by: jackdmom | February 24, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

It depends on the long-term goal. Cold turkey for the long-term, like forever, is not realistic. Chocolate will always, always be there. I think moderation is the way to go. And I don't think chastizing oneself because you ate a milky-way is the way to go either.. enjoy it, love it, and come back for more in a week or two. The whole relationship to chocolate (or whatever) has to be less intense, sweeter, gentler.. so to speak.

Posted by: schase2 | February 24, 2009 10:58 AM | Report abuse

I must go cold turkey, and then can't have the item in the house. No such thing as "one" or "just a few", the whole bag or the whole can of chips will go down!

Posted by: rjcch | February 24, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I have tried it both ways. While I think cold turkey is the best, I have trouble filling that sweet void by over eating other things... It is hard to break a sugar addiction. Surely it is attainable to do so!

Posted by: irenecannon | February 24, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I'm better at saying, "No, I won't eat any," than "I'll just have a taste." One taste leads to another. . . . I can't be trusted around most snacks.

Posted by: jmaczet | February 24, 2009 11:42 AM | Report abuse

I went cold turkey and found that my cravings disappeared within the first week and the surprising things are that I've lost 20 pounds just because I have downsized my portions, I don't have the hunger I used to have, my arthritis is 75% better and I take no medications, and heartburn is 95%gone - all since I took sugar out of my life! I now have celebratory treats - like birthday cake and I have introduced honey in my tea back into my diet - but the cravings remain at bay.

Posted by: laineyt | February 24, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

When I have gone on diets before, I found that moderation is best and effective in shedding pounds. I am looking for the "algorithm" to limit my wine intake (source of sugar) to one glass of red per day. Any helpful hints!

Posted by: jposth | February 24, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Once I have something sweet there is no such word as moderation. Nothing is safe. The only way for me to live responsibly with sugar is to go cold turkey. Only after being clean for several weeks, changing my eating habits and responses, can I even think of having any, though I realize that I can easily relapse. I should treat it as a full blown addiction and accept the consequences of my sickness.

Posted by: cashel123 | February 24, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

I'll have to go with moderation. If I try to go cold turkey, I crave it even more. Then I cave in and go overboard!

Posted by: itsme09 | February 24, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the author that it depends not only on the individual's eating patterns, but also on where the person is in life! I never had much of a sweet tooth growing up, but in college I took to snacking on sweets while studying etc. For me, cold turkey is by far the best option to reduce my intake of something, whether for the long or short-term. If it's something like chocolate or ice cream that I can't cut out of my diet forever, cold turkey for a week or two cuts the cravings, so that when I have that deluxe chocolate ice cream at a friend's birthday, it doesn't turn into a daily indulgence craving. Moreover, I find that when I get into the habit of eating packs of M&Ms every day, I tend to snack and eat a lot more in general, because all the empty calories I consume leave me craving more food in general. So M&Ms turns into chips and popcorn and ice cream daily. For that reason, I DEFINITELY don't believe in replacing one craved food with another! If you crave chocolate one day, and try to replace it with dried apricots, you're still feeding and fueling a sugar-trigger. By going cold turkey, you can cut out that sugar craving altogether. Otherwise, you may end up doing what I used to do - eating everything ELSE in sight (whether healthy or sugary) just to avoid eating chocolate! And at the end of the binge, I STILL crave chocolate, so I may as well have saved calories by eating the little piece of chocolate in the first place!

Posted by: melanienyd | February 24, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

I brought a bag of chocolates to work so I could have "one or two" should a craving arise. The bag did not last even one hour before I had devoured them. Clearly, I am one who needs to go cold turkey.

Posted by: vientos | February 24, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Life is too short to never again eat a bite of cheesecake. Moderation is the key to success in my opinion ~ in all areas of living.

Posted by: penname | February 24, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

When it comes to aspartame because its an addictive excitoneurotoxic carcinogenic drug which interacts with virtually all drugs because of damage to the mitochondria its best to just give it up. Here is Dr. Russell Blaylock's paper: "What To Do If You Have Used Aspartame: Because of the addiction we have an aspartame information list on scroll down to banners and we will help you.

Dr. Betty Martini, D.Hum, Founder
Mission Possible Intl, and
Aspartame Toxicity Center,
Aspartame Documentary: Sweet Misery: A Poisoned World,
Aspartame Medical Text, Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic, by H. J. Roberts, M.D.

Posted by: DrBettyMartini | February 24, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

I am definitely a "cold turkey" person. The only time I lost weight since I turned 40 was when I cut out chocolate, coffee (switched to tea), white flour and sugar completely. After a short bout of caffeine withdrawal headache I found that I felt better than I ever had in my life. I lost 17 lbs and dropped one size. After a short period of euphoria, however, I found that being smaller and having more energy did not solve any of the larger emotional problems I needed to deal with or what I think must be an addiction to sugar and fat. I have gained back most of the weight I lost and eat whatever I want. I am focusing on addressing my emotional issues now and hope to moderate my eating as I begin to feel more at peace with my other issues. I agree that moderating or going cold turkey successfully depends on "where you are" in the rest of your life.

Posted by: scnorth | February 24, 2009 3:25 PM | Report abuse

I'm looking through these comments, and what jumps out at me is how many people say some variation of "I can't trust myself around sweets." I think trust is a learned skill, one that we have to teach ourselves. If we enter the realm of the forbidden, it's only a matter of time before the pendulum swings the other way and we go wild with food. That's why over 95% of all weight that is lost is gained back (and more) within 18 months. The quest that I'm on is to change how I interact with food to one of relaxed joy and nutrition. I'm still on the road there!

Posted by: maggie43 | February 24, 2009 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Cold turkey, at least initially. In the case of sugar, I believe it acts on our system as a drug and sets up a physical addiction. When I stopped eating sugar, it broke the addiction--now I just have a couple of bites of chocolate every now and then. If I have too much sugar it makes me feel ill. And beware of sugar substitutes--some believe they set up your body to replace those missing calories, so you eat more. You can't fool Mother Nature!

Posted by: ebtimmer | February 24, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Each year on Ash Wednesday I give up all desserts, candies, cakes, pies, ice creams and other sweets for the duration of Lent. Although I would not characterize myself as having a sigificant sweet tooth, I always lose about five pounds during those forty days without even trying.

Posted by: jzanier | February 24, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

I find that the ultimate "Cold Turkey" solution works best: starting with a 24 hour water-only fast, then progressing to a 3 day fast or even a 7 day fast in sucessive months. Real fasting pros (usually those that are spiritually inclined) can try longer fasts with medical supervision. Especially if going on a longer fast, I recommend taking some vitamin supplements and with any fast, drink plenty of water. There are lots of good books out there. Complete fasting does a good job of breaking karmic (habitual) patterns... and breaking the fast properly is quite important. Again, consult with a professional. After the third day, a kind of bliss sets in that replaces a lot of the cravings that that cause bad health and poor eating habits. Humans are naturally addictive creatures, one can break food addictions by using the addictive qualities of the complete fast.

Posted by: ArizumaBrett | February 24, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

When my doctor told me I was pre-diabetic three years ago, I cut out candy, cake, cookies, ice cream, sugary drinks, bread, rice, potatoes, and a lot of other things with a high load of sugar and starch. My blood sugar has gotten back in the normal range and stayed there. I quit cigarettes over 30 years ago with the cold turkey method. It works for me.

Posted by: dadofmeg | February 24, 2009 4:48 PM | Report abuse

I bake gluten free cookies for my husband and son, and they eat one each and stop. I eat one and can't stop. If I don't eat any sweet things at all, the weight drops and the craving go, but then I don't have much energy to work out, even though I am eating vegetables, which are fibrous carbs.

My bloodsugar drops like a rock after eating complex or simple carbs, but I love to cook and bake and even make my own protein bars, (they are so good), and love yoghurt (Rachel's Plum Honey Lavender or Vanilla Chai). Going cold turkey and no baking for my family or pretty much the first three weeks of The Southbeach Diet is how to lose weight. Apples though, got to have them. We've been eating them once a day and we haven't been sick with a cold for a long, long, time. The old adage is true.

I love being in the kitchen. Does any body need a personal chef in the Orlando area?

Posted by: Lydiasings | February 24, 2009 5:25 PM | Report abuse

For me, it's like any other bad habit. I have to simply quit doing it. Like smoking cigars, I can't just say I will only have one a week while I golf. It just opens the door, for me, to cheat myself by using the logic, "what will having a little bit more harm". We have to face the fact that we got here by having just a little bit more. Going cold turkey on bad habits is the only thing that works for me. I do not even want the stuff in the house. Good luck to all!

Posted by: plfsquared | February 24, 2009 6:24 PM | Report abuse

Cold turkey with great substitutions worked best for me. Traveling out of the U.S. for three weeks, some years ago, I was able to realize that here the sugar was in the catsup, mustard, mayonnaise, pickles, stuffings, breads, cheeses, and everything else I was eating. After eating only whole foods in another country for those weeks, I returned to the U.S. and promptly found that 90% of processed foods gave me diarrhea and that I felt bloated if I ate condiments. After twenty years of eating mostly whole foods, I still can't stand the sugar/sweetners in the bulk of our diet. I often wish I could send all my overweight friends out for a trip. The divine chocolate once a month tastes so much better when you haven't gained 5 pounds from inadvertant consumption of corn syrup.

Posted by: Reader4 | February 24, 2009 6:49 PM | Report abuse

I applaud you for taking a look at sweets in your diet. Sugars (including alcohol and refined grains such as white flour) can be addictive to people with a particular kind of body chemistry called "sugar sensitivity", as coined by Dr. Kathleen DesMaisons.

These people have volatile blood sugar and lower than normal levels of certain neurotransmitters including serotonin and beta-endorphin.

The imbalances and associated sugar use can manifest as cravings for sweets, simple carbohydrates (including alcohol) and fats; depression; irritability; weight gain disproportionate to calories ingested; fuzzy thinking; hair-trigger anger; and others. This body chemistry sets one up for addiction, whether to alcohol, drugs, sugars, refined grain products like white breads and pasta.

Simply cutting back or giving up sugars does not heal the imbalance. And continuing to eat fewer sweets (or replacing sweets with no-calorie sweeteners) does not heal the imbalance; it simply primes sugar-sensitive bodies to want more of the taste of sweet.

There is a significant portion of the US population with this kind of body chemistry. I am one of them. For 4 years I have followed a simple food and behavior plan created by Dr. DesMaisons. I have not eaten sugars/sweeteners (including artificial) or refined grains for 3 years and do not ever crave them. I used to eat chocolate & other sweets every day, so this is a miracle to me. I've seen other benefits as well.

The question of cutting back vs. giving up misses the underlying bio-chemical reality for many of us.

Posted by: baycyn | February 24, 2009 6:59 PM | Report abuse

Cold turkey sounds very efficient and I wish it worked for me. But if I cut a food out entirely, I begin to really crave it, while if I allow myself to have it occasionally it's like I can get the urge out of my system. I am thinking particularly of our local St. Louis thin-crust pizza. I am trying to cut down to once a month because the longer I go without it the more I want it. I agree with the earlier comment about moderation in all things. Well, maybe not ALL things but definitely thin crust pizza!

Posted by: dfugate | February 24, 2009 7:41 PM | Report abuse

I usually advise people who want to cut back on sugar and other sweeteners -- but who just can't find the will to do so -- to taper off the sugar gradually. The point is to re-adjust the palate, so that it requires less sweetener for things to taste sweet. This DOES work. After tapering for a while, a lot of sugary things that you used to eat and drink will taste completely disgusting to you, and you simply won't want to go back to your old ways.

While I have not tried it, myself, I have my doubts that cold turkey is quite as effective, since it requires denial, and most people really aren't very good at denying themselves things that they want. That said, if it is like an alcohol addition to you, then perhaps, like alcohol, you have to go cold turkey. We aren't all the same.

Whatever you do, you have to choose something that is going to be a sustainable lifestyle for you. Changing your eating habits for the better is not just some temporary thing you can do for a few months, and magically be healthier forever. This is part of why "dieting" is stupid and doesn't work. You have to choose an approach that you can live with over the long term.

Posted by: Malkyne | February 24, 2009 7:55 PM | Report abuse

At first blush, I'd go Cold Turkey, but life being the way it is, moderation would have to be my choice. After losing 87 pounds 4 years ago, I found that keeping a calendar and marking certain days as "splurge" days each month, it keeps me eating cleanly the rest of the time. This has been the only way I have been able to keep the weight from coming back. Planned splurge dates, usually coinsiding with some family celebration or whatever. Otherwise, I don't/can't keep so called treat foods in the house. And I do allow 2 sugar free things a day as planned snacks. This is the only thing that has worked for me. And I go all the way back to the days of Metrecal powder!!! And yes, I exercise every day, usually with an exercise bike, it has been a life save. And the beat goes on my friends!!

Posted by: kuchen | February 24, 2009 9:27 PM | Report abuse

Cold turkey works best for me.

Lent is a good time to start. Every time I think about sugar, I remember how hungry and thirsty I am for the presence of god in my heart. As I think about sugar around 400 times a day at first, it begins the season with a lot of prayer... and a deeper understanding of what my unfilled hunger is really for.

Spiritual or not, I can't keep concentrated sweets in the house and not eat them. I can occasionally have a biscotti or a cookie in a cafe. By the time I"m finished slowly sipping my hot drink, I'm feeling satisfied, and not immediately reaching for another cookie.

Posted by: Racje | February 24, 2009 11:20 PM | Report abuse

For me moderation turned into going cold turkey, but only after I used a brilliant food program devised by Dr. Kathleen Desmaisons.
For the longest time I was hooked on sugar.
I couldn't go a day without drinking a coke or having a chocolate milkshake from McDonalds.
Now after following Dr.Desmaisons 7 steps to recovery I am proud to say that I do not crave sugar.
My life is now free of depression and I am growing into a happy, healthy person with a real vision of my future.
It's a big deal, let me tell ya!
If anyone is curious about Dr. DesMaisons she has a website called

Thanks for the article!

John Wilson

Posted by: radiantjw | February 25, 2009 8:19 AM | Report abuse

I normally believe in moderation in all things, but I can't do it with refined sugar. I admire anyone who can have a piece of chocolate and be satisfied. I have to make it be a rare treat (and make up for it the next day) and otherwise avoid or I could never keep my weight where I want it to be!

Posted by: harrija1 | February 25, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

I definitely needed to go cold turkey. I suspected I had a sugar addiction and went on the internet to see if that was a possibility; there were mixed opinions, but my gut-level feeling was that I am a sugar addict. Back in the '60s I was trying to quit smoking and told my doctor I was addicted to cigarettes: "Oh, no - that's not possible!" was the comment. (I did quit smoking - cold turkey) I think we will eventually see the medical community come together on this issue and agree that there is such a thing as sugar addiction. Meanwhile, if you think that this is a possibility for you: just say no!

Posted by: abg1 | February 25, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Cold turkey, sort of - I have found that my main issues are snacking (first of all) and overdoing at restaurants. For snacking, the only way to go is just NO snacking at all. Having one little thing leads to another and another, and none of it is necessary. For example I swear off all eating of candy and cookies and the like at work, well unless it is clear it would hurt someone's feelings who brought the food in. But if I make one exception, it seems the floodgates are open. And if I snack, for some reason I just keep overdoing it at the next meal too - you would think I would be less hungry, and maybe I am technically but I just eat more.

Restaurants - I still haven't figured out how to handle eating out. There is too much food and I can't seem to leave any on my plate or forgo the bread basket. Wish I could solve that one.

I find however that when I am on a diet, it works to have a little treat of some kind during the day, planned for, that helps me stick with the regimen a lot better. For example I have a Skinny Cow chocolate ice cream bar after dinner if I want it. It's chocolate, it tastes like a treat, but it's only 100 calories. So that would be more like the moderation strategy.

But for me, the biggest challenge is how to stop eating. At every meal and otherwise. It seems, paradoxically, that eating just encourages more eating and I can feel hungrier right after eating something than I did before, up to the point where I am overstuffed. But after I manage to not eat for awhile, the hunger subsides and I am fine. So for me, dieting (and even just everyday maintenance eating) is about devising strategies for stopping, like brushing my teeth, having a cup of herb tea or some ice water, getting up and getting busy at something, etc.

On the other hand I really don't get specific cravings like some people do, I could eat just about anything (and, I do). For them maybe the moderation method would work better.

Posted by: catherine3 | February 25, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

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