I grew up in Appalachia — the land of Mountain Dew Mouth — where our teeth rot and our waists expand, thanks to our overindulgence in processed sugar.
If you couldn’t chew your sweet tea, it didn’t have enough sugar in it. Unsweetened tea? Blasphemy! You don’t have a little creamer in your coffee — you have a little coffee in your creamer.
Sound familiar? Maybe you’re not from my neck of the woods, but according to the National Institute 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.
According to a Healthline article, excess sugar consumption has been associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, tooth decay, and a host of other health issues.
Most of us have grown up with sugar as a staple in our diet. The thought of going without it paints a dreary picture of the future — a flavorless, joyless dystopian hellscape.
But there’s a glimmer of hope.
Two things to remember about humans: we’re built to adapt and we’re lazy. We can adapt to almost any situation, but we hate anything effortful. Anytime we do something, we look for the path of least resistance. Too much resistance, and we’ll find an excuse to bail.
In grad school, I came across a concept that’s helped me, and many of my clients, cut back on processed sugar and other bad habits. It takes virtually no effort to implement, and most people don’t notice anything’s happening. In fact, it relies on you not noticing you’re cutting back.
Here’s how to leverage your laziness to cut out sugar.
The Power of Thresholds
Let’s say you’re holding two dumbbells. The one in your left hand weighs 2lbs, and the one in your right weighs 1lb. Can you tell which is heavier? What if one weighed 1,000lbs and the other weighed 999lbs?
The absolute difference is the same: one pound. But the relative difference is undetectable. Relative to 1,000lbs, 999lbs is virtually the same, so your brain can’t distinguish between them.
Understanding how our brains perceive these differences and how thresholds work is critical to how we can cut out sugar.
Here’s a breakdown:
The lowest level at which we can detect a stimulus. Below this threshold, we can’t perceive anything.
Here are some examples of absolute thresholds:
- Seeing a candle flame 30 miles away on a clear, dark night
- Hearing a watch ticking 20 feet away from you in a quiet room
- Feeling a fly’s wing falling on your cheek from 1 centimeter away
- Smelling a single drop of perfume diffused through an area equivalent to six rooms
- Tasting a teaspoon of sugar dissolved in two gallons of water
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 999lbs, it will take a lot more than a 1lb difference for your brain to register it.
These are the concepts I came across in grad school, but I rarely hear people talk about how powerful they can be.
Still wondering where I’m going with this? Let’s apply it.
Two Ways to Quit Sugar
Anytime you look up ways to cut out processed sugar, you’ll find all kinds of advice that doesn’t work for most people. That’s because most strategies rely on the hard way to cut out sugar.
The Hard Way
This way relies on willpower, which is a finite resource. Every decision we make and every stress we experience throughout the day saps our willpower.
The hard way is better known as the “cold turkey” method. Like a light switch, you go from being “on” (consuming sugar) to “off” (no sugar or minimal sugar).
Advice like switching from drinking fruit juice to eating fresh fruit, from sugary soft drinks to diet, from sugar in your coffee to stevia. These can work, but it’s too big of a change for most of us . It crosses the JND, the threshold where we can tell something’s different — so our brains rebel.
Fresh fruit isn’t as sweet as juice concentrate, so it can taste sour if we suddenly switch. Most diet sodas taste terrible compared to their sugar-laden counterparts. Stevia in your coffee (or anything, for that matter) has a bitter aftertaste. It’s too stark of a contrast, too noticeable of a difference. The hard way doesn’t work for most people, but they go with it because they’re not aware there’s another way: the lazy way.
The Lazy Way
Every day, all day long, things are changing. But we don’t notice too often, because if the change is gradual enough, we adjust and it becomes part of us.—Seth Godin, Permission Marketing
If the hard way is like a light switch, the lazy way is more of a dimmer switch. We can slowly taper from a lot of sugar to less and less. But we have to stay below the absolute threshold so our brains don’t notice anything is changing.
It’s the lazy way for a reason: it requires virtually no effort. Switching from using five packets of sugar in your cup of coffee to none (or a subpar sugar substitute) is a huge difference. But going from using five packets of sugar to four and three quarters? Undetectable.
That’s how I tapered myself from a handful of packets of sugar and creamer to now preferring black coffee. I slowly tapered down in small enough increments that my taste buds couldn’t perceive a difference. I went from five packets to four and three quarters. I stayed there for a few days, then went down another quarter packet. On and on until I eventually tapered to no sugar. It took a few weeks, but it worked — all with minimal effort and no brain rebelling because I stayed below the absolute threshold.
You can drink one fewer soda each day. One fewer bottle of juice. A smaller portion of dessert. A little less icing on your cake. One fewer Oreo. Break off a piece of your donut and give it to a bird or throw it away. Tiny, microscopically-small changes. If you can notice a difference, you’re doing too much.
Don’t put in effort. Don’t rely on motivation or willpower. Embrace your laziness. That’s how you can succeed and cut out sugar.
Anytime you’re trying to develop a habit — whether decreasing bad behaviors (like consuming sugar) or increasing good ones (exercise), minimizing effort is the key to success. Try too hard, and you’ll cross the difference threshold — you’re brain registers something’s different and rebels.
But stay below the absolute threshold, and your brain thinks it’s business as usual as you baby-step your way to success. Stay lazy.