The Big Three: Sugar, Caffeine, Alcohol

The Big Three: Sugar, Caffeine, Alcohol


For many of us, imagining the start of our day without caffeine, the afternoon without a sugary snack, and the end of the day without alcohol, may seem unfathomable. These three – caffeine, sugar, and alcohol – can be tricky foods because they often make us feel so good, at least at first. The “Big Three” are the items that people most often wonder how much they can include in their diet. And they’re also the ones that people are most resistant to reducing or giving up or the 21-Day Clean Program and beyond.

The difference between the Big Three and gluten and dairy is that gluten (for example, whole grain bread) and dairy are often considered “health foods”. But few would encourage us to include more of the Big Three in our diet to get healthy. Yet, most of us do consume them or will consume them again in the future, especially when socializing. Let’s start with a review of the very real effects of these items.

1. Processed Sugar

This item is found in almost all processed foods today. When the sweet receptors in our brain are over-stimulated by sugar-rich diets, the sugar easily overrides our mechanisms for self-control. In fact, sugar has been shown to surpass the desire for cocaine in lab animals. This makes sugar one of the drivers of obesity because it is easy to over-consume and can trigger more hunger.

That said, sugar has been used therapeutically for people with low metabolism and can be a helpful addition to athlete’s diets, specifically long-distance runners. In general, removing processed sugar will help balance blood sugar, reduce pathogenic bacteria in the gut, and keep your mood stable.

2. Caffeine

Caffeine is the most consumed drug in the United States. Caffeine is a stimulant that can wear down the adrenal glands and make us more tired. People have all different kinds of reactions to caffeine, probably because of the variability in genes to process caffeine through the liver. Some people process it quickly and have no problem. Others metabolize it slowly and get symptoms like racing heart, jitters, and anxiety when they drink it.

There are mixed studies either touting its consumption or warning of its negative effects. Studies suggest the benefits include a reduction in depression, increased athletic performance, a protective against Parkinson’s, and a stress reducer. Negative effects are associated with stiffened arteries, increased acid load in the body, and in opposition to the studies above,increased production of stress hormones. It’s also been shown to reduce the quality of sleep when taken in the evening. With evidence going in both directions, you’ll need to pay close attention to how your body responds to caffeine and how much you can tolerate.

3. Alcohol

Alcohol taxes the liver and can feed pathogenic bacteria in the gut. There are studies that suggest there are some benefits to consuming alcohol. Some talk about the antioxidant content of wine, specifically resveratrol, which you can readily get from other sources (other plant foods, including berries). Others state that moderate consumption of wine may reduce the incidence of depression, while heavy users face more depression.

Drinking alcohol tends to accompany other lifestyle factors that may not be as healthy (such as smoking, lack of sleep, and poor eating habits). However, studies seem to suggest that the people who live the longest are those who are not heavy drinkers nor abstain completely from drinking, but have an occasional glass of red wine. Much like caffeine, so much depends on the state of our liver and our individual ability to process alcohol in the body.


As you can see, research on each of the Big Three has shown some positive and negative effects. None of these items are inherently bad and it’s this ambivalence towards them, sometimes good, sometimes not, that is one of the reasons we keep coming back to them. To err on the side of the safety, the negative effects do seem to override the positive ones and so a strategy of removing dependency is the most realistic and balanced approach for dealing with them.


These three – caffeine, sugar, and alcohol – can become crutches and keep us out of touch with how we really feel in the moment. Caffeine sharpens our thinking, sugar gives us the feel-good high, and alcohol relaxes us. Food addictions are crossovers between the body and the psyche. It’s important to recognize that we get something from these habits, that part of us actively wants what they give us. When food evokes pleasure, we continue to want to go there.

When we eat a high-sugar snack, we feel good (at least temporarily). Our insulin and glucose immediately change which actually alters our neurotransmitters. Then we want that feeling again, so the cycle repeats itself. Similarly, we may have certain physiological signs, like low dopamine (the “reward” neurotransmitter), which may spur us towards choosing a dessert or coffee as a reward, only fueling the dopamine trigger to keep that pathway reinforced and ongoing.

For caffeine, this dependency may be making us more tired or irritable in the long run. For alcohol, dependency can be more serious both physically and psychologically. For sugar, dependency may be causing us to overeat, put on weight, or get locked in the cycle of emotional eating. It’s common for people to become dependent on processed sugar, caffeine and alcohol. Dependency can be physical and psychological. Removing dependency allows us to enjoy these items from time to time without significant health consequences.


We need to eat good quantities of healthy food each day. When we don’t, we feel anxious and irritable. This is when cravings occur. This is also the reason why most diets fail, they focus on eating less rather than adding in healthy food. When you plan on including a lot of delicious, nutrient-rich whole foods into your diet you end up “crowding out” the junk.

For example, if you want to reduce your cravings for processed sugar or sugary foods, you need to eat enough low-sugar foods throughout the day. If you don’t eat enough of the good stuff, cravings arise quickly, especially if you are tired. It’s best not to depend on willpower alone to deal with these cravings. Crowding out the junk is one of the simplest tools to leverage your own willpower and remove dependency.


To pulse means to add something in or remove it for a period of time. We do this in order to feel the true effects of whatever item we are testing. The reintroduction process is an example of a pulsing program that occurs at the end of the 21-Day Clean Program. Pulsing out caffeine, sugar, and alcohol means removing them from your diet for a dedicated period. This could be for one week or for one month. During the cleanse, you removed alcohol for three weeks. Your body is now able to give you a reliable response about the true effects of alcohol on your system.

We want to reproduce this effect by pulsing out alcohol throughout the year, not just during the cleanse. Pulsing out is something you do repeatedly over time to remind yourself of how these foods actually affect you. When we are clear about the effects of an item and are reminded again every so often, we learn how much of the Big Three our system can tolerate and how to enjoy them without the negative health consequences.


Written by the Clean Team


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