Sunday, October 16, 2011

Open Season for Sugar

Now we all know you shouldn’t take candy from strangers. But what about parents-of-kids-you-know who offer you candy? And what if you're old enough to know your mother will most likely be really annoyed that you’re eating candy at 9:30 at night? (especially when that same mother is about to arrive and has already promised to stop for ice cream on the way home to celebrate a recent academic achievement!) Maybe this sounds like something that only happens in fairy tales or Law & Order re-runs, but this actually happened to one of my children just a week ago! Sure, maybe I’m overreacting, but here’s how it went down:

I pull up only a few minutes late to pick up said child from the evening’s sporting practice. As I look in the door, I see my child crouched in front of a candy machine, reaching in to retrieve something. I think, “Gross, he’s grabbing for leftover candy in that filthy machine!” I spot said child’s friend leaving the practice with his father and wave at them, climbing out to go fetch my disgusting child who is now shoving nerds in his mouth as fast as possible and trying to look innocent.

Of course, I confront this child and he tells me that no, he wasn’t gathering leftover candy, but had purchased the candy himself. With what? I ask, knowing full-well that this child is flat broke. And he tells me that his friend’s dad who has just left, handed him a dollar and told him to go buy some candy. An avalanche of emotions rushed through me at this point. Anger, because who is this guy to think he can order my kid to eat candy? Embarrassment, because I know the motivation for this is that my child has claimed (more or less truthfully) that his mother never buys him candy. Frustration, because I’m sick of being the odd man out in nearly all parenting situations. Sadness, because apparently my devoted spawn feels deprived. And then back to Anger, because I had promised this little Einstein that we would stop for ice cream at Handels (where they make all the ice cream fresh every day from real cream!) on the way home that night.

This episode traveled with me for a few days. It’s silly. As much as I wanted to hunt this man down and explain to him why my child’s diet doesn’t consist of daily sugar loads, I resisted. I’m sure he thought he was earning brownie points with my kid (although for the life of me, I don’t understand why parents want to impress kids, their own or anyone else’s). And I’m sure he never gives the dangers of sugar a second thought. But I do.

Sugar is not good for any of us. As recent research is bringing to light, sugar, and not fat, may be the real cause of our collective health issues related to obesity. According to Dr. Robert Lustig, a UCSF professor of pediatrics and very eloquent and passionate anti-sugar advocate, Americans are consuming about 141 pounds of sugar per person each year.

He also points out that we weigh 25 pounds more than we did 25 years ago. His lecture, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” can be found on You Tube. It’s fascinating and very convincing. He boldly states that sugar is a poison that is slowly killing us all. And after watching his lecture, I’m convinced that he’s on to something. We are eating more sugar now than we ever have. A 12 ounce soda (and Lustig points out that the “normal” soda from a machine these days is actually 20 ounces) has 8 teaspoons of sugar in it. How many sodas does the average person drink in a day? Sodas contain all that sugar to mask the huge amounts of salt in each can. I only pick on soda because it’s sited as the number one source of sugar in the American diet on several websites.

The USDA website which promotes the latest version of the food pyramid, labels sugar “empty calories” and has a chart explaining how many “empty calories” are acceptable in a typical diet.

Children ages 2-3 years: 135 calories

Children ages 4-8 years: 120 calories

Girls ages 9-13:  120 calories

Boys ages 9-13:  160 calories

Girls ages 14-18: 160 calories

Boys ages 14-18: 265 calories

Females 19-30: 260  calories

Males 19-30: 330 calories

Females 31-50: 160 calories

Males 31-50:  265 calories

Females 51+:  120 calories

Males 51+:  260 calories

The average soda (and I’m going to assume it’s only a 12 oz can, silly me) has 145-160 calories. All of which, would be empty. So there’s your day’s worth of empty calories if you’re the average kid. Hope you don’t plan to eat any other junk food or processed food today, cause you’ve already reached your limit. And if you’re hankering for a candy bar, you better divide it up between several days or you’ll blow 2-3 days worth of your empty calorie limit in one day.

Bottom line: We’re all consuming way too much sugar. We drink soda like water. We eat candy mindlessly. Sugar is one of the primary ingredients in pretty much every processed food you buy. Don’t believe me, head for the grocery store and check for any of the following names for sugar on the ingredients list of your favorite cracker, prepared meal, frozen burrito, seasoning, dressing, or what-have-you. Just because it doesn’t say sugar, doesn’t mean it isn’t sugar:

• anhydrous dextrose

• brown sugar

• confectioner's powdered sugar

• corn syrup

• corn syrup solids

• dextrose

• fructose

• high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

• honey

• invert sugar

• lactose

• malt syrup

• maltose

• maple syrup

• molasses

• nectars (e.g., peach nectar, pear nectar)

• pancake syrup

• raw sugar

• sucrose

• white granulated sugar

Dr. Lustig’s belief (shared by many other doctors and researchers) is that sugar is the main culprit in causing not only obesity and dental disease, but diabetes heart disease, and host of other ailments, effectively poisoning us. Sugar has been linked to immune disorder issues, chromium deficiency, cancer, arthritis, and even learning disabilities. While sugar gives you a temporary “high”, very quickly your body crashes from that surge of false energy and you are left grumpy and tired. So what do you do? You crave more sugar.

Being a confirmed sugaraholic myself, I would never tell you to cut out sugar completely because you can’t. We get plenty of natural sugar from fruits, vegetables and grains. But the refined sugar we could do without. I might know this, but offer me a key lime cheesecake and I’ll take back everything I said. Sugar is a powerful thing.

Still, cutting out as much as possible might just be the best thing you could do for your health and your child’s. here’s just a few ideas for reducing the amount of sugar in your diet.

1. Read labels. If sugar (in any form, see list above) is one of the first four ingredients, but the package down.

2. As much as possible, cook from scratch. Make your own smoothies with fresh fruit. Most prepared foods have extra sugar and salt to mask the taste of the all the extra preservatives and additives.

3. Consider using Stevia, a natural sweetener derived from a plant, 300x sweeter than sugar with no calories.

4. Eat lots of fresh fruit and limit dried fruit which has considerably more sugar by proportion.

5. Cut out soda completely. You don’t need it and it is only damaging your health. Drink water or tea instead. It’s just a matter of changing habits.

6. Control the sugar added to what you eat. Buy your tea unsweetened. Buy plain yogurt and sweeten with fruit. Make plain instant oatmeal and sweeten it with dried fruit (those tiny, seriously expensive packets are more sugar than oatmeal!)

7. If you must drink fruit juice, buy only 100% juice with no added sugar.

8. Be very careful of “fat free” foods, many times the manufacturer compensates for the lower fat with higher sugar (and salt)

9. Start dialing back your sugar gradually. If you normally add two packets of sugar to your coffee, go for 1 ½, same with your kids oatmeal, cereal, etc.

10. Curb cravings with fruit. When the urge for sugar seems to overwhelm you, reach for fruit. It’s still sugar, but with some extra fiber and a few less calories. I keep dried cherries on hand for these moments. And distract your kids cravings by offering them fruit after a meal or as a snack.

Giving up sugar is not something I can claim I’ve done. I have been able to reduce my refined sugar consumption and it becomes clear very quickly that it improves my mood, energy level, and reduces the amount of sleep I need. But I’ll be the first to wrestle that chocolate out of your hand if you tell me I have to give up all my sugar forever. Not happening. This I do know: If I can reduce the amount of refined sugar in my children’s diet, I’ll be helping them to not only be healthier and avoid cavities, I’ll be helping them to think more clearly and handle their emotions more consistently. That pay off makes the battle worth fighting.

I still don’t know why that dad ordered my child to eat candy last week. But the next time I see his kid, I might just tempt him with some fresh, homemade, organic applesauce with cinnamon! So there!


  1. Makes my teeth ache. I've successfully nearly stopped eating sugar for 3 weeks! Even threw out cake on Saturday. But I always need a reminder 'cause I'm also very, very fond of drk chocolate.
    I'll be sending this to several family members!

  2. Don't forget "Dehydrated Cane Juice" ... my favorite