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How Sweet it is Not

What substance is addictive, immuno-suppressive, and a proven trigger for disease, but still offered indiscriminately to young children? That would be sugar!

Though some children are more sensitive to the effects of sugar than others, here’s what we generally see at school when kids over-consume: irritability, decreased attention spans, impulsivity and hyperactivity— conditions not conducive to learning, in other words. As the school nurse, I also believe in the link between high sugar usage and poor immunity. Wellness follows good sugar habits; sugar binges contribute to illness. Kids simply feel better, play better, and learn better on steady, wholesome diets, without the roller-coaster effects of blood-sugar spikes.

In 2011, an article in the New York Times drew widespread attention when the author Gary Taubes declared that sugar was not problematic simply because of the empty calories; he called it an active poison. Taubes based his claims on a viral lecture by an expert on pediatric obesity, Dr. Robert Lustig. The video of that lecture has been viewed more than 5 million times, impressive for “a 90-minute discussion of the nuances of fructose biochemistry and human physiology.” (–Gary Taubes, New York Times.) I will not go into such scientific minutiae here, rest assured.

The reason that this story resonated so widely was that people identified with the symptoms of sugar abuse, including fuzzy thinking, fatigue, headaches, mood swings, hyperactivity, skin problems, tooth decay, low energy, chronic indigestion, joint pain, and more. And that’s before you even get into the long-term damage: osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, liver disease, and cancer. With credentials like these, sugar certainly earns its label as a full-fledged toxin. Readers with vague awareness of feeling less than optimal suddenly had an easy new villain in sugar.

So just who, demographically, consumes too much sugar? Everyone. Older children consume more sugar than younger ones, boys consume more than girls, and white children consume more than black or hispanic children, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. But they all consume too much. Further, the study cited that family income makes no difference in sugar consumption, disproving some commonly held assumptions.

Though awareness may have marginally improved as a result of Dr. Lustig’s work, consumption rates have not. Sugar is added to more foods than ever before, with labels revealing more than 60 names for the hidden sugars used in food processing. Most of the added sugar in the average American’s diet comes in liquid form: sodas, juice blends, and sports drinks. When children (or adults, for that matter) say that they are really thirsty for something besides water, consider that this is probably a physiological craving. The body feels uncomfortable when this craving is denied, as is the case with any addictive withdrawal. But the short-term unpleasantness of denying a sugar fix is far outweighed by the benefits of curbing intake.

No one wants to be “the heavy” in the family, the one who says no to candy or soda, the one who drones on about fatty liver disease. This is why a clear, unified family policy helps everyone to stay on track, with no one playing the bad cop. At my house, for instance, there is a “no soda” rule during the week. On special occasion days, one soda is permitted, not two (and even then, no caffeine, but that’s another story!) There are other lines you can draw with your kids, from sugary breakfast cereals to healthy after-school snacks. Stating your expectations in advance will help in those moments when you are pressed to cross your own lines. And those moments will come! As with all decisions in parenting, though, I advise making conscious, intentional choices around sugar consumption, not just drifting into habits that become hard to break.

I hope you might sweet-talk your way into new healthful habits with your families, considering policies centered around moderation, awareness, and reasonable limits.