Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sugar and Kids: Doing the Right Thing

[NOTE FROM SUSAN: As I ponder all the candy, soda, fruit juice and other sugary items in my pantry and refrigerator, I realize that my family’s diet might not be the healthiest. I’ve tried to convince myself that it’s fine because nobody in my family is overweight, but I know that obesity isn’t the only problem caused by too much sugar. So I asked Dr. Scott Olson, author of the book Sugarettes, to explain why families should cut down on sugar -- and how they can accomplish this seemingly impossible task. The following article was written by Dr. Olson.]

There you are, standing in the grocery store, reading the labels and looking for something that your kids will eat and something that doesn’t have sugar. You heard that sugar might be bad for them, so you try to pick the best foods you can, but you are confused.

Should you pick the snack you know they love or the one that is better for them but languishes in the pantry uneaten? Which should you choose -- fruit juice or soda? Maybe you can figure it out from reading the labels, but even that is a nightmare: You know that glucose is a sugar, but what about maltodextrin or dextrose?

All this is enough to make you go bonkers! Even if you are successful at stemming the tide of sugar coming into your house, your kids are often out of your sight and exposed to sugar in their daycare, their schools, or, if they are older … everywhere they can travel.

Consumption Junction

Our consumption of sugar has increased dramatically in the last few years. Most adults and children are eating 1/4 to 1/2 a pound of sugar every day.

A recent study by the journal Pediatrics, which focused on the sugar found in drinks, reported that 10 to 15 percent of our children’s total calories are coming from fruit juice or soda (and juice, from a sugar point of view, is no better than soda). Children and teens, aged six to eighteen, averaged 30 ounces of juice or soda every day (or 20 teaspoons of sugar) and younger children were drinking an average of 15.5 ounces of sugary drinks (for 10 teaspoons of sugar a day).

What is amazing about this study is that it only focused on sugars in drinks and not the cereal, cookies, jam, candies, crackers, ice cream and other foods our children are eating. Clearly, our children are eating a lot of sugar.

The Problem with Sugar

If you have ever wondered if sugar is harmful or not, let me put your mind at unrest: sugar is harmful. While there is not a single established medical association that has yet to speak up, there is mounting evidence that sugar is not just simply added calories that may rot our teeth, but an otherwise okay food source.

Sugar has two distinct characteristics that make it harmful.

First, it is addictive. While many people joke about the addictive qualities of sugar, scientists have uncovered that sugar is every bit as addictive as cigarettes, alcohol and even hard drugs. Rats that have become addicted to sugar act the same and have the same brain chemistry as rats addicted to those other “hard” drugs. So when you try to take sugar away from your children and they go crazy, you know that you are experiencing addictive behavior.

This is why we as adults also have a hard time staying away from the white stuff. Sugar has a powerful grip on us, and seeing sugar as addiction explains a lot of the behavior we see around sugar, including bingeing, cravings and even yo-yo dieting. If you feel constantly pulled by sugar’s sweet song, you are not alone.

Second, sugar damages the body, and it does so through three mechanisms.

Weight: The standard medical opinion of sugar is that it contains calories, so it may add to our growing obesity epidemic, but only because of the calories it contains. This is true, but sugar does so much more to add to our weight. When our blood sugar is raised to the high levels that occur when we eat sugar (and especially when we drink sugar), our bodies store that extra sugar-energy as fat. This is a unique aspect of sugar that doesn’t occur, say, when you eat a steak.

Insulin Insensitivity: Consistently high blood sugar leads to insulin insensitivity. When the cells of our body become insensitive to insulin, it creates a downward spiral to poor sugar control, including metabolic syndrome and eventually diabetes.

Toxic: Sugar is toxic in much the same way that cigarette smoke is toxic to the lungs of a smoker, but sugar harms our blood vessels. As sugar enters our blood stream, it damages the very blood vessels that carry sugar throughout the body. We see this damage dramatically in people with very high blood sugar (diabetes) whose eyes, kidneys, hearts, and nerves are all damaged by sugar. The same sugar damage occurs in people who are not diabetic, only at a slower rate.

Sugar is at least partly responsible for the ever growing epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and even heart disease, and it even affects the brains and moods of our children.

Surviving in Sugar Land

For most of us, completely eliminating sugar from our children’s diet is an impossible task. Not only do we have to face our children’s and our own addiction, but our children are out of our sight for much of the day -- especially as they grow older.

In the study mentioned above in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that most of the sugar consumption (55-70 percent) occurred in the home, so parents do have a lot of control. Here are some ideas to help you control the amount of sugar your children is consuming:

Get rid of soda: Removing all soda from the house can dramatically cut down on the amount of sugar that children are eating. Fruit juice should also go, but many parents feel they need some sweet drink in the house. While fruit juice still alters blood sugar, it does contain some nutrients, so use with moderation.

Look for hidden sugars: While you won’t know if everything on a label is sugar, look for the OSE at the end of the ingredient. Examples of sugars include glucose, maltose, fructose, dextrose; this won’t help you find all the sugars, but it will take care of most of them.

Eat crunchy: Encourage your children to eat something fresh and crunchy with every meal. When we try this in our home, our kids always say potato chips are crunchy, and we have to say, no: fresh and crunchy. Good crunchy foods are carrots, celery, apples, pears, peaches … and really most fruit.

Eat fruit: For the most part, fruits, eaten in whole form, are much better and don’t cause a rise in blood sugar the way that juices made from the same fruits do. Try mixed berries with a little whipped cream as an afternoon snack. (Whipped cream makes anything fun.)

Stay away from artificial sugars: While the subject of artificial sweeteners is an article (or a book) in itself, let me say that these chemical sweeteners are harmful enough to recommend eating sugar over them. Artificial sweeteners are chemicals that shouldn’t be in our bodies, and we are just beginning to see the damage that they cause.

Sugar substitutes: The best natural sugars are Stevia and xylitol. Stevia is an herb that is super-sweet but has no calories, and it actually helps with blood sugar control. It takes some effort to learn how to cook with it, but it usually satisfies that sweet tooth. Xylitol is a sugar that has some benefits, including not increasing blood sugar dramatically, and it has also been shown to be an anti-cavity sugar.

What to do if you can’t stay away from sugars:

Know what keeps blood sugar low: If you cannot get sugar out of your life, you need to understand how to keep your and your children’s blood sugar low. The nutrients that keep blood sugar low are: protein, fats and fiber. So the best way to eat a sugar is to eat it in a meal where protein, fats and fiber are present. This means giving children their dessert right after dinner, or having them include other foods (that contain a protein, fat or fiber) with their snack. So don’t pass out the cookies without, say, a hot dog. Don’t give a juice box without, say, peanut butter. Peanut butter (especially the non-added sugar kind) makes everything taste good: put it on apples, carrots, celery … whatever they will eat.

Sugar Challenge

You are in for a challenge when you try to keep sugar away from kids; doing the right thing is hard. Every step you make to remove sugar is a step in the right direction. Sugar is a powerful foe, but you can lessen the damage with a few simple changes in what you are offering your children. Good luck and good eating!

Dr. Scott Olson is a naturopathic doctor, expert in alternative medicine, author and medical researcher. Spurred on by his patients’ struggles with sugar addiction, he was determined to discover just how addictive and harmful sugar can be and ways to overcome that addiction. The result of that study is his book
Sugarettes, which describes the addictive qualities of sugar and the harm that sugar does to our bodies. Dr. Scott also maintains a blog (, which highlights the latest in health and healthy living.

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  1. Sugar is so bad for you---I've read Dr. Mercola's 'Sweet Deception' exposing all of the dangers of sugar that people are so ignorant about. We can solve a lot of health issues if we only took our health into our own hands and educated ourselves better! I know it's hard to completely avoid, but there are better alternatives.

  2. Great article! Very useful information. I had no idea that protein, fats and fiber are good to eat along with sugar if sugar-rich foods cannot be avoided. It's difficult to break kids of sweets once they become a habit. The best strategy is to think in terms of lifestyle and take sugar snacks off the shopping list. Thanks for sharing this article.

    All the Best.

  3. What an informative, well written article. I have found myself smack dab in the middle of "Sugar" dilemmas in our household. In fact, we are all trying to cut back! It's a hard addiction to give up though! LOL

  4. Hi - Found you through CWTR. We too have sugar problems at our house occasionally. I'm probably the biggest sugar addict though!

  5. Great post, thanks for sharing this. I battle sugar addiction and currently fighting a relapse. This is a difficult time of the year to face this issue. Thanks for the insight.
    Engrafted by His Grace-

  6. A very helpful article. But don't forget that while a child's diet is extremely important to health so is exercise.

    One wonderful form of exercise which children enjoy is dance. It burns up the calories and aids the formation of strong bones and healthy lungs.


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