The War on Sweets: Saying No to Sugar (and Getting Kids to Eat Healthy)

Studies are cropping up all over the place about how horrible added sugars are for you — and your child

Several years ago, while visiting friends in Burlington, Vermont I overheard a conversation between a small child — probably no older than seven — and his mother, in a health food store. The boy was picking a snack from the bulk bins. He pointed to something, and his mom said “That has sugar in it.” Without skipping a beat, the boy pointed to something else and said “Ok, I’ll have this then.” My jaw almost hit the floor. No begging, no tantrums. The eighth wonder of the world: A child impervious to the sweet allure of sugar!? My kid will be like that, too, I thought smugly. Of course, I myself was probably digging some sort of chocolatey sweet treat out of a bulk bin while eavesdropping. But part of parenting is do what I say and not what I do, right?

I maintained the no-sugar thing for awhile with Coraline. For her first birthday, she blew out the candle on a piece of watermelon. This past Christmas, when all she asked for was jelly beans, I made sure that Santa brought her the fruit juice-sweetened variety from the health food store. (She crammed a handful in her mouth and spit them right back out.) These days I let her eat everything from dark chocolate to Yummy Earth Vitamin C Pops (which, despite what the name would have you believe, are nothing more than lollipops). I’ve been trying out the “everything in moderation” approach — if it’s not so forbidden then maybe she won’t go overboard when she has it — but it doesn’t really work with a small child who is so dramatically affected by the addictive quality of sugar and the effects it has on their blood sugar. Coraline asks for sweets constantly. And when she has them it’s like watching a car crash in slow motion: She runs around like a speed freak and then is suddenly sobbing hysterically on the floor (often screaming for more treats). It’s ugly.

White sugar leaches vitamins and minerals from the blood and bones, suppresses the immune system, causes extreme peaks and dips in blood sugar (causing everything from nausea and headaches to irritability and depression), and it does nothing for the waistline. If that’s what it does to a full size adult, just think of what it’s doing to a small, rapidly developing child. And many kids are eating lots of sugar all day long, because it is “hidden” in everything. According to the Environmental Working Group, 52 percent of kids’ cereals have more sugar per cup than three chocolate chip cookies (click here for the full report). Not quite the breakfast of champions. And don’t think you’re off the hook just because you buy EnviroKids; even if the word “sugar” doesn’t appear in the ingredients list, it could still be loaded with it. “Organic evaporated cane juice” is sugar, just with a fancy name. And being organic does not somehow make it healthier in this case. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a common additive in a scary amount of processed foods, wreaks the same havoc on the system as white sugar. Even a glass of orange juice can spike blood sugar as badly as a candy bar.

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Natural sweeteners like molasses, agave, and fruit juice are all healthier ways to sweeten things, because they don’t spike blood sugar levels. Lot of products — like Barbara’s Original Puffins cereal and So Delicious Coconut Milk “ice cream” — use these alternatives, making them better choices for everyone, but especially the little ones. After yesterday’s jelly bean feast (and inevitable hard crash) I’m ditching the moderation motto and re-instituting a no-sugar policy for Coraline and myself. I think we’ll both be happier for it.

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