How Sweet It Is(n’t)

imageIts origin can be traced back to India and the island of New Guinea sometime around 8,000B.C. Ancient Greeks and Romans imported it as a medicine, not as a food. Until the end of medieval times, it was considered a “fine spice” and, thus, very expensive. But, during the past 500-600 years, it has become a bulk commodity as our eating habits have changed to incorporate it into our daily lives. Mary Poppins even sang about it in the classic 1964 Disney movie…..

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It’s Valentine’s Day as I write this blog. Every year I look forward to this “candy holiday.” (OK, I’ll be honest; I have lots of those “holidays”). But, this year I feel differently. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released on February 3, 2014, results of the first nationally representative study that examined diets high in sugar. The lead author from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the results “sobering.” Why?

Previous studies have linked diets high in sugar with increased risks for non-fatal heart problems, and with obesity, which also can lead to heart trouble. But in the new study, obesity didn’t explain the link between sugary diets and death. That link was found even in normal-weight people who ate a lot of added sugar.

This is NOT good news for those of us who like sweets. And, we’re not talking about eating a half-gallon of ice cream every day. The study points out that if you normally consume 2,000 calorie per day, and a cinnamon roll for breakfast, a super-sized sugary soda for lunch and one scoop of ice cream for dessert are on the menu, you would fall in the highest risk category in the study—making you three times more likely to die prematurely from heart problems than someone who eats little added sugar (not naturally occurring sugar like those found in fruits). You may think, “Well, I don’t eat THAT much sugar!” Unfortunately, how much sugar we truly consume isn’t always that obvious; it lurks in many processed foods like tomato sauces, salad dressings, packaged breads and cereals. Those grams add up very quickly.

As the Healthy Schools NY coordinator in Cayuga, Oswego and Onondaga County schools, I spend a lot of time discussing the nutritional value of snacks in schools with administrators and Wellness committees. There is often resistance to shift the school culture away from the Birthday Cupcake and other sweets-laden classroom celebrations to one that promotes special privileges (Birthday Boy gets to choose the story to be read), crafts and physical activity. Most adults remember their childhood classroom birthday parties fondly, and that is what keeps us tied to the past. We don’t want to deprive kids today of what we hold dear from our youth. We think “it can’t hurt.” And, who wants a bunch of angry parents confronting them about ruining their kids’ birthdays? It is a sticky situation, no doubt.

But, here’s the Big Picture:

Strike #1: Kids do not play and move like they used to. We have a generation of kids being raised on social media, the Internet, video games, and a plethora of screens, not to mention less time in P.E. classes.

Strike #2: According to the Prevention Institute, the food and beverage industry spends approximately $2 billion per year marketing to children, and nearly all (98 percent) of food advertisements viewed by children are for products that are high in fat, sugar or sodium.

Strike #3: Nearly 40% of children’s diets come from added sugars and unhealthy fats.

We know from The Bogalusa Heart Study (Louisiana, 1973-1996) that heart disease can start in children before the age of 10. TEN!!! Fats, including the saturated ones, are not as culpable as we once thought in the role of childhood obesity and the chronic diseases associated with it (e.g. heart disease, diabetes, etc.). We now have to face the facts that sodas, candy and cupcakes are more dangerous than we might want to admit. And, while no one wants to “deprive” any kids of anything—unless it’s heart disease, pain, and premature death—we owe it to them to shift the way we think about sugar. A little is OK; a lot is not.

Be well,
Stacy
smcneill@ocmboces.org

One thought on “How Sweet It Is(n’t)

  1. Thanks, Stacy. I’ve also just discovered Dr. Perlmutter’s book Grain Brain. He’s a neurologist with expertise in gluten issues, and the book talks about a variety of foods and their impact on the brain. Sugar is one of the big problem foods for him as well.

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