Last summer, my five-year-old son and I were walking home from the corner store as he merrily licked a giant Sour Key candy. I glanced at him, the sugar crystals sparkling off his nostrils in the sunlight. Research has shown that sugar can be as addictive as cocaine, and at that moment, the comparison was a little striking.
My boy smiled and gave the key another lick. “I love sugar, Momma.”
Then he added, “You love sugar. You just wish you didn’t.”
Ouch. This little candy trip was our ritual—Friday afternoon “special treats.” Truth be told, that summer was an endless parade of treats: Freezies and Popsicles; Starbucks dates; and who says no to ice cream in August? Not this family. When I stood back, I realized my kids and I had been freebasing sugar for months. Halloween morphs into Christmas, which is followed by Easter, and the rest of the year is sprinkled with birthday cupcakes, sugary snacks at sporting events, Girl Guide cookies and candy in loot bags. It’s everywhere.
Worse, it’s in things we think are healthy: granola bars, yogurt, and breakfast cereals that proudly proclaim they’re whole-grain yet are jammed with sugar. My kids had also been chugging back lemonade at breakneck speed, and experts say liquid sugars are the worst culprits. My kids don’t drink pop, but I know many do. Your average can of Coke contains nine teaspoons of sugar—well over the six teaspoons of added sugar that’s the recommended daily total for kids. But we ingest four to five times that, with the highest consumption among teenage boys, according to Statistics Canada. Type 2 diabetes is showing up in younger populations, as well as myriad associated health risks, such as strokes, kidney failure and heart attacks.
I started wondering how we got to this super sugar-saturated state. Family doctor Yoni Freedhoff, founder of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute and a public health advocate who blogs at weightymatters.ca, says he’s seen the amount of sugar in our diets increase steadily over the course of his career.
“Ultimately, what we have done as a society is create a normal situation where people feel entirely comfortable, especially around children, using sugar as a means to pacify, reward and entertain,” says Freedhoff. “It’s difficult to find an event that doesn’t include sugar in some capacity.”
Nearly one-third of Canadian kids are overweight or obese; statistics show an overweight teenager is not likely to outgrow this as an adult. Though sugar isn’t the only culprit, it has a lot to answer for. It’s present in many processed foods. The healthcare costs associated with what are called non-communicable diseases (NCD), like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, are staggering, and the problem is sweeping the globe: It is predicted that by 2020, NCDs will be the cause of seven out of 10 deaths worldwide. At the rate we’re going, some researchers predict that our kids will have shorter lifespans than we do, due to diet and inactivity.
My motivation to get my family off the sweet stuff is twofold: to research the consequences and to tame the sugar beast. I am a realist, however. I know I’m not giving up chocolate chip cookies forever. So we resolve to focus on the first four weeks, with hopes of continuing beyond the initial no-sugar boot camp period. We also have a head start, as we’re already an active household. I’m a fitness and health coach, and Lily, 7, and Teague, 5, do gymnastics and dance. My kids willingly run hill repeats in the park while I’m training for half-marathons. They love to skate, bike and go tobogganing—but they also love hot cocoa with marshmallows after.
I always look at back-to-school time as an opportunity to get organized and tweak our habits, which is why we start our project at the beginning of September. We set some house rules, removing all refined sugar from the kitchen, including all juices. Snacks will be savoury or protein. We decide that if the kids are offered sugar at a friend’s house, they can choose whether or not to have it.
As we begin our new regime, I get nervous. Can we do it? Is it sustainable? And what will we do about my son’s birthday, which is smack in the middle of our sugar-free experiment?
Are all sugars created equal?
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that we get only five to 10 percent of our daily calories from sugar. Sugar comes in all forms—from the ones you find naturally in fruit and carbohydrates to all the added sugars. In the US, as of July 2018, “added sugars” or “free sugars” (sugar removed from its natural source) must be boldly labelled to help consumers stick to the WHO guidelines; there is no such policy in place in Canada. This fall, researchers at the University of Toronto looked at 15,000 packaged foods found on Canadian grocery store shelves. Their findings were a wake-up call: Nearly two-thirds of the foods analyzed contained added free sugar. They also found 152 names for free sugar, including cane juice, fruit juice, corn syrup, molasses, malted barley syrup, agave and good old-fashioned glucose and fructose. How do you keep all them straight? Is maple syrup any better for you than high fructose corn syrup?
Toronto naturopathic doctor Jennifer Tanner, a mother of three, has a rule of thumb. “If you are eating real-life, natural foods that have been picked from the ground or from trees, you will not have to worry about consuming too much sugar,” says Tanner. She also says baking with dates, bananas and more natural sweeteners has other benefits, such as vitamins, antioxidants and added fibre, and that it can help satisfy sugar cravings. “Stay away from fake sugars—like sucralose and aspartame. Those are worse than sugar.” Why? “Because if your body doesn’t recognize a molecule, or require it for immediate use, it stores it. And excess aspartame stored in your cells contributes to chronic disease,” says Tanner.
She highly endorses fruit, which contains fibre and slows down how the body takes in sugar. “Sugars are all initially processed by the body in the same way, but all sugars are not created equal. Things like fruit and maple syrup have benefits to a growing body and can satisfy the sugar craving without going overboard,” says Tanner. This isn’t to say you should eat a bowl of oranges, but if you’re going to indulge your sweet tooth, opt for natural sources that are easier for the body to process, and that don’t leave you feeling even hungrier.
On Labour Day weekend, I purge the pantry and fridge. Gone are lemonade and juices, graham crackers and chocolate chips. Our baking basket is reduced to buckwheat flour and unsweetened coconut. I check the labels on our breakfast cereals—even our organic whole-grain flakes with spelt have sugar! Granola bars, yogurt, ice cream, condiments? Gone. I hide the ketchup, knowing this might cause Armageddon in my house the next time we have burgers, but I am committed. The garbage bag is full, and I’m a little disgusted at how much sugar was lurking in our home.
The first week starts well. Breakfast is now oatmeal with cinnamon, and eggs and toast go on high rotation, too. But my son sulks when he doesn’t get a treat at the grocery store that gives out free cookies to kids. I watch him fume in the rearview mirror the whole way home.
Our project is time-consuming. At the supermarket, I’m reading all the labels. We can’t buy our go-to, sugar-loaded mini pita breads, so we settle on lots of crackers, pretzels and popcorn and stock up on fruit and veggies, string cheese, plain yogurt and dried snap peas. I already cook most of my meals from scratch, but if you rely on ready-made products, you’d be shocked at how much sugar is in everything from jarred pasta sauce to chicken fingers. So that we can still have PB and Js after school, I start making chia seed jam with frozen berries. I’m feeling quite proud of myself.
And then, on day two, a setback: I’m running late so my mother picks up the kids with her standard “half water, half juice” mixture in a chilled Thermos. She also has a pocketful of butterscotch. The granny cliché is cute, but she looks like a drug dealer. “I’m Grandma, I’m supposed to give them treats,” she says. My kids merrily suck the Werther’s.
We make it through the first week and celebrate with a playdate at a friend’s house. The snacks are yogurt tubes and lemonade. I tut-tut and then remember my rule: At someone else’s house they can make their own choices. They choose lemonade. My kids look so excited as the glasses get poured. On Friday we have movie night with a big bowl of popcorn but no chocolate.
You win some, you lose some.
Just over a week since quitting sugar, I’m feeling hopeful, because I’ve read it takes only 10 days for kids to show dramatic health improvements after cutting out sugar. One study, published in 2015 in the journal Obesity, removed sugar in obese children’s diets and replaced it with carbohydrates (keeping the total calories the same). Cholesterol levels and blood pressure levels dropped dramatically, turning the participants’ metabolic health around.
Of course, sugar isn’t our only problem, says Freedhoff. “We are eating more of everything, and we are eating more ultra-processed foods. As parents, we have to control our home turf. Are you cooking for your family or relying on restaurants and takeout? We should minimize liquid sugars, like juices, pop and chocolate milk, and focus on cooking. Do these two things, and you don’t have to sweat the small stuff.”
Freedhoff also says we have to encourage our schools, institutions and coaches to cut back. September is full of birthdays at my kids’ school. If every kid in their classes celebrates with a sweet treat brought from home, you keep the sugar beast well-fed.
“Point out to the teacher how much you value their care and concern for your child’s well-being and the great lessons they provide, and give them ideas for non-junk food treats,” says Freedhoff. (One example: granting extra recess time instead.)
I’m somewhat lucky in this regard: My son’s teacher also follows a sugar-free lifestyle at home with her family. In her classroom there is a treasure box of notepads, stickers and erasers for rewards.
This same week, a huge story about sugar breaks: In the 1960s, the sugar industry paid Harvard researchers to turn the public’s attention to cholesterol and fat when looking at heart disease, despite several emerging studies pointing to sugar as the real culprit. And for decades, their research continued to focus on fat instead of sugar. I’m not surprised by the role Big Sugar plays, but the news strengthens my resolve.
By the end of week two, I notice we’re craving sugar less and we’re less grumpy about all the rice cakes, crackers and dips. I’m upping their carbohydrates and searching the Internet for snack ideas to curb sugar cravings, like adding more protein and fat to our diet. I make guacamole and tortilla chips one afternoon, and they gobble it up.
I think long and hard about Teague’s fifth birthday mid-month and google “cake made out of fruit.” I’m considering carving a watermelon into an elaborate fruit cake when I realize I don’t want to be that mom.
Freedhoff thinks preserving a balance is wise. “We celebrate with food, and there is nothing wrong with that. There is research that suggests being overly strict and authoritative about food has the reverse effect, and it teaches kids to be disinhibited when they are faced with choices. Dietary disinhibition is a cause for concern: If there’s a constant battle around sugar at home, then when kids are by themselves they eat to excess because they don’t know when they are going to get it next, or they take a position of oppositional defiance.”
My plan was to bake homemade cupcakes sweetened with honey and bananas. But life happens, and I run out of time. Grandma (now going by the moniker “The Harbinger of Sugar”) comes to the rescue with cake mixes and a big bag of icing sugar. Ouch. I have made each of my kids’ birthday cakes from scratch for the past seven years, but we don’t have a drop of sugar in the house. My kids happily beat eggs into the mix and make icing, licking the beaters with glee. I don’t think we’ve tamed the sugar beast yet.
However, I take the virtuous route for Teague’s classroom celebration and bring in healthy cookies made with dates. Some of the kids turn up their noses, but my boy scarfs his. We’re back on the wagon.
Our dentist knows us well—my daughter had six cavities before she turned seven. I frequently console myself with the fact that she has porous teeth (it’s genetic), but I know she also loves candy. Even if I get in there with a toothbrush, it isn’t enough.
At our checkup, our paediatric dentist is thrilled to hear about our mission. “Cavities are a manifestation of a bacterial infection,” says Aisha Romain of Danforth Children’s Dentistry in Toronto. “The bacteria require an acidic environment and sugar to multiply and grow. When the bacteria colonize the mouth, they latch onto the teeth. When a child eats sugar, the bacteria ingest it and emit an acid that wears away the teeth. Over time it causes a hole. That’s a cavity.”
Romain cautions parents to stay away from juice. “Juice is acidic and also has a high sugar content, which helps increase the number of cavity-causing bacteria in the mouth and wears away the teeth. No juice!” She also recommends minimizing gummies like fruit roll-ups and “real fruit juice” snacks, and even gummi vitamins. “These are all very hard to remove and cause a marked increase in cavities.” At the end of our appointment, we have a victory: No cavities!
My kids have not been 100 percent sugar-free, but we have definitely changed our habits. More important, I know it’s sinking in. On a walk to school my daughter notices a boy eating Smarties. “That’s gross—he’s eating sugar for breakfast!” she says. Driving to piano lessons, we pass a freight truck painted with an image of sparkling fruit juice, advertised as “100 percent natural” and “healthy.” Lily says, “But Mummy, aren’t those just filled with sugar?”
I’m not going to lie: October 1 hits, and my kids both shout, “Yes!” To them, the sugar-free experiment is over. Little do they know, we aren’t going back to the way things were.
But I’m mindful of not restricting them. “The last thing you want to do as a parent is introduce any element of ‘dieting’ to your kids,” Tanner tells me. “Treats are fine—so long as they are treats.”
We have real cake for Grandma’s birthday and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, but our low-sugar habits have stayed, with lots of veggies, dips and crackers in school lunches. We decide we’ll have one night a week when we enjoy something sweet; homemade brownies (I substitute maple syrup) are a favourite. But the juice and the lemonade have been banished permanently.
The big night—Halloween—looms large, and even before the kids have decided on costumes, we debate how many pieces of candy they get to keep. We decide they can have all the candy they want on Halloween and a piece in their school lunches every day that week, but then it all goes to Grandma’s house. (I get the feeling requests for visits to Grandma’s are going to increase.)
I’m torn about what to give out to the trick-or-treaters and suggest to Lily that we go to the dollar store for stickers. She rolls her eyes. “Really, Mum? We’re going to give out stickers?” But when I price it out at the store I realize this will set me back $100 (we get at least 300 kids in our busy ’hood). My budget wins out, so we distribute lollipops instead. I reconcile my guilt with the thought that it’s only one day of the year.
Halloween night, my kids rip through the streets with manic looks in their eyes, begging to eat from their stashes. I get it: Halloween was one of my favourite holidays. Staying up late and gorging on candy? What’s not to love? I let the kids indulge.
But the next day, my daughter has a tummy ache. I look at her and raise an eyebrow. She knows.
“I ate too much candy last night,” she tells me. I give myself a mental high-five.
Something else happens. The week after, both of my kids have the sniffles. It could just be that time of year, but Tanner offers another explanation. “We see a dramatic rise in colds and flus right after Halloween and Christmas.” Immediately after eating sugar, your immune system drops for as long as five hours. So if you get on the subway having just had a giant cookie from Starbucks and sit next to someone with a raging cold, you are more likely to catch it than the person who didn’t eat sugar. Wow.
The WHO has called for a 20 percent tax on sugary drinks, a motion supported by the Canadian Diabetes Association, Dietitians of Canada and others. According to the Heart and Stroke Association of Canada, a soda tax could introduce $1.8 billion in revenue. Mexico instituted a soda tax in 2014, and consumption levels dropped 12 percent. Berkeley, Calif., saw a 21 percent reduction after its soda tax. The Canadian government has looked into doing this as well, but the Canadian Beverage Association opposed it. We have to continually pry at the powerful grip that food lobbies have on our laws.
In September 2016, Canadian Senator Nancy Greene Raine put forward Bill S-228, which would ban marketing junk food and sugary drinks to kids. “The list of ingredients in processed foods should be clear in stating the total sugar added,” says Senator Raine. “Surely we can come up with a way to include the Percent Daily Value for sugar on our Nutrition Facts label.” (The bill is still before Senate.)
Realistically, sugar is never going to be entirely eliminated from our lives. I love chocolate. I’m also an emotional eater. But this project has made me more aware of my triggers. I think twice before reaching for the mixing bowl to bake away my sorrows. Come Christmas, I will let my kids decorate a gingerbread house, but their stockings will have no sugar. Changing our habits is hard, especially when you have to make a million decisions every day as a parent. But I do know I want my kids to live long, healthy lives—the sweetest reward of all.
A version of this article appeared in our December 2016 issue, titled “Sugar crash,” pg. 24-28.