Weeks before my oldest child’s first birthday, I was incredibly stressed. It wasn’t the party that had me hyperventilating; it was the cake. My son had never tasted cake. Or cookies. Or candy. Or chocolate. He dined on homemade spinach quiche and organic, made-from-scratch root-vegetable purées (with a dash of nutmeg). While I ate chocolate treats regularly, I gave him pumpernickel bread to make him think we were eating the same thing (babies are so gullible—he also believed that his shoes were real Gucci). I had worked so hard to make sure everything that touched his little lips was nutrient dense and sugar-free. He was pure and untainted—that is, unless you count the nine months he spent in utero, where about 70 percent of what was offered up via umbilical cord was chocolate.
I worried that the minute my little healthy eater tasted cake, there would be no turning back. Why would he ever want to eat anything else? I researched virtuous, sugar-free cupcake recipes and agonized. Eventually, I decided to make whole wheat, low-sugar chocolate cupcakes (due to serious lobbying efforts from Big Chocolate, a.k.a. my mom). I watched breathlessly as he took an enthusiastic bite and smiled. Then he put the cupcake down and ate watermelon, and things pretty much went back to normal.
I don’t know when it changed. A bite here, a piece of birthday cake there. My oldest went from not caring about his own birthday cake to consistently being the only one left at the table still eating cake when I pick him up from every birthday party he attends. All three of my kids can smell chocolate on my breath hours after I indulge and can hear a candy bar being unwrapped within a three-block radius. It’s not unusual for them to request banana bread for breakfast, and my youngest still expects a marshmallow every time she uses the toilet. She is 11. (Just kidding: She is two.)
I really try to feed my kids well—they eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, and all the baked goods in my house are made with whole wheat pastry flour and less sugar than the recipes call for. But they still eat a lot of sugar. (I’m not even going to get into my own issues right now—let’s just say that my tears could be boiled down for syrup.) It’s everywhere.
And I feel constantly under pressure to keep it coming. There is immense pressure to be as cool and laid-back as the other moms (“Of course you can have as much candy as you want—it’s a party!”) and to not be the only mom at the park saying no to the treat that someone else brought to share (“Of course you can have a piece of cake the size of your head—it’s the park!”). I joke with my friends who pump my kids full of sugar on playdates that I will get revenge, but I just don’t have the guts to firmly say “no more junk.” The thing is, I don’t want to be that mom at the school council meeting who is saying that there are too many treats at school (she’s right, there are) or being labelled a (celery) stick in the mud for not wanting my kids to eat a shared treat at the playground when they haven’t eaten the cucumbers and carrots I brought from home.
Plus, I don’t want to screw up my kids. I mean, what is the right way to go? My mom called raisins “nature’s candy” and gave us fruit leathers in our lunches when all we really wanted were Wagon Wheels and Puff-o-Fruit (I grew up in the ’80s—there was a kid in my class who used to bring hot dogs wrapped in Kraft singles for lunch). Treats were fetishized, largely because of my mom’s “one sweet a day” rule. Because treats were such a big deal, they stayed a big deal once I grew up—only now I can access them whenever I want. I choose fro-yo over any other snack option every time, and my first snack of the day is always a chocolate bar.
Maybe the way to go is to have treats everywhere and let our kids have as many as they want. Perhaps that’s the trick to making a cookie no different from an apple. But it’s a scary experiment to take on when every second health article that comes up on my Facebook feed is about the horrors of sugar.
Too much sugar has been linked to insulin resistance, metabolic disorder, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, fatty liver disease, weight gain, depression and cavities—a terrifying list that reads like the side effects on a pharmaceutical commercial on TV. And the worst part is that too much sugar isn’t actually that much sugar—the World Health Organization recommends no more than 12 teaspoons a day for an adult and suggests no more than six teaspoons for optimal health. To put this in perspective, according to the most recent census data, Canadians consume an average of 26 teaspoons of sugar per day (though the 260 teaspoons of sugar I consume daily may be throwing off the national average).
I have one outlier friend (OK, she’s a personal trainer I met) who doesn’t buy or use refined sugar and whose idea of a treat is coconut oil, dark chocolate and a touch of maple syrup mixed together (as I type this, I strongly suspect I misunderstood her—this must be a recipe for a do-it-yourself facial or hair conditioning treatment). Talking to her, I wonder if I could give up sugar. They say you feel better, healthier and more alive after the first few weeks of giving up the sweet stuff.
But even if I can live through the tremors and mood swings and my marriage survives, am I not setting my kids up to feel constantly deprived? Will they not go on a sugar bender the day they leave for university?
Also, how do you explain to your kids that they can’t have cake at birthday parties or that they can’t have popsicles after soccer? Sugar is the way we celebrate and commiserate and show affection. If it’s as dangerous as they say it is, not giving it up or, at the very least, cutting consumption seems irresponsible. But giving it up isn’t a small undertaking: it’s a complete lifestyle change, involving new recipes, a new way of shopping and a new way of thinking. I’d have to figure out how much of an anti-sugar stance to take. Do we give up ketchup and my favourite prepackaged tomato tofu dish? Is it easier to go cold turkey and retrain my palate or allow myself a moderate amount? Also, what would I do with the bags and bags of chocolate I bought on sale after Easter (I guess I would have to eat these first)? I’m going to go and sneak-eat a chocolate bar to help me think about all this.
If the kids ask, I’m upstairs cleaning the closet.