“Will that apple make me fat?” asks my seven-year-old son Isaac, his brows furrowed as he watches me make his school lunch.
“No, of course not. What makes you think that?” I respond, tucking an apple into his bag and then zipping his backpack shut.
“But doesn’t an apple have sugar in it? We’re learning at school that sugar makes you fat, so how can an apple be a healthy choice?” Isaac is now starting to bite at his lip, fighting back tears. Apples are one of his favourite snacks and I send him with one every day in his lunch.
“Nearly everything we eat has sugar in it. Your body and your brain need sugar to work. It gives you energy. The sugar in your apple will help you at school.”
Isaac looks at me skeptically, puts his backpack on and walks with me to the end of the driveway to wait for the bus. He's uncharacteristically quiet.
When I unpack his lunch bag later that evening, the apple is still there—bruised, with one small bite taken out of it. I shake my head slowly, tossing the apple in the garbage. I realize that all the conversations that we've around the dinner table about food production, nutrition and healthy choices are only going to get harder since my son is being taught that sugar—in any form—is bad.
“Death by Sugar” screamed the headline by Maclean’s writer Kate Lunau. In her article, Lunau shares startling statistics about how much sugar the average Canadian consumes. According to Statistics Canada, the average Canadian adult eats 88 pounds of sugar per year, while the average nine-year-old boy consumes 123 pounds and male teens consume a jaw-dropping 138 pounds. While the primary source of sugar is soft drinks (at least for the teens), it’s the hidden sugars in processed foods that are the culprits behind our sky-high sugar consumption. Think: ketchup, packaged cereals, flavoured yogurts, low-fat salad dressings.
Consumers are quick to point the finger at processed food companies for filling the shelves with so-called toxic foods and crafting marketing campaigns that convince us to add the items to our shopping carts. Advertising to children frequently comes under fire. But the last time I checked, most adults can read a product label and it’s the parent who has the final say at the checkout counter. Exactly how much sugar our children consumes comes right back to us.
But what we put in our grocery cart is only part of the solution. I truly believe that to improve our health we need to have common sense conversations about food—starting with no longer labelling one type of food "bad" or another "good." Teaching our kids about food—from how it's grown, processed and cooked at home—is just as vital as teaching them to read and write. It’s the foundation that will help them make sensible food choices as they grew up. Making sugar and fat out to be the villains takes the joy out of eating, and that’s just sad.
Fear mongering about food doesn’t teach our children how to eat properly because it tells them what not to eat, making them feel ashamed if they happen to make a “bad” food choice. School lunch policies and government guidelines are put in place with the best intentions, but I can’t shake the feeling that, in the long run, they’ll do more harm than good.
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