Kicking Sugar

One mom's battle to get her kids off the white stuff

There’s an early spring chill hanging over the school drop-off. Mountain Equipment Co-op Mom and Lululemon Mom furrow their brows and bounce their babies.

“I can’t believe Alex’s mom had the nerve to serve Olivia juice!” hisses Lululemon Mom. “It’s bad enough they hand out cartons of chocolate milk at school — 26 grams of sugar! But pushing juice on my daughter in their home?”

“Wow, juice?” I interject, trying to lighten the mood. “Quick! Someone call children’s services!”

If the two moms hadn’t been restrained by their Snuglis and napping progeny, I would have been crushed like a discount can of cola. Perhaps my sarcasm had no place in the schoolyard, but this less-than-sweet exchange had me wondering: Since when did sugar become as fraught as Mideast policy, or Stephen Harper’s casual wear? And since when did juice, or a trifling 26 grams of sugar in chocolate milk, cause such a fuss?

After some hapless calculation, I soon discover it might have something to do with the fact that the 26 grams of white stuff in that tiny brown carton translate into almost seven teaspoons of sugar. Holy modified maltodextrose!

Could I be that blind about the sugar my kids eat? I’ve always maintained a pop-free home and diluted juice on the occasions they do have it. But my eyes are slowly widening to the sucrose superhighway roaring through the foods marketed to my children.

Maybe it’s that flat of juice boxes in our basement. Or perhaps it was the recent pleas of the World Health Organization (WHO) and American Heart Association: To combat the global obesity epidemic, they recommend keeping the added sugars in a kid’s diet (the ones that don’t exist in foods naturally) to less than seven to 11 teaspoons a day. But what hardens my conviction most is the primal lust with which my four-year-old brushes aside the french fries on her plate to lick off every molecule of syrupy ketchup (twice as much sugar per teaspoon as the chocolate milk).

Whatever it was, my mission is clear: I have to take my kids’ overburdened pancreases into my own hands (not literally). I am going to track every gram of sugar my kids consume, and try to rehabilitate them down to the recommended limit, from breakfast to bedtime snacks, even if it kills me.

Sugar log

Saturday, 8:45 a.m.: Kids’ breakfast
I think back to my own heady sugar-coated days as a child, with memories of Day-Glo cereals that should have rightly been displayed in the cookie and candy aisle. Yes, I still miss my Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes (almost four teaspoons of sugar per cup), which gave me the sugar equivalent of eating a butter tart for breakfast. But the morning sweet injection doesn’t seem to have abated; it’s just healthier looking.

Many commercial granolas and breakfast bars out-sweeten our cereals of yore with four or more teaspoons of sugar per serving. And my kid’s vanilla- or fruit-flavoured probiotic yogurt? One serving has a whopping 25 grams of the stuff (almost seven teaspoons). That’s as much as a can of Coke.

I settle on some instant unsweetened oatmeal with flaxseed, with the promise I’ll tart up the sludge with bananas and maple syrup. Mia, my five-year-old, looks gravely at the tiny disc of syrup in her bowl as she curls her fingers toward me in a come-hither motion, More…more…more. Um…a little more…

I might as well have given her the can of Coke.

Saturday, 12:14 p.m.: Lunch
Having spent the morning explaining that nature never intended fruit to come in loop form (nor is it spelled “froot”), I feel a nutrition lesson in order.

There is an expository on how much harder your internal organs have to work to regulate the amount of sugar in your blood if you eat too much of the stuff. How the freezies, chocolate milk and cookies cheat you of essential food components, such as fibre, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals, which your body not only needs for good nutrition, but to also help you manage any of the sugar you do eat.

I am wondering if my speech would have gone over better with a herd of diabetic cats when Evie, my four-year-old, asks in her most mature voice if she can please have a treat after eating some of her noo-trish-uss lunch.

Wow, I think to myself, maybe I am making some progress. “Sure,” I say, brightly.

Evie scarfs a token bite of her ravioli and broccoli, thrusts down her fork in triumph and races downstairs to our freezer where a lone Creamsicle lingers off of my radar.
At the table, Evie savours her Creamsicle (more than three teaspoons of sugar) as Mia screams that she wants ice cream for lunch too.

Saturday, 2:42 p.m.: Snack time
Our garbage is brimming with aging Halloween candy, tooth-dissolving treats from Grandma’s Hansel-and-Gretel-kiddie-trap of a house, and any other stowaways my kids could easily pilfer. Instead, well within reach of small fingers, I put fruit on the counter, cut-up veggies and cheese in the fridge, and crackers and arrowroot cookies (one gram of sugar per two-cookie serving) in the knee-level cupboards.

Pleased with myself, I take Mia for a treat at the local farmers’ market. In the spirit of kinder, gentler sugar consumption, I wince and dig through my pockets when she begs for a $2 cup of “naturally sweetened” lemonade.

Perhaps she is expecting the cloying high of conventional lemonade (just over three teaspoons of sugar per cup) or the sweetened supernova from the juice “drinks,” such as Five Alive or SunnyD (almost eight teaspoons). Instead, after just one small sip, she turns to me and screeches, “Hey, there’s not any sugar in this!”

The wholesome-looking lemonade shark awkwardly points out that this drink is lightly sweetened with agave and brown rice syrup — two relatively unrefined sugars that aren’t as quickly absorbed into the bloodstream as more refined ones. Mia is not impressed: “This tastes like what our floors smell like after we wash them.”
Wednesday, 3:45 p.m.
I’m a failure as a mother.

My kids can sniff out street-grade sucrose from impostors a mile away. Grandma keeps the weekly supply of pop and candy flowing. Almost all the food marketed to my kids, from yogurt and specialty milks to granola bars, sauces and luncheon meats, are laced with sugar. My empty honey jars almost look like they have claw marks on them.

I need professional help. I call up a dietitian at one of Canada’s leading children’s hospitals, the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.

“No, really, it’s not that bad,” consoles Cindy Black. “As parents, we’re actually doing quite well. The WHO says kids should only get about 10 percent of their daily carbohydrates from added sugar, and Canadian kids are at about 12 percent.”

I perk up. American kids down a lot more added sugar — 16 percent of their carbohydrates — mostly from pop, fruit drinks and desserts.

“Our challenge is when we start to consider sugary treats an everyday phenomenon, like pop simply being what we have with every meal, as opposed to once in a while. We need to follow Canada’s Food Guide and eat our sugars in whole unprocessed foods, rather than drink them.” Or mainline them in nutritionally void bars, biscuits or treats.

Black’s colleague, John LeBlanc, a paediatrician at IWK, also enlightened me by explaining why empty calories from sugar are a problem. “Sugar is basically an energy delivery system to the cells,” says LeBlanc. “The brain, in particular, is very sugar dependent. The problem today, however, is that we’re eating sugar in its most refined form instead of the crude-oil, whole-food version our bodies are designed to handle, with all the fibre, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that are designed to help release sugar much more slowly into the bloodstream.”

LeBlanc speaks not only to old-fashioned table sugar, but the ultra-sweet, cheap and genetically modified sugars, such as high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose and maltodextrose, which have now invaded not only every sucker and soft drink, but our seemingly guileless kids’ yogurt, granola bars and muffins as well. “The nature of these simple sugars is that they get into the bloodstream so fast and disappear so quickly, you feel in the doldrums. And that is what’s related to the obesity epidemic — this sensation that the sugar high is gone and you need to replenish it with more sugar.”

Black echoes the pitfalls of the sugar lulls. “Kids crash, then they don’t have the same energy or attention span.” It can affect your child’s mood, as well as her ability to fight off colds and other infections.

So should parents ban the sweet stuff? Surprisingly, the pros say no. “We never want to go to the other extreme and ban juice and treats altogether,” says Black. That just leads to kids who binge on forbidden treats every time they’re away from home.
Saturday, 6:30 p.m.: Supper
I’ve given up. I envision Mia pushing aside her brown rice and chicken to request a glucose IV drip at the table. “Have what you want,” I sigh to my kids. “Ice cream is in the freezer. Cookies, above the fridge.”

“I think I’ll have a pear,” says Mia, after she and her sister scrape up their last grains of rice. “I don’t want my pancreas to work too hard making insulin to manage all that sugar in my blood.”

My terror at the fact my kid may have actually listened to me — and might even know what a pancreas is — was soon soothed by the warm blanket of consistency: Evie went for the ice cream.

And that’s totally OK.


Sugar-coated truths

• Sugar does not cause hyperactivity in kids. Think food coma after a huge meal. It can actually make you sleepy.

• If sugar, sucrose, glucose, dextrose, maltodextrose, maltodextrin or high-fructose corn syrup is one of the first three ingredients on the label, the product is laden with sugar.

• While Health Canada approves of small amounts of artificial sweeteners like aspartame in a child’s diet, it’s not advised as it conditions kids to expect a sweet taste from products often with few or no nutrients.

• Look for ready-to-eat cereals with less than 10 grams sugar per one cup (250 mL) serving.

• The less processed food and snacks your kids eat, the less added sugar they’ll consume.

• Keep nutrients high to prevent sugar lows: Spread some natural peanut or nut butter on the waffle with syrup or throw pumpkin seeds and blueberries on that cereal.

• Give your kid an apple instead of a juice box, and your child will get more nutrients and fibre, and feel fuller.

• Avoid high-sugar snacks on an empty stomach in between meals, like pop, snack bars, yogurt or juice. Stick with raw fruit and veg snacks, such as celery and cream cheese, crackers and pea or nut butter, or a handful of sunflower seeds.

• Save ice cream and sugary treats for after meals, when the body has consumed the fibre, vitamins, proteins and fats that help regulate sugar.

• Offer water if your kids are thirsty and don’t dilute juice. It nurtures the expectation that all drinks — even water — have to be sweet.

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