By Pam Leo
“How come the Easter Bunny didn’t bring
us good things like broccoli and carrots?”
– Jared LeDuc (age 5)
It seems no coincidence that children are sick more often November through April than they are May through October. Sugar suppresses the immune system. Many children barely recover from the Halloween sugar, when it’s on to the Christmas candy season, then Valentine’s Day candy and finally Easter candy. Other than birthdays there are no major sugar-filled holidays again until October. Could the improvement in children’s health during summer be due to something more than better weather? The custom of giving children candy as a way of showing our affection is becoming a threat to their health and well being. It’s time to re-think how we “treat” children.
Life has changed drastically for children in the last hundred years. One of the biggest changes has been in the food they eat. Highly processed convenience foods and fast foods have become a major part of many families’ diet. The diet of children today is just the opposite of their ancestors. The biggest part of our ancestors’ diet was whole food. It was all they had. Refined white sugar used to be so expensive it was reserved for special occasions. When children, who always ate whole food, had a little sugar, a few times a year, it was a treat and probably didn’t cause any real problems.
We all know that too much sugar is not good for children, we’ve been hearing that since we were children. But how much is too much? While many parents are conscious of avoiding the obvious sugar in soda, sweets, and pre-sweetened cereals, we are often unaware of the not so obvious sugar sources. There is a teaspoon of sugar in every tablespoon of catsup! There is sugar in most yogurts, canned soups, packaged macaroni and cheese, crackers, and chicken nuggets. If we start reading the labels on packaged foods and adding up all the grams of sugar children consume in a day we will be amazed at how much sugar our children are eating, even when we aren’t intending to feed them sugar.
Many parents find themselves going from doctor to doctor trying to find a cure for their children’s health or behavior problems. Could it be that we might find both the cause of and the cure for many of these problems right in our own kitchens? Could it be that our children’s high consumption of processed food with its food coloring, additives, preservatives, refined carbohydrates and sugar is the cause of many of their health and behavior problems?
Children who have never had refined sugar don’t miss it or crave it. Children who have had sugar from the beginning do crave it, both physically and emotionally. If children have learned to equate getting sugar “treats” with feeling loved we will have to be very creative in replacing candy with other expressions of our affection. Treats don’t have to be sweets. Children have no definition for treat until adults give them one. If we have perpetuated our childhood definition of “treat” as candy, we will have to work at redefining treat to include other things. “I brought you a treat, look at these beautiful strawberries!” The more we refer to other things as treats the less the expectation will be that getting a “treat” means getting candy.
It’s going to be quite a challenge to change the habit of showing affection through the giving of confection. Once we become aware of the health hazard of too much sugar and start protecting children from sugar, we realize that it’s even more of a job to protect them from everyone else’s lack of awareness about sugar. Many parents who protect their children from being overloaded with sugar are teased about being health nuts and even accused of depriving their children. Sugar is showered on children everywhere. The sad part is that people are usually just trying to express love when they give children candy. No wonder children equate getting candy with being loved! No wonder so many adults turn to sugar when what we really crave is love.
If children already have sugar in their diets it can be counter productive to suddenly ban all sweets. When sweets become completely forbidden at home children often gorge on sweets outside the home whenever they get the chance. Children who are allowed one small sweet a day are less likely to binge on candy when it’s available to them. While it is probably unrealistic to think that we can keep our children sugar free, there is a lot we can do to reduce the sugar overload. The times we feel we can’t avoid sugar we can at least moderate its effects. We can help slow down the speed at which children absorb sugar and highly processed carbohydrates by giving them some “real” food before or with the treat. (Is that why our parents made us eat dinner before dessert?)
Eating more whole food and less sugar doesn’t have to mean we eliminate all convenience foods or we should never resort to going to the fast food drive-thru or ordering a pizza when we’re just too hungry, busy or tired to cook. We can start by reading the labels on packaged foods to become aware of how many contain added sugar and how much. We can gradually replace some of the most sugar and chemical laden ones with more whole foods. The more often we involve children in the selection and preparation of the family meal the more easily they make the transition from the foods that deplete their bodies to the foods that nourish them.
Children acquire their attitudes about food from our attitudes about food.
When we stop referring to going out for fast food as a treat, and refer to the real food meal we make together as a “happy meal”, children will value real food meals more. What we model, children imitate. Most adults have some level of sugar addiction. We won’t be very successful keeping our children away from sugar if we are eating a lot of it. It’s usually futile to try to get our children to eat fruit when they know we have cookies in the cupboard.
Once we understand just how sugar affects our body and how seriously sugar depletes our whole system, we can’t help but see how vital it is to change the way we “treat” children. “Treating” children better doesn’t have to mean we never take them out for an ice cream or stop baking Christmas cookies together. Children feel loved when we do those things but just as the candy is not what makes children feel loved, it isn’t just the ice cream or the cookies that makes those times special. The special part is the connection we feel when we spend time together. Let’s create new ways to “treat” children to the love they need and the health they deserve.