Is Your Child a Sugar Addict?

Featured Article, Food and Nutrition, Growth and Development

At age 16, Justin Willoughby tipped the scales at an incredible 799 pounds. Not surprisingly, he suffered from food addiction, and it was sugar, especially, that threatened to take his life before he was even old enough to vote. “I loved doughnuts, pastries, soda, white bread and processed, sugary cereals,” Willoughby explains. “They were easily accessible, and I enjoyed the flavor way too much. I was not easily satisfied with just moderate amounts of sugar. A little did not go a long way.”

While Willoughby’s case is extreme, his sugar-induced weight gain is certainly not unique. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), kids are getting around 15 percent of their total caloric intake from added sugars (the current dietary guidelines suggest all discretionary calories—which includes sugars and solid fats—account for 5-15 percent of daily total intake). High sugar consumption has been linked to a variety of health-related issues, including obesity. Granted, most children won’t tip the scales at nearly 800 pounds, but there’s still a problem. In fact, results from the 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey show that, among U.S. children and adolescents aged 2-19, 16.9 percent are obese, and another 14.9 percent are overweight.

So how you can be sure whether sugar is, in fact, playing a large role in your child’s health—even if she is of normal weight and without any major health concerns? Dr. Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D., suggests a “sugar experiment.” “Ask your kids if they want to do an experiment that ends on a Saturday, at which time they can eat all the junk food, sugary food and soda that they want,” she explains. “But for the six days prior they don’t eat any junk. On Saturday, [when they go back to eating sugar], they will notice how tired, irritable, headachy, crampy and cranky they feel after eating all that junk. Then they—and you—will realize what sugar and junk food are doing to them.”

Even if the dangers of sugar are relatively well known, Americans still have a problem giving it up because it’s just downright addictive—as addictive as cocaine, even, say some media reports. And it only makes quitting the sweet stuff that much more difficult for kids, who are constantly accosted by birthday party cupcakes and after school sodas.

It is possible, though, says Zaida Khaze, a mom of two in Fort Wayne, New Jersey. Khaze’s five-year-old’s autism diagnosis was removed after 18 months on a strict diet that removed all added sugar. It was hard, she admits, as she was forced to make all of her daughter’s food from scratch to avoid sneaky sugars that pop up in everything from salad dressing to chicken nuggets, but it was well worth it.

“When my daughter ate anything with sugar, she wouldn’t sit still in school or follow directions,” Khaze says. “She couldn’t assess danger appropriately and would unlock the door and run out in t he street. She couldn’t decipher between what was appropriate or not. She had difficulty processing information and because of that could only have one or two word conversations.
“[After removing sugar from her diet], when she was given a chocolate or something sweet in a loot bag, she would ask me if, when she ate it, it would make her not be able to speak anymore. I would nod my head, and she would happily throw it in the garbage. Now, she throws it away without even asking me. She is only 5, but she loves her new life and doesn’t want to go back to a life of not being able to play with her friends.”

Likewise, Willoughby credits his commitment to slashing sugar as the reason he was able to drop 400 pounds in two years. “It was difficult to cut the sugar at first,” he says, “but my situation was life or death. If I didn’t cut the bad stuff, it would only prolong the weight loss. I cut out the treats, and started eating healthier options. Over time, my tastebuds changed into desiring healthier foods over junk foods.”

As Willoughby and Khaze’s stories show, sugar can impact all facets of children’s lives—from their weight to their overall wellbeing. And if you’re concerned that your family’s sugar consumption has passed the point of moderation and is headed straight for Candy Land, here are some tips to help you rein it in.

Set the example: If you think you can tell your kids to have fruit for dinner while you grab a Snickers, think again. “You are the thermostat for your children,” says Willoughby. “If you want to see them eat healthier, we have to lead by example and set that temperature.”

Start slow: “If a child has four cookies a night after dinner, then go down to three, and possibly two cookies,” says Len Saunders, an exercise physiologist and author of Keeping Kids Fit. “Taking these refined sugars away cold turkey could be a mistake, as children may crave it more or even try to sneak foods with processed sugars into their diet when a parent is not around.”

Make it a complete lifestyle change: All aspects of our lives are interconnected, so it’s impossible to foster a healthy diet without addressing other areas that are suffering. “It is important for children to get adequate amounts of sleep each night, along with proper hydration, as they both contribute to healthier lifestyles and eating,” says Saunders. “When children get adequate sleep, they keep the hormones related to appetite stable, so their brains know when their bellies are full. Proper hydration can also trick the stomach into feeling full and possibly suppress the appetite to reduce hunger.”

Become a smart shopper: The quest for a low-sugar diet begins with the grocery cart, so it’s important to be aware of the places where food manufacturers love to hide extra sugar.
“There’s a reason kids love ketchup; it’s one of the most sugary condiment culprits, and barbecue sauce is just as bad,” says Paddy Spence, CEO of Zevia, the stevia-sweetened, zero calorie soda. “And steer clear of cereal. Some choices—like Frosted Flakes and Honey Nut Cheerios—are obvious sugar pushers. But don’t be fooled by seemingly healthy options like granola. Finally, forgo fruit-flavored yogurt. A cup of regular fruit-flavored yogurt can contain about 30 grams of sugar—that’s not much less than a can of Coke. If you want blueberry yogurt, you’re much better off stirring fresh blueberries into plain yogurt. The blueberries are naturally low in sugar.”

Think long-term: “Children—and parents—need to understand that eating healthy is an investment in their future,” says Saunders. “Just like they put money in the bank to get stronger and more secure later in life, eating correctly and exercising is similar in the sense that they are investing in a healthier future.”

  • Dusty Bottoms

    They’ve learned a lot about diet and weight gain since I was born in ’57 but I have to say a lot of the POTENTIAL for weight gain and how the body assimilates sugars have a lot more to do with genetics than this article may imply. For that reason I’ve always had serious doubts about this demonization of sugar for anything other than dental health.

    As a kid I was a definite “sugar-holic”. While in elementary school I’d come home and make any kind of high sugar, high carb snack I could think of (I have fond memories of butter and sugar white bread sandwiches) and now at 58 I still crave a quick “fix” now and then but nothing like it was up until about 5 years ago. When I went into the military at 21 I barely weighed 130. At 5’7” I’m now a little over weight but between working out and working on our ranch my “summer weight” of 195 vs “winter weight” of around 200+ with all the holidays is not that bad. I’m
    what you might call “top heavy”.

    Kids that are not active can easily have weight problems, but this is not always the rule. My aunt always had a “candy drawer” for us boys when we visited for the summer on her ranch and I promptly dove into it between meals throughout the visit. Our son, however, who was a line backer in high school as well as playing basketball and enjoying the outdoors on our ranch has his mom’s body configuration. He easily outweighed me (plus another inch or so of height) by the time he’d entered high school and has a definite weight problem now at 31. He’s absolutely a candidate for diabetes given his partial Hispanic ancestry which we’ve discussed with him many times but he just can’t stay with a fitness program in order to get his weight down to something more reasonable inasmuch as he wants to. He and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum in this manner due to genetics. Our daughter, while a little on the heavy side, is much closer to a normal weight
    but she diets and has a physically demanding job.

    Having a healthy diet can be a key to having the proper body configuration for optimum health but the cards are dealt when sperm meet egg and much of our life is determined at that point. One can, with the right amount of determination, attain whatever body type one wants but if the genetics are saying one thing and your goal is something else you’ll fight an uphill battle all your life and it can be detrimental to one’s health, too. This is a very different world from the one I
    grew up in but I truly have a lot of doubts when it comes to one-size-fits-all diet
    programs. Eating a lot of sugars, carbs and such certainly CAN make one overweight but the genetics often point people that direction long before the cookies pass the lips. Shooting for “cookie-cutter kids” is a lazy person’s guide to parenting. Parents have to pay attention to how their kids are going to naturally develop rather than comparing them to and making them fit in to the same mold as every other kid on the block.

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