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.”