Sugar: 7 Reasons to Break the Addiction

Baby eating a sugar lollipop

Several articles and studies in the past week give even more reason to consciously and relentlessly reduce sugar in your family’s diet, especially in the diet of your children as they grow and develop.

Sugar consumption is high, probably higher than you realize. Sugar isn’t just in cookies, ice cream, and sodas. Sugar sneaks into places you wouldn’t expect to find it: canned soup, mass-produced bread, processed meats, Kraft dinner, ketchup.

Statistics Canada reports that the average Canadian consumes 110 grams (or 26 teaspoons) of sugar a day. That’s over half a cup of sugar a day. Why not just wake up to a glass of water and pour in half a cup of sugar. Mmm. Sounds, well, terrible. Even if the number is half that, as the Canadian Sugar Institute claims, it seems high when you translate that into 44-88 lbs or 20-40 kg a year.

Just pause to visualize that much sugar. Not so appetizing all at once.

That fact is, the average North American is eating a lot of sugar.

This past week, National Geographic and TIME magazine published features on sugar, and a new study from the University of Utah suggests that the effects of sugar are far more than just weight gain.

What Is the Effect of Sugar?

1. Sugar leads to disease. Sugar overload can lead to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and higher risk of heart attack. The process of metabolic disease is clear.

2. Sugar leaves you without enough energy to exercise away the extra calories it leaves. Double whammy.

3. Sugar’s effect on your body is addictive. Sure, the immediate effect is pleasurable, as is the effect of cocaine or heroin, but most of us know enough not to slide down that slippery slope.

4. Sugar is toxic to you. To quote TIME on a new study published this week, “even safe levels of sugar could have serious negative effects on people’s health.”

5. Sugar shortens your life, at least it may have subtle biological effects that lead to shorter lives. Research is ongoing in this area, but findings point to higher mortality.

One of the researchers on the Utah study released this week said in the Salt Lake Tribune,

“I think the big takeaway is the level of sugar we readily eat and think is safe causes major health declines in mice. . . . We’re not just talking about some minor metabolic thing. We’re taking about increased rates of death and [lower rates] of reproduction.”

6. Sugar or marry your cousin? A diet high in sugar has similar effects to inbreeding—at least in a recent study with mice. To quote my local paper on this local study: “Would you rather be on the American diet … or have parents be full cousins?’ said senior author Wayne Potts, a biology professor. ‘This data is telling us it’s a toss up.’”

7. Sugar can even make you stupid, or so it appears from a different rat study. National Geographic quoted the study researcher: “‘I was very shocked to see how strong an effect these diets could have on the brain—I have high concern that the foods people eat can really affect mood and cognition,’ Gomez-Pinilla said.”

How I’ve Handled Sugar with My Children

My solution when my children were very young was not to forbid sugar, since I didn’t want it to become the desired thing they binged on away from home, but to give them no refined sugar at home and allow some away from home. I had to have grandparents’ cooperation in this, since they were the sugar pushers.

Now that my children are older and more logical, we can talk through the consequences of lack of nutritional control. We even took a college class together on nutrition to keep our discussions science based. They know how they feel when they overeat junk food or super-sweet food, and they don’t like it. I don’t have to exert MY control as a parent because they are exercising their own self control.

This is not to say that we don’t still have trouble. Having read the recent articles in National Geographic and TIME magazines, I know we have to push our sugar consumption even lower. What we think of as moderation is not moderate. It’s exceedingly high consumption of sugar, and our bodies did not evolve to handle this onslaught.

Don’t just replace refined-sugar sweets with other sweets. Get past the sugar addiction yourself and don’t let it grow in your children. I know that just makes it sound easy, and I know that it isn’t actually easy if you are stuck on sugar. But, your health and your children’s health and normal development depend on it.

Even though it can be difficult, just do it.

Recent articles on the effects of sugar

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Toxic Threats to Child Development

In Harm's Way Toxic Threats to Child Development

Are you looking for some substantial reading you can do over the weekend? I’ve been reading more about the toxic environment in which our children grow and develop. I’m not concerned about the good dirt and exposure to naturally occurring bacteria that help children build their immunity naturally. I’m concerned with the heavy toxins introduced into our environment through industrialization.

In 2000, a group of physicians released In Harm’s Way, a long, peer-reviewed study of toxic chemical influences on developmental disabilities. The study is written in more plain language that most medical studies, so it’s easier for most of us to read and understand.

Though trends are difficult to establish with certainty, there is a growing consensus that learning and behavioral disorders are increasing in frequency. These disabilities are clearly the result of complex interactions among genetic, environmental, and social factors that impact children during vulnerable periods of development. Research demonstrates that pervasive toxic substances, such as mercury, lead, PCBs, dioxins, pesticides, solvents, and others, can contribute to neurobehavioral and cognitive disorders.

Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, “In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development,” 2000.

If you want to understand your child’s normal brain development and how chemical toxins alter development, you will find it in this study.

You can buy a paperback version of the 149-page study for $100+ or you can download it for free in pieces or as one long PDF.

The themes that emerged from this research were:

  1. Neurodevelopmental disabilities are widespread, and chemical exposures are important and preventable contributors to these conditions.
  2. Our initial understanding of the impacts of neurotoxic substances regularly underestimates the potential for harm.
  3. Carefully conducted, long-term epidemiological studies have proven to be much more sensitive measures of developmental neurotoxicity than animal studies.
  4. Regulatory policy has repeatedly failed to protect children from widespread harm due to exposures to developmental neurotoxins.
  5. The failure of the regulatory system to protect public health can often be traced to the influence of vested economic interests upon the regulatory process.
  6. Neurodevelopmental disabilities impose social and economic costs upon impacted families and the economy as a whole.
  7. Special interests are not merely tolerated but are actually an integral part of the regulatory process.

The conclusions point the way to improving a regulatory system that has not yet adequately protected children’s health. Who, though, is going to say that they don’t have children’s health as their goal? This is common ground we all share. Starting from there, we can look at what barriers stand in the way, name them out loud, and make the changes necessary to prevent such damage to our children’s present and future.

The project didn’t stop with the publication of this study. Training programs have been created to act on findings, and they have produced many more guides for clinicians and for parents. If you find yourself intrigued by this study, there is much more where that came from.

We have to be well informed as parents if we are going to make the best decisions for our children.

Breastfeeding Research in the News

Doctor talking to a mother

When the British Medical Journal two weeks ago published a review paper, an opinion piece, on the nutritional INadequacy of the World Health Organization’s recommendation that infants exclusively breastfeed for six month, a wave of media coverage followed. As often happens, the adequacy of the publication was of less importance in media coverage than the potential audience share that fear-based headlines could pull in.

A few articles did point out that the review acknowledges that 3 of 4 authors “have performed consultancy work and/or received research funding from companies manufacturing infant formulas and baby foods within the past three years.” This seems like a very interesting point worth pursuing, especially in light of the historical context of marketing breastmilk replacement products globally and the original catalysts to the WHO recommendations.

Just planting a doubt in a mother’s mind can sometimes be enough to change behavior. The use of fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) through careful so-called research or careful framing but avoidance of research is a tried and true propaganda technique. Unfortunately, it works.

Backlash Against Poor Research

Responses to the review on the British Medical Journal (BMJ) website, including those by researchers active in the field, by physicians, by activists, and by interested observers, bring up interesting points about the quality and content of the view as well as about the context. Research is not conducted in a vacuum. Researchers have life experiences, personal interests, and paid positions to protect. Peer review is intended to bring up issues within the design and execution of the research, but it seldom addresses the hidden push and pull that subtly shapes outcomes and reports. Having spent a good portion of my life in graduate school and specifically addressing the biases of scientific research in my doctoral work, I know how flexible the concept of “truth” can sometimes be. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

The BMJ will no doubt publish formal responses. There will probably be women who were looking for a reason not to keep breastfeeding who find it in superficial news stories. Serious breastfeeding research will continue. And, policymakers will keep looking for ways to support exclusive breastfeeding as the best way to feed babies.

The review was published January 13, 2011. Since then, on January 20, 2011, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a “Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding.” This is not a quick response but an extensive report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They have made it easy for community members to understand what they can do to support breastfeeding.

“A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics estimated that the nation would save $13 billion per year in health care and other costs if 90 percent of U.S. babies were exclusively breastfed for six months. . . . ‘I believe that we as a nation are beginning to see a shift in how we think and talk about breastfeeding,’ said Dr. Benjamin. ‘With this “Call to Action,” I am urging everyone to help make breastfeeding easier.’”
Everyone Can Help Make Breastfeeding Easier, Surgeon General Says in “Call to Action”

Health Canada also has a very short open period for comments on “Nutrition for Healthy Term Infants – Recommendations from Birth to Six Months,” their “evidence-informed recommendations to assist health professionals in communicating consistent guidance on infant nutrition to Canadian parents and caregivers.”

Policymakers understand that breastfed babies are healthy babies, and, among all of the other benefits, healthy babies save money. Your reasons and mine for breastfeeding might be closer to home, but it is easy to see that the support is widespread outside circles where there is profit to be made from breastmilk substitutes or early weaning foods.

When it comes down to it, most women aren’t reading research papers. They want to do the best for their babies, and they trust their healthcare providers and others in positions to support their choices. Yesterday, January 25, 2011, TIME Magazine published an article about U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin’s call for community support of breastfeeding: “It takes a village to help moms succeed.” We may not want to be swayed so easily, but the messages we get in the media about parenting influence us. Not all of those messages are negative. I embrace those messages that ask us to support women rather than isolating them in fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Next week, we’ll look at research into breastfeeding support.

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What to Eat While Breastfeeding

Baby feeding her mother a banana

You might wonder whether you need to eat more, eat different foods, or drink more water during lactation. How much does your nutrition effect your baby? What should you eat while you are breastfeeding?

The short answer is very simple: your normal healthy diet is good already.

That’s the catch, though. Many of us don’t eat a consistently healthy diet. You probably watched what you ate during pregnancy, and you should continue to make the most healthy choices during breastfeeding. This is a good time to solidify eating habits that will serve you and your family well over time.

In recent years, research has confirmed that even if some nutrients are missing in a woman’s daily diet, she will still produce milk that will help her child grow. There is very little difference in the milk of healthy mothers and mothers who are severely malnourished.

Sheri Lyn Parpia Khan, “Maternal Nutrition during Breastfeeding,” NEW BEGINNINGS 21:2 (March-April 2004), 44.

A Good Diet

A good diet for breastfeeding women looks a lot like a good diet for the whole family. The National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine did a thorough analysis of Nutrition During Lactation. In their recommendations for clinical implementation of their guidelines, they offered the following “Special Recommendations for Lactating Women.”

  • Avoid diets and medications that promise rapid weight loss.
  • Eat a wide variety of breads and cereal grains, fruits, vegetables, milk products, and meats or meat alternates each day.
  • Take three or more servings of milk products daily.
  • Make a greater effort to eat vitamin-A-rich vegetables or fruit often. Examples of vitamin-A-rich foods include carrots, spinach or other cooked greens, sweet potatoes, and cantaloupe.
  • Be sure to drink when you are thirsty· You will need more fluid than usual.
  • If you drink coffee or other caffeinated beverages, such as cola, do so in moderation. Two servings daily are unlikely to harm the infant. Caffeine passes into the milk.

Nutrition During Pregnancy and Lactation: An Implementation Guide, Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, 1992.

Even this advice needs to be looked at carefully, since a vegetarian mother will likely get her calcium from almonds, spinach, or other calcium-rich foods rather than from animal milk. You don’t need to drink cow’s milk to make human milk.


You aren’t likely to need vitamin supplements if you eat a nutrient-dense diet. Again, whether your usual diet is giving you the nutrition you need can be an issue. You may want to evaluate your overall food intake to see how it compares with daily recommendations and adjust to increase your intake of particular kinds of foods.

Lactating women who meet the RDA for energy are likely to meet the RDA for all nutrients except calcium and zinc if the nutrient density of their diets is close to the average for young U.S. women.

Nutrition During Lactation, Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, 1991.

Drink Water

The usual advice is to drink more water, but you don’t need to over-think (or over-drink) this. Your body will tell you when you need more water. Drink when you are thirsty. To be sure that you have water available when you are thirsty, keep water close by at your usual nursing stations. Keep a water bottle in your diaper bag. If the water is available, you can easily drink when you feel the need.

Does it have to be water? No. Your body will work with whatever fluids you drink, though you should avoid sweet and caffeinated drinks as you would when pregnant. That is just part of a healthy diet.

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Importance of Family Meals

Family Mealtime

The average family mealtime lasts only 20 minutes, but that time spent together builds a foundation for a child’s health and well being. Benefits range from nutrition to language, culture, and even mental health.

Who wouldn’t want to set their children up for less likelihood of substance abuse, greater vocabulary, fewer behavior problems, less likelihood of asthma, less obesity, and better balanced meals with fewer calories than fast food.[1]

Family meals can do all of that? Yes, that is what research shows. Your investment now while your children are young will continue to benefit them as individuals and all of you as a family. As your children reach their teen years, you will be glad that you have created a strong family routine of sharing during mealtimes.

“A meal is about civilizing children. It’s about teaching them to be a member of their culture.” Robin Fox, anthropologist at Rutgers University in TIME Magazine.

Family Mealtime Education

At mealtime, parents share information about food and family without the children really realizing it. Just in passing, as kids ask “Why are we eating this?” we talk about our choices. Sometimes we might tell children why one choice is more healthy than another. Sometimes we might help them understand why we need quick meals on busy days.

My children love homemade rolls. They would love to have rolls every day at every meal, but this is a food that takes time to prepare. So, this is a Sunday routine because that is the day when we have more time. As they help prepare the rolls from live yeast, they learn the science of baking painlessly. I’ve also noticed over time that they smile just at the smell of baking bread. Baking bread means family and home for my children, and I think that is a great start.

When we eat foods from our own childhoods, we share information about multiple generations of our families. I like talking to my children about the foods my mother and my grandmother made. This often leads to talking about where our families came from, since food traditions are often passed down through mothers. We no longer eat a lot of heavy German food passed down from my mother’s mother’s family, but, when we do eat those old foods on occasion, I talk about how and why my family came to North America.

If my children moan about helping prepare meals, I like to remind them that by the time my mother was their age, she was in charge of making dinner for herself and four brothers. Sometimes this just quiets them into helping, but other times they ask more questions. Why was grandma cooking? (She was home first while her mother was working and her brothers were working on the farm.) What did she cook? (She told me the meal she cooked most often was pepper pot soup.) Can we make that? (Certainly!)

In addition to the benefit of healthier eating for families that sit down and eat together, the rituals families develop create a family identity and a closeness for all.

Dinner Time Fun

Here are a few quick tips to keep family dinner time fun.

  • Keep the meal stress free. Don’t spend more time than you have preparing a meal. Save elaborate meals for days when you have time to spend.
  • Involve children in meal preparation. This does take a bit more time, but the long-term investment is worth it. Children take pride in the work they’ve done—and they may find themselves less picky when they’ve helped make the food.
  • For young children, make the mealtime experience visual. You can do this simply in the way you arrange their food.
  • Don’t focus on foods your child doesn’t like. If you serve a food you know your child hesitates to eat, start a conversation about something completely different as a diversion. Involve the child in your stories to keep the focus off the food itself.
  • If your child is a fast eater, keeping them involved in conversation can help them understand that they are still valued at the meal even when the food is finished. A family meal, after all, is about far more than food.


I don’t usually suggest that you read an academic paper, but the one I read in preparation for today’s post is just fascinating because it reviews studies on family mealtime then goes on to make recommendations for public policy based on the irrefutable benefits. If you need to be convinced how very important it is to start sharing mealtimes with your children while they are young, read this article.

To read similar conclusions in a more popular format, see TIME Magazine.

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