Sugar's Hidden Dangers
With October here, your kids are probably looking forward to a deluge of tasty treats. And while candy and cookies might be alright in moderation, mounting evidence suggests that high sustained sugar consumption is the number-one culprit behind childhood obesity, type II diabetes and other metabolic disorders. In fact, recent studies even suggest that the sweet stuff may contribute to the development and growth of cancer cells. No matter how you choose to celebrate this year's October festivities, you may want to seriously consider cutting back on your family's year-round sugar intake.
What is it that makes sugar so harmful? Part of the problem is its addictive nature. It's notoriously hard for both children and adults to cut the sweets, and there's more to the issue than habit and willpower. Dr. Eric Stice, a neuroscientist at Oregon Research Institute, has used MRI scanners to study sugar's effects on the brain's pleasure and reward centers. It turns out that sweet foods activate the release of dopamine—the same feel-good hormone responsible for the effects of alcohol. This is why it's so hard to convince your kids—or yourself—to limit consumption to the occasional treat.
More importantly, sugar's been directly linked to a host of childhood metabolic diseases. Dr. Larry McCleary, a former neurosurgeon at Denver Children's Hospital, says that it's “the perfect storm of components for production of the biggest threats to health we are experiencing.” Glucose, one half of the sugar molecule, rapidly raises the blood sugar. This leads to chronically-elevated insulin levels, which in turn can cause obesity, hypertension and even diabetes.
The other half of the sugar molecule is fructose—the same stuff that's in corn syrup and almost every packaged treat you'll find on grocery store shelves. Don't be fooled by “natural” sweets either, as the cane sugar they contain has just as much fructose as high fructose corn syrup. The small amounts found in fruits and veggies are certainly okay, but large doses have been shown to cause insulin resistance and high cholesterol—even in kids.
Even if your children are fit and healthy, regular sugar consumption can also contribute to behavioral problems. Ever wonder why they're bouncing off the walls after dessert? Dr. Mary Ann Block, an expert in ADHD, says that large amounts of sugar can cause reactive hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. This results in a rush of adrenaline, which can cause hyperactivity, irritability and poor concentration. Block even says that she's seen misdiagnoses of attention-deficit disorders in kids who consumed too much sugar. In some of these cases, “a simple change of diet will correct the problem and no psychiatric drugs or labels are needed.”
So, does this mean you need to strip every ounce of sugar from your kids' diets? Kansas City-based dietician Amy Sullivan doesn't think so. “Sugar gets a bad rap for a good reason,” she says. “But it also has a positive side.” It occurs naturally, tastes good and is found in most foods at parties and celebrations. Complete restriction makes kids feel deprived and left out, and it may lead them to overindulge when you're not around. It's not the occasional treat that's the problem; it's the constant consumption so common in the Western diet.
Instead, Sullivan recommends that families cut their intakes by avoiding soft drinks, candy and other high-sugar foods outside of special occasions. However, it's just as important to check labels for maltose, sucrose, cane juice and other not-so-obvious forms of sugar. These ingredients are often found where you'd least expect them, even in savory items like breads and sauces.
David LaMartina is a Kansas City-based freelance writer specializing in health and nutrition.