Did you know that for most people who become addicted to sugar, it begins during childhood?
Experts in the field of sugar addiction, like Bitten Jonsson, believe that sugar is actually the “gateway drug” that ignites addiction in our brain. The Gateway Hypothesis suggests the use of some drugs (i.e., gateway drugs) increases the subsequent risk of using other drugs [1, 2].
Therefore, becoming addicted to sugar as a child puts us at an increased risk for using other drugs (alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, heroine etc.) in the future.
An interview with Eric Clapton further supports this concept, where he clearly states that his addiction didn’t start with drugs and alcohol, it actually started at the age of 5 or 6 when he reached for sugar because it changed the way that he felt.
It’s important to understand that addiction is a primary disease, meaning that, based upon current understanding, there’s nothing we do that causes addiction, nor is there anything we can do to erase addiction once it’s awakened. We are either born with it, or we aren’t. It’s simply a matter of time before it surfaces. Does this mean we, and our sugar addicted children are doomed?
While we can’t turn back time, we can halt the progression of the disease. Similar to putting cancer into remission, we can put sugar addiction into remission by removing the “drug foods”, a.k.a sugar, from the diet.
Now, it’s important to note that sugar addiction doesn’t discriminate in terms of body size; underweight, normal weight and overweight people can all be addicted to sugar. So just because a child looks to be of normal size, it doesn’t mean that they are immune to the deleterious consequences of sugar.
In addition to this, according the Dr. Robert Lustig, it’s not the fat [on the body] that we can see (i.e. subcutaneous fat, giving us a round tummy or a big butt), it’s the fat that we can’t see, that is, the fat that accumulates around the liver and other organs puts us at the highest risk of worsened health outcomes.
So as the old saying goes, “there’s more to what meets the eye”.
And, because of the progressive nature of diseases like addiction, metabolic related diseases (i.e. diabetes, fatty liver disease, kidney disease, obesity, cardiovascular disease) are often a consequence of the sugar consumption that comes with addiction to sugar. To emphasize my point above, all of these consequences, other than obesity, can occur in people who are not overweight.
However, I would be remiss to not discuss the fact that childhood obesity has become a global crisis, and that sugar consumption plays a huge role in this. In the US, 19.3% or 14.4 million children and adolescents are obese.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that childhood obesity is influenced by “eating high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages, medication use and sleep routines. Not getting enough physical activity and spending too much time on sedentary activities such as watching television or other screen devices can lead to weight gain” . While they don’t go into detail regarding what high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages are, we do know that processed foods are high in sugar, high in calories and low in nutrients. We also know that “sugared beverages are clearly linked to behavioural problems in children, irritability in preschoolers and the violent behaviour in middle-schoolers” .
The CDC recommends that children under 2 should not be given any added sugars at all . Yay! Finally, some dietary guidelines I can get behind!
Unfortunately, after the age of 2, the guidelines change to state that added sugars should remain less than 12 teaspoons . Wow. That’s quite a jump. The American Heart Association is a little more conservative, with recommendations of no more than 6 teaspoons a day .
SO, we know that sugar is directly related to metabolic disease. Whether it’s 6 or 12 teaspoons of sugar a day, it’s a lot! The fact that these authoritative bodies suggest that there’s a “safe” amount of sugar that children can consume, should raise some eyebrows. Especially considering breakfast cereals, which are all basically sugar, are touted as healthy breakfast choices by the American Heart Association, and are most often marketed towards children.
*Note, once carbs are processed, such as when grains are altered into breakfast cereal, they are not much different from table sugar in the sense of how our bodies metabolize them. Read: eating breakfast cereal is analogous to mainlining sugar. So, even though that breakfast cereal may only say it has 2 grams of added sugar, it’s the total number of carbs that really matters.
With this information, I think it’s safe to conclude that allowing our children to consume sugar, whether they are underweight, normal weight or overweight, is detrimental to their physical and mental wellbeing. Whether they become addicted to sugar or not, there really is no “safe” amount of sugar that children should consume.
Now, I understand that once our children are old enough to start making decisions about what they eat, or when they enter situations where a parent’s watchful eye may not be possible, (attending daycare, school, or eating a meal at a friend’s house) it’s unrealistic to think they will never be exposed to sugar.
So, what can we do?
I believe the best thing we can do for our children is to focus on real, whole, unprocessed foods at home. Foods that don’t come with a label, because they only contain one ingredient, and therefore don’t need one. Meat. Fish. Eggs. Vegetables. Butter. Foods that you find at the perimeter of the grocery stores.
If this sounds like a challenge, and you can already hear the protests, then I would like to gently remind you that you are the parent. Now that you know better, it’s up to you to do better. In addition to this, small, incremental changes in the right direction can have a profound impact. You don’t have to make the switch all in one day. But you do have to start somewhere.
So, if you’re a parent, or have some control over the foods that the children in your life eat, I ask that you start today by taking one small step in reducing the sugar intake.
Yours, and your children’s health depends on it.
If you’d like to learn more, please refer to the book Metabolical, written by Robert H. Lustig, MD, MSL.
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