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The War on Sugar Must Be Fought By Parents

07/16/2014 08:30 EDT | Updated 09/14/2014 05:59 EDT
Peter Dazeley via Getty Images

I often call my four-year-old son "sugar" as a term of endearment. But, as a parent, sugar is not very endearing.

The so-called "War on Sugar" has ramped up recently thanks to the new doc Fed Up-- exec-produced by Katie Couric and An Inconvenient Truth's Laurie David -- which, among other warnings, compares the sweetener to cocaine. But anyone with a child should have already been aware that sugar is a drug.

Give your kid a sweet and watch the sugar work its way through their little system, making them bounce off the walls before eventually crashing them back down. It's actually quite troubling to watch, but that doesn't change the reality that sugar makes things taste good. We've literally evolved to like it.

I clearly recall the joys of quaffing corner-store candies, summertime ice-cream cones, and milk-dipped Oreo cookies -- hell, I'm still a sucker for sours and gummies to this day. Nobody wants to be the parent that denies their child that pleasure.

But, at the very least, we need to be the parents who are saying "no" more often.

A recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that 25 per cent of Canadian children are overweight. And while people may argue whether or not adult obesity is a disease or a choice, there is no question that the cause of childhood obesity is parents.

It's certainly not the kids' fault, especially not when they're little, because they don't pack their own lunches, they don't buy their own groceries, and they don't make their own meals. And being overweight as a child not only sets them up to be overweight adults with all the future health issues that entails, but it also makes them vulnerable to present-day bullying.

So, how do we fix it?

First off, realize that sugar, not fat, is the primary antagonist here. In fact, the low-fat movement is part of the reason why obesity rates have increased so much, because low-fat products often ramp up the sugar content so they still taste good.

You may or may not have known that, because much of the sugar we consume is hidden in processed foods and given confusing names. (Here are 57 of them.) Even seemingly healthy food items can be big culprits --yogurt can have over 30 grams per small container, the sugar content of multigrain Cheerios is over six times higher than regular Cheerios, and many granola bars might as well be candy bars.

This is why we can't simply dismiss the war on sugar by saying, "well, we ate plenty of treats when we were kids." We did, sure, but there was alsot dramatically less sugar added to the rest of our food.

Concern over rising sugar intake has prompted Health Canada to propose changes to nutrition labels to make them easier to decipher. "Parents want to know how much sugar is being added in total to their children's cereal, for example," Health Minister Rona Ambrose said earlier this week. "Whether it's molasses or brown sugar, all types of sugars will be grouped together. This makes the label much more transparent and allows shoppers to quickly see how much added sugars are in a food, compared to other ingredients."

In March, the World Health Organization suggested that daily sugar intake should be six teaspoons for the average adult, a fraction of the 26 teaspoons per day StatsCan says the current adult consumes (which amounts to 40 kg -- or 20 bags -- a year). WHO also noted that, in 2012, more than 40 million children under five were overweight or obese, a number that will reach 70 million by 2025 unless current trends change.

This childhood obesity epidemic has sparked calls for a sugar tax, much like the "sin" taxes we already have on alcohol and tobacco. That's a great start and, in fact, Mexico has already instituted a soda tax, though the UK government is currently resisting calls for a sugar tax as one of many ways to reduce consumption (including a 40 per cent reduction of sugar by "reformulating food").

I think that by driving up the cost of added sugar, the food industry would be forced to reduce the amount it uses or risk raising prices and reducing demand. Perhaps that tax revenue could then be used to subsidize tax breaks for buying fruits and vegetables, which could conversely lower prices and increase demand. This could have a huge impact on low-income families who, when times are tough, tend to buy processed foods with added sugar because they're cheaper and more convenient than fresh produce and meat. However, calls for a sugar tax in Canada have been made for years to no effect.

But we're parents -- we don't need to wait for government action because we already control our children's food intake.

I'm not arguing that we need to eliminate treats -- just that they're only treats if you don't have them all the time. In our house, we simply don't have juice in the fridge -- it's as bad as pop, sugar-wise -- but instead offer actual fruit, as the fibre makes it vastly more nutritious. Instead of chocolate milk, we have unsweetened chocolate almond milk.

Speaking of chocolate milk, we should also be encouraging our children's schools to stop serving it altogether. In the U.S. a full 70 per cent of milk consumed in schools is flavoured but milk already has plenty of naturally occurring sugar so there's no need for more to be added -- and there's certainly no need for it to be in schools. Let it be an occasional treat at home.

Keep processed foods to a minimum, make fast food a rarity, and read labels to see how much sugar has been added. Cut desserts down to once or twice a week instead of daily, and make your own cookies so you can control the sugar amount. (Mind you, only cut the sugar in the recipe by 30 per cent, not in half, as that will negatively affect the cookie.) Restrict sugary breakfast cereals, which are among the worst offenders for kids.

But there's no reason not to serve your kids ice cream on a hot summer day -- simply make it an event that involves a trip to an ice-cream shop rather than having it easily accessible in the freezer.

Of course, none of this is as easy giving your kids what they want, when they want it -- unless you've done this since day one, the whines and meltdowns of a tiny sugar addict will be coming your way. But nobody said parenting is easy. Once your children are older, they can take control over their own diet. But while their weight is your responsibility, you owe it to them to be responsible.

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