The Sweet Life: Sugar in the Age of Youth

by Catie Pazandak

With school cycling back around, the busy days and holidays will soon find their way into our homes once again. If you are like most in this country, you know what these kinds of days bring. Along with fun, laughter and family gatherings comes another guest, who has had quite an over-extended invitation; SUGAR (not to mention the other S word.. STRESS).

When we look at the ingredients in packaged food (even organics) being sold, one of the common denominators is sugar, in all it’s natural sweetener forms including honey, brown sugar, maple syrup, agave, brown rice syrup, corn syrup... even fruit juices... yep, all of them. Unless you cook most of your own food (something many of us attempt to do for many different reasons), you will likely be taking in more sugar than you are aware of. Unfortunately, this is over the top of the more obvious sugar you choose to ingest or allow your children to eat. I am not demonizing these foods, for they each have their place in moderation at varying levels for different individuals. However, in order to understand the full impacts of sugar on our children, we must take them all into account.


The issue of sugar and children is an imposing one, with many different topics of importance. We can talk about the immense impacts of sugar on the immune system; on learning, attention span and school. We can talk about weight gain and its evil twin obesity and the huge role sugar plays in this. We can talk about the skyrocketing epidemic of childhood Type II Diabetes and what this means for our country, let alone the individual children set up for a lifetime of incredible health challenges. But most importantly, we can talk about some simple ways to replace sugar in the diet with satisfying alternatives that kids truly love!

The good news is that reversing (or avoiding altogether) these challenging childhood conditions is simple. I say simple rather than easy because in the context of life in this highly industrialized food system, we are constantly being bombarded by sugar, along with many other unhealthy ingredients. To make change in such a climate requires diligence, dedication and a willingness to learn some very important facts, techniques and tips for lessening the sugar load and improving the nutrient load.

Some Facts on Sugar

We once lived in a time where the taste of sweet was quite different, some might say scarce. Before the cultivation of grains, meat was the sweet food of the time. Fruits and wild vegetable plants had significantly less sweetness, and were nutritionally more dense than today's. The co-evolution of humans and plants has selected for sweetness, along with many other wonderful characteristics. In active, more robust times; stumbling upon a high caloric feast of honey may have given us the needed energy to get through a harsh winter or migration. There is little now that a sweet can do to save our lives, unless we find ourselves in extreme circumstances, with little else to eat. Our metabolic regulation and primary source of energy was a bit different, to say the least.

It has not taken us too long to discover that sugar is addictive; some have claimed that its addictive qualities are greater than cocaine. We are rewarded by a rush of the neurotransmitter dopamine when we ingest sugar, particularly in the average quantities we eat in the modern world. The ‘reward’ feeling that we receive makes it extremely challenging for most to significantly decrease such a treat, let alone quit it altogether (no small feat for anyone). But this constant release of dopamine does tend to decrease as we keep the stream of sugar flowing, eventually causing mood and learning imbalances such as depression and ADHD symptoms in some people. Once we break this pattern, that addiction can free itself and bring along many improved health benefits.


Immune System Impacts

Just as we approach the holidays, Halloween ushers in a shift in the weather and we find ourselves more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections, particularly of the respiratory system. Our immune system is bombarded with daily life in our modern world, from stress to environmental toxins, food allergens to multiple, chronic vitamin and mineral deficiencies. One thing we are not deficient in is sugar, and our indulgence in it is one of the main culprits for immune system depression. Studies have found that 100 grams of sugar (a significant amount, but not terribly out of the question for holiday binges or those 2 sodas a day), depresses the immune system by up to 40% for at least 5 hours. Lesser amounts also leave us more vulnerable to the normal and ever present bacteria and viruses circulating. Vitamins, minerals and herbs do wonders for keeping the immune system working as best as it can.

The Weight of Obesity

What are the keys to keeping our young ones healthy and fit? Most of us tend to say exercise and a healthy diet, but somehow, a healthy diet too often allows that surplus of sugar to sneak in through the back door. Perhaps it’s that daily lemonade or fake flavored juice, or worse, a soda; maybe the bowl of ice cream or piece of pie before bed. Withholding such common beverages and treats may make us feel guilty or strange, as if we are depriving our loved ones of the ‘good things’ in life.  But, when we look at how quickly sugar packs the pounds on a much less active generation of youth, we can begin to see how we may be doing a great disservice to the ones we love most. It is important to note, that some youth are simply more susceptible to the negative effects of a high sugar diet.

Obesity is the gateway to insulin resistance (diabetes) and causes a loss of vitamins and minerals, hormonal imbalances, immune system depression and much more. One of the big hits to our immune system that occurs with obesity is the dramatic decrease of available vitamin D in the body. When shifts in the hormonal as well many other systems in the body occur, the body begins to store vitamin D in fat, locked away and inaccessible for use. Extensive research has revealed the critical role vitamin D plays in the immune system (particularly with the respiratory system), cancer prevention and so much more. Unfortunately (and fortunately) the answer here is not just to pop another pill (though vitamin D supplementation is likely recommended for most). The answer is to prevent children from gaining excess weight so they may retain the use of vitamin D, along with many other essential vitamins and minerals. And the best, easiest, and fastest way to do this is to take the sugar load off. Daily play (fun exercise) works wonders, too and is just as important!

Insulin Resistance (Type II Diabetes)

We are currently at epidemic rates of diabetes in this country, both within the adult population and the young. Type II Diabetes had been known as adult onset diabetes in the past; this is no longer the case as our children are being diagnosed with type II diabetes at younger and younger ages. As we have moved farther and farther away from home cooked, nutrient dense meals and dramatically increased sugar intake, while leading more sedentary lives poised in front of screens, the onset and sharp rise in childhood diabetes has hit our population pool with a thud.

Diabetes (insulin resistance) is a metabolic or hormonal imbalance that occurs when our cells no longer respond to insulin. Insulin is responsible for shuttling glucose, vitamins and minerals into the cells for fuel to keep doing the miraculous work they do. This irresponsiveness happens when the blood glucose levels remain at such a high level that the constant outpouring of insulin bombards overwhelmed cells and eventually shuts their responsiveness to insulin (and thus nutrients) down.

Why would our blood glucose levels remain so high? Sugar, sugar ...ah honey. Sure, there are many vitamin, mineral and omega 3 fatty acid deficiencies that play a huge role in this scenario as well, but the head of the dinner table here is sugar, including those starchy carbohydrates many of us love. Again, some individuals are much more prone to this disease than others.

There are several diagnostic indicators for determining whether someone has diabetes. Body Mass Index (BMI) is used as is waist circumference, fasting blood sugar levels, triglyceride and HDL/LDL levels. If there is a history of insulin resistance in the family or if your child is overweight or consumes moderate to large amounts of sugar, it may be wise to have him or her checked for early signs of this very serious disease. A visit to your doctor, nutritionist or another health care professional would be wise. You may see wonders begin to happen once you start to eliminate the high sugar options in your child’s diet.


Dental Health

There is a direct correlation with tooth decay and sugar intake. However, this is not the whole story. Forms of sugar make a difference. Carbonated beverages such as power drinks and sodas are acidic. It is these acids, whether produced by bacteria or such acidic drinks, that causes tooth decay. Candy (especially sticky candy) lodges itself into the tiny crevices on the tooth surface and serves as a feast for bacteria. It is not bacteria itself that causes tooth decay, rather the acids they produce after being fed sugars. Other macro and micro nutrient deficiencies and mouth care weigh in significantly as well. It could be wise to brush before eating or drinking anything containing sugars (including juices) or starchy carbohydrates. The reasoning behind this is that sugar sticks to plaque on the teeth, which then feeds bacteria which produce the decaying acids. Once the plaque is brushed off well, the sugars have much less of a chance to stick.

Shocked by a rising epidemic of rampant tooth decay and changing bone structure in the face, Weston A. Price, a dentist of the 1930s, traveled the world to find a group of people with perfect teeth and bone structure (in other words, no tooth decay). His research results were amazing for the time and still have much to teach us.  In short, I will simply say that a diet high in omega 3s, small amounts of unrefined grains or starchy carbohydrates, nutrient dense foods and little to no sugar were pivotal. The further the diet migrated towards a modern world diet full of refined flours and sugars, the more intense the tooth decay and bone structure abnormalities. The groups of people existing solely on their traditional foods had no tooth decay, virtually across the board.

A Few Tips

The World Health Organization recently advised individuals not to consume more than 5% of total caloric intake in sugar, which equates roughly to about 6 teaspoons of sugar (24 grams) for an adult of normal BMI. For most of us, this is quite the challenge. Perhaps you are ready to take on that challenge right now. For many of us however, that may be too big a leap. Baby steps are often the key to success. Set goals with your family and perhaps designate a reward for when the goal is attained.

Perhaps you and your family can have a look at where most sugar in your diet is coming from. Maybe it is breakfast. Maybe it is in beverages or maybe it is in the more obvious sweet treats such as cakes, pastries and candies. Choose one area and start there. It will make a difference in overall health and mood, especially as we enter this high sugar time of year. Here are a few tips for a few areas of highest sugar consumption.

Breakfast: aim to eat as little sugar with this meal as possible. This might mean substituting either cereals or sweetened yogurt with higher protein and ‘good fat’ foods such as eggs, meat or avocado. Not only will this help better set the metabolism (i.e. blood sugar regulation) for the day, but it will also help growing brains learn much better. Pre-make hard boiled eggs the night before. You might even accompany it with a little left over vegetable or quick cooking greens. A half (or whole) avocado with some protein can go a long way for satiation, energy and focused learning.

Beverages: these usually contain much more sugar than folks realize; an 8 oz glass of orange (even carrot and beet) juice can contains up to 22 grams of sugar because juices contain a concentration of the natural sugars. Whole fruits or vegetables do not spike a normal person’s blood sugar like the juice does due to the important fiber content.

Herbal teas with lots of flavor go a long way with kids. Tangy, slightly sweet hibiscus can be used to flavor almost any herbal tea and kids love it. Most kids love peppermint or spearmint too. Teas can also work in your favor when you don’t think you can handle another sugar high. Catnip, Lemon Balm, and Chamomile make some of the best teas for kids and can help them glide into a more peaceful, calm state (great for a sleepy time preparation and nervous system support!).


Packaged Foods: when buying packaged, pre-made foods, select the labels for the least amount of sugar per serving; sugar is one of the most common ingredients in packaged foods of all kinds.

Sweets: Baking with healthy sugar substitutes is a great way to drop the sugar intake during the holidays. And, thank goodness for google. You can find a recipe for anything you can imagine. Applesauce, pineapple, fruit purees, dates, coconut and the smallest amount of honey can do the trick for most baked goods we love. A few other low to no glycemic index alternatives are Manzanita berry ‘sugar’ (finely ground Manzanita berries), and monk fruit (available at HAALo).

Halloween: there are some great options for lightening the trick or treat bag. Some parents have used the Switch Witch, who swaps candy left on the doorstep for non-food items. Perhaps limit the number of pieces of candy to just a few per day. The Halloween Candy Buy Back buys candy from kids and sends it to troops overseas, promoting a good feeling for kids, plus a little extra pocket change for a good deed. See this website for a few participating dentists in the Sacramento area.

Along with herbal, vitamin and mineral support (especially vitamins D3, C, E, zinc, omega 3s) during this often stressful, sugary season, any amount of sugar you are able to sneak out of your children’s daily diet will be helpful, not only for their immune system, metabolism, mood and learning, but for your well being too. As we all know, when they are healthy, happy and relaxed, so are we.

Catie-Pazandak-HAALoCatie Pazandak is a nutritionist and clinical herbalist at HAALo who focuses on digestive wellness, food allergies and many acute and chronic conditions. She can be reached directly at 530-615-6606.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Fall issue of Parents' Resource Guide magazine.

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