Just two weeks into our month without sugar, my family is learning lessons we will use for a lifetime.
My husband and I, and by default our three children, ages 5, 3, and 8 months, are living for the month of November without any added sugar, honey, maple syrup, alcohol, or fruit juice.
Fruit, nature’s sugar, is on the menu.
Full disclosure: I did have a very special and rare dinner out with some friends. It was a set menu, so no substitutions. I ate some bread that probably did have sugar. The stew was cooked with a bit of wine (the alcohol evaporates with heat). And considering sugar is everywhere, I might have consumed some at other times in the past dozen days without even knowing it. But I’m trying. Really hard.
Even with that smidge of sugar on a Friday night, I’m seeing some big differences in three areas of my life: on the scale, with my attitude, and in my energy levels. My husband and I are both several pounds down in just two weeks. I’m on more of an even keel and am not getting “hangry” like I used to.
I have a lot of energy, too. Even on little sleep, I’m going like the Energizer Bunny.
I still think about sugar, though. When I’m stressed, I crave chocolate. When the kids keep me up much of the night, I feel like I’ve earned an almond croissant. Sugary foods have been built into our lives as something we “deserve” — a way to celebrate, a reward for a hard day, a treat for when we’re stressed.
Treats as rewards and comfort is a way most Americans often use to work though tough times.
I asked a friend of mine from Ethiopia, who has only lived here a couple of years, what she does when she’s stressed or feels like she deserves a treat. The concept was so foreign to her that I had to explain the question. She said she sleeps, cries, or prays when something is bothering her. Sure, she’ll have cake to celebrate a birthday, but it’s not ingrained into her everyday psyche to have something sweet to ease her pain.
What a concept!
Most Americans use treats as a reward and comfort to work though tough times. It’s introduced to us in childhood. Our kids have a bad day; we take them out for ice cream. They have an exceptional day; we take them out for ice cream. Tough week – let’s bake cookies.
Maybe those treats wouldn’t be a big deal, however, if sugar wasn’t in almost everything we eat.
I was visiting my youngest son at preschool the other day and the children’s so-called “healthy snack” was a Rice Krispies Treat and cocoa granola bar hybrid. He comes home smelling like maple syrup almost every day. He’s probably consuming more than his daily allotment of added sugar in the three short hours he’s at school — every single day of the week.
I called our school district’s nutrition services department and spoke with Michele Ballard, a registered dietician and Alexandria City Public School’s nutrition coordinator. She told me everything the school serves meets the USDA’s guidelines.
“School nutrition and meals have come a long way,” the nutritionist told me. “Could they be changed more? Yes, definitely.”
That sugary granola bar my son was eating when I visited is actually made specifically for schools and meets the nation’s USDA’s guidelines for whole grains. Indeed, the first ingredient on the list is whole grain oats. The second is corn syrup. The next is rice cereal, which contains sugar. The fourth ingredient is fructose, a form of added sugar. One of those healthy bars that the USDA provides has 10 grams of sugar. That’s more than half of what kids should be eating the entire day.
Everything served at the schools in our district is provided or approved by the USDA. This is how most public schools in the country can afford to serve affordable breakfasts and lunches.
Ballard told me that despite my concerns, the current menu is a huge improvement from just a few years ago before the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed in 2010. That legislation made sure the child nutrition programs met the USDA guidelines.
“Sugar is still a struggle,” Ballard said. “Just like everything else, it takes time. School nutrition and meals have come a long way. Could they be changed more? Yes, definitely.”
Ballard said the most effective way to change how our kids eat is to change the mindset of the parents. She has led nutrition classes teaching children about gardening, cooking, and how important healthy food is. She said she is a “huge proponent of education of parents because it trickles down to the students. Ultimately ,if parents don’t change, children won’t eat better.”
She added she would love to meet and talk to more parents about how to do this.
In a perfect world in which cost wasn’t an issue, I asked her: What would the school menus look like?
“Farm to school. Working with local growers on every single level. Working on scratch cooking. Making sure everything is homemade,” she said.
A Change of Course
For our family, until that happens, we’ll be packing lunches. The current USDA dietary guidelines (due to be updated this year) offer no limit on sugar intake; they merely suggest we reduce it. Until that changes, sugary snacks deemed healthy by outdated research will be served in our schools.
It’s clear that if I want my children to consume a healthy amount of sugar, I have to be diligent at home. They are likely getting their daily allotment of added sugar at snack time alone through juice and “healthy” processed foods.
My big takeaway from this week is our rewards need to come in fun activities and praise, not food. I need to teach my children about nutrition and show them that healthy food is delicious when prepared right. And, like so many other things in parenting, I need to lead the way.