My husband and I are advice-seekers when it comes to decisions about how to raise our daughter. Should we regiment her nap cycle? Use time-outs? Grant a weekly allowance? Reading parenting books and hearing about the experiences of other parents help sway our choices one way or another.
There are a few parental decisions, however, that required no books, consultations, or deep discussions. These are the choices one or both of us knew in our gut were right for June, even if it meant going against what most other families were doing.
Sugar Free Plan
The decision to raise our daughter sugar-free falls into this second type of decision making. (My definition of sugar-free means avoidance of sweet treats with added sugars, including brown sugar, honey, and syrups.) If, during my pregnancy, you asked if I were going to raise our child sugar-free, my confidence in my answer would be the same as if you asked if I were going to enforce regular tooth-brushing. Of course! I simply knew on an instinctual level that it was the right choice for our family. No hand-wringing or second guessing; it felt obvious.
Although the sugar-free plan was my initiative, Jake trusted my instincts and supported me in this decision. I’ve always struggled with sugar cravings, and wanted to give my daughter the possibility of a life without those cravings.
No sugar exposure meant she wouldn’t have the memories to crave it. I liked the thought that the sweet of fruit would be the only sweet sensation in her brain. Beyond this simple reasoning, I really didn’t brain it out too much in the beginning.
But like most intuitive choices, I knew my certainty about our sugar strategy wasn’t just a response to only one thing, like my own sugar struggles. This gut choice came out of a network of personal experiences and exposures that had accumulated by the time of my pregnancy.
Sweets in Moderation
I sometimes think about why I didn’t choose the sweets-in-moderation approach. After all, I know individuals and families that manage to balance sweets and healthy foods quite nicely.
My mother-in-law exemplifies the moderate sweets choice beautifully. While she has a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, she also keeps a bar of Belgian chocolate on hand for infrequent guilt-free treats. She will make and enjoy a homemade dessert on special occasions, like Christmas or a birthday. My mother-in-law savors her very modest sweet treats, and doesn’t have problems with excess.
I have friends and know of families who execute the moderation approach with grace and common sense. In an ideal scenario, moderation teaches kids how to handle sweets, so they learn to be satisfied with small amounts. And most of the nutrition advice I’ve encountered is in agreement: as long as a child has enough fruits and vegetables, sweets are perfectly okay for the body in limited amounts.
But despite this good reasoning and role models, I also saw some red flags with the moderation approach to sweets.
Recommended Sugar Levels
The sugar restrictions recommended by national health organizations really drives home how few calories there are to expend on sweets.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that kids ages 2-18 should take in no more than 6 tsp of sugar daily. (1 tsp = 4 grams) Other organizations that pool the knowledge of nutrition scientists, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the World Health Organization are all now in agreement with this limit.
It’s so much easier for June to stay under the daily limit if sweet treats with sugar are eliminated. If you’ve ever done a quick analysis of your child’s daily sugar intake, you know how easy it is to sail over these targets.
If June experiences these recommended low levels as a kid, it will be a lot easier for her as an adult to maintain these healthy limits. By all research accounts, keeping sugar levels at or below these targets as a child will reduce her risk of later lifestyle diseases, like cancer or heart disease.
Sugar on the Rise
My growing awareness of how food companies use sugar to attract our taste buds also played a role in my decision-making. In the past 20 years, food companies and restaurants have been increasingly adding sugars to all types of foods. Pasta sauces, salad dressings, sandwich breads, cereals, and condiments are just a few examples of foods with sometimes astonishing levels of hidden sugars. Even without including desserts, it would be very easy for June to accumulate a lot of daily sugars.
Naturally, the food industry has no sense of responsibility about the health implications of making all our food taste so sweet. It was eye-opening for me to learn of the research and applied brain science food companies use to figure out the optimal sweetness levels to keep us wanting more. Don’t mess with my daughter’s brain!
The Science of Addiction
Probably the biggest influence on our no-sugar policy has been my evolving understanding about the potentially addictive properties of sugar. I knew from my own experience how powerful sugar cravings can be, but researching the topic helped me understand the science behind my cravings.
I read about the MRI studies that show how the brain lights up similarly when given sugar or illicit drugs, like cocaine. (More info here.) Although sugar may not affect the brain as powerfully as drugs, the science on sugar cravings is notable. Unlike fat or salt, sugar has been shown in animal studies to cause a withdrawal response in the brain when taken away.
I began to think of sugar like a controlled substance. I wondered what level of sugar intake won’t lead to cravings. Until I felt more confident about this answer, I worried about sugar’s ability to upset June’s brain circuitry. Would having a little sweets just lead her brain to want more like it does in me? Research shows that for some people it does, and some it doesn’t- partly genetics, partly other factors. The research into sugar and addiction is in its infancy. Not having a clear enough path on just how to moderate sweets made me proceed with caution.
Another influencer is the regular media features about obesity and disease. Over 30% of kids are overweight or obese, and this increases to almost 70% for adults. It looks like June has a greater chance of being overweight as an adult than not. Obesity is a major risk factor for diseases such as strokes and cancer, and studies show that up to 1/2 of all deaths may be preventable through lifestyle changes, like diet.
There are multiple culprits for the obesity epidemic in the U.S., but nutrition experts seem to agree that sugar’s addictive qualities and contributions to emotional eating can play a role in weight gain.
While I firmly believe good habits can also be formed by including limited sweets in the diet, I knew the moderation approach would be a lot easier for our family if we had a society that was also moderate. If our current American culture approached sweets like my mother-in-law, June would have good role models all around her and moderation would be the norm.
But it seems to me that society has come to equate “special treats” with “everyday treats”. Birthday parties, sports parties, neighborhood parties, school parties, and local festivals are just some of the regular opportunities we have to “sweet treat” ourselves. And then there’s the holidays we celebrate with special sweets: Halloween, Easter, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day. Everywhere I turned there were treats to make whatever event or occasion seem exciting and “special”.
I also saw food companies taking advantage of our sugar weaknesses in their advertising campaigns: indulge yourself, don’t hold back, you deserve it! There are thousands of researchers and advertisers out there working to break down our self-restraint.
While my husband and I may be able to keep sweets to a minimum at home, it would be a challenge to make clear boundaries if we had to pick and choose from all the societal temptations available outside the home. “No sugar treats” is the solid brick wall of a boundary that helps our family define limits.
Happy Guinea Pig
These are some of the experiences and influences that led me to feel confident in taking the leap to raise our daughter without sugar.
So far the sugar-free childhood I imagined for June back in my pregnancy has gone better than I expected. My fears about June feeling deprived or left out have not come to pass. Partly that’s due to having a supportive community of friends and family, but it’s also because we’ve come up with our own special healthy treats. June loves to come up with her own all-fruit versions of sweet treats. She celebrates birthdays, Halloween, and other special occasions with just as much anticipation as any other kid.
June takes quiet pride in her healthy eater status, and receives positive feedback from extended family and friends. She’s bought into our consistent family teachings about nutrition and is solidly on board. Most importantly for building lasting lifestyle habits, June has a true excitement about her own healthy treats and fun food.
Sugar Free Kids
“Sugar-free kids” is clearly not a lifestyle choice that works for most families. I fully respect the experiences and influences that have led all parents to their own family food choices. I wrote this post because parents have expressed a genuine curiosity in June’s sugar-free upbringing. There is also a parental minority out there who have expressed to me a serious interest in this approach.
Our sugar-free approach is part of an overall healthy eating plan. Other food habits, such as timing of meals and snacking habits have also contributed to June’s healthy palate. Without the sugar-free policy, however, I’m certain we wouldn’t be as successful in getting June to appreciate and be satisfied with such a wide variety of nutritious foods.