When asked to speak for a group of third and fourth graders about making "healthy choices," I picked the topic that most children have in common ... sugar! I began our discussion with one simple question.
"If your parents came into the room and saw you eating out of the sugar bowl, what would they say?"
One young man stated it best. "Are you crazy? Put that spoon down!"
"Why would your parents say that?" I asked.
Another little girl could barely contain herself. Waving her hand furiously she blurted out, "Because all that sugar is bad for you!"
Out of the mouths of babes. When I talk to children, teens or adults, they all inherently know that too much sugar is indeed bad for us. When we get down to specific food items that are "bad for us," the obvious choices are listed: donuts, cakes, candy, syrup, jelly. In actuality, many of the processed foods and beverages we consume every day are affecting our health. These are the same foods that, through clever marketing and packaging, make us feel good about our choices, convincing us that by offering them to our families, we're actually contributing to their happiness and wellbeing.
Where does our sweet tooth begin? For some, it could be from infancy. Take a look at infant formula and note the amount of sugar, or even the absence of sugar listed. In 2013, a concerned grandmother from Chicago wondered why her granddaughter had gained four pounds in one month after the infant was switched from breast milk to formula. Curious as to whether added sugar could be contributing to this, Nancy Brecj called the formula maker and was told that the company didn't add sugar to their baby formulas.
Since 'corn syrup' was the first ingredient on the formula's label, she wondered why the amount of sugar wasn't listed. She contacted NBC Chicago and they took her questions to Deibel Laboratories where their scientists conducted a sugar profile on seven popular brands. Three brands tested low for any sugar while other brands had sugar content including lactose and sucrose. One formula had roughly the equivalent of one teaspoon of sugar in every five ounces!
To the grandmother's question about why sugar wasn't listed on the formula label: because the Food and Drug Administration did not require makers to list sugar amounts. According to the FDA, an estimated 1 million infants in the U.S. are fed formula from birth. By the time they are three months old, about 2.7 million toddlers still receive part of their nutrition from formula.
Could the argument be made that some children are conditioned from infancy to crave sugar? The answer depends on whom you ask.
In the past 30 years, Americans have consumed more and more added sugars in the foods they eat and the beverages they drink. Is it any wonder why we have seen obesity become an epidemic in our country? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third or 78.6 million adults are obese. For children and teens aged 2-19 years, about 17 percent of them are considered obese. This is a serious issue since obesity can lead to heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain kinds of cancer ... all causes of a preventable death!
At one of our recent community events, I was chatting with a mother and daughter who came together for the free heart health screening. At first glance, I assumed the daughter -- who probably didn't weigh more than 100 pounds -- was there for moral support. As I talked with her mother, I learned that this 19 year-old woman, who appeared to be fairly healthy, was the reason why they came. The mom's numbers were great ... the daughter's results were their concern.
The young woman had a total cholesterol of 202, which according to her, was down from several months back. She was understandably frustrated because she couldn't understand why this was the case. We talked for a few minutes about her family history and then about her diet. A diet which consisted of "a lot of French fries" but, she said, "I never touch regular sodas or sweet tea, I usually drink water!"
I glanced at her mother who had "that look" on her face and I asked the young woman what else she was consuming and there it was. She was drinking fruit juices and fruit smoothies several times a day because she said "those are healthy, right?"
When we added up how much sugar she was getting each day, both mother and daughter were astonished. She was consuming easily three to four times her daily allowance of sugar! Faced with the need to reduce her sugar intake, you could see it in her face that giving up the smoothies would be a challenge.
Sadly, she isn't alone. Most adults in the U.S. consume about 22 teaspoons of added sugars a day which is way above the recommended guidelines of no more than 6 teaspoons (or 100 calories a day) of sugar for women and no more than 9 teaspoons (or 150 calories) a day for men! Most children are also getting about three times the amount of sugar they should have each day.
After viewing the movie FED UP, we knew this was a message our Foundation needed to share with our community. We provided the FED UP DVDs and classroom discussion materials to our local middle and high schools to start with our youth who are bombarded by the marketing for these products o a daily basis. This fall, we're working with the school district to launch a Project Based Learning program that will help the students apply what they've learned.
If we're going to reverse the trends from the past 30 years, the time to start is now! A good place to start is by supporting the Kickstarter Campaign to make the Fed Up School Kit available to every teacher in the U.S.!
The good news is that this is something we can fix. As we become aware of this issue and make the commitment to make "healthy choices" by reducing our sugar intake, we will see a change in our health, the health of our children and their children! Now, that's a sweet future!