Too much sugar?
Sugar makes food sweet, but dieticians say Americans consume too much, increasing their risk of diabetes, obesity and tooth decay. Despite warnings from health professionals and a pile of research documenting the hazards of added sugar, getting out from under its influence could seem daunting. Sugar seems to be in nearly everything, added to foods most people would not expect, such as crackers, condiments and tomato sauce.
Eagle River mother Viola Krumanaker decided to get educated and make informed choices. She saw tiredness, weight gain and a lack of energy in her boys Cody, 17, and Adin, 14. In the summer of 2012, she started to cut back on added sugars in her family’s diet.
“Part of it was just seeing the scale go up and up,” she said. “I started to look at where I, as the mom, could make changes for the family and I started looking at labels more closely and was pretty shocked at just how much sugar is in everything.”
Her first target was cereal.
“It was something my boys would eat anytime of the day, including late at night,” she said. “It was horrible for them and of course, they were eating far more than the suggested serving size. I just told them, ‘I am not buying it anymore. I am not bringing it in the house. It isn’t coming through the door anymore.’”
Krumanaker said her sons didn’t believe her at first. But she remained committed.
When she took the amount of sugar in each serving and multiplied that by how many servings her boys consumed at each setting, Krumanaker said she felt shocked by the total.
She banned boxed cereal and opted for oatmeal instead – the kind that requires stove-top cooking. Viola didn’t allow her boys to add sugar. Instead, they added whole fruit such as blueberries, raspberries and bananas.
For Adin, it was a difficult adjustment. Back then, he ate a box of cereal a day, he said.
Viola’s next step was eliminating bread. This is where the restrictions became difficult for Cody.
“I would easily eat a loaf of bread a day,” he said. “I was whining a lot at first.”
That stopped within a few weeks when Cody noticed his previous problem with getting to sleep at night was gone.
Adin also noticed health improvements.
“Now I am able to get up earlier in the morning and not feel fuzzy. I am able to keep up with my friends and be more energetic,” Adin said. “It used to be that when I would go with them to play football or run around playing tag or playing dodge ball at church, I had to take breaks and sit down while they had fun. Not anymore.”
Trouble arrived in sugar-removal paradise at the Krumanaker household when soda was axed. Cody and Adin both said it was “pretty tough” to forgo soda, despite knowing how much sugar it contains.
Drinking soda is a social activity among teenagers, the boys said. It’s regularly served at their events, such as gaming parties, birthday parties and youth group get-togethers.
“I was addicted to it,” Cody said. “I drank it any chance I had.”
But not now – especially after taking a closer look at labelling.
“I looked at the label on this one drink I really liked, and saw that just the one can was actually three servings,” he said. “It was way too much sugar. That was very disappointing.”
Jeff Brand, an Eagle River pediatrician, preaches the removal of soda from children’s diet.
“The real problem with soda and fruit juices is the added sugar,” he said. “The direct link drinking these have with obesity is well-documented. If you look at the label of any soda, you most likely will find high-fructose corn syrup as one of its top ingredients. It is the worst form of sugar out there.”
Brand said cutting out soda and fruit juice is an easy, yet effective, way to reduce added dietary sugars.
Reading nutrition labels is another step Brand supports. He said he knows it can be confusing, and recommends a simple screening: If sugar is the second or third ingredient listed, don’t buy it.
Brand said he is encouraged by statistics from the Centers of Disease Control.
In 2007, roughly 20 percent of Alaska’s children were overweight. In 2011, that number dropped to 16 percent.
Bradford Allen, an Eagle River dentist, also counsels the removal of soda and fruit juices from children’s diets.
Juice in a toddler’s sippy cup is a big no-no, he said.
The sugar in the juice sits on the child’s teeth as saliva in the mouth converts the sugar into an acid that attacks vulnerable tooth enamel, he said.
“It truly is a bacterial infection in the mouth.”
Rates of tooth decay in small children went up in the early 2000s, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control.
The CDC’s largest study on tooth decay to date found that cavities in children ages two to five increased from 24 to 28 percent between the periods 1988-1994 and 1999-2004.
Early intervention is the key to eliminating cavities, Allen said.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends taking a child for his or her first dental visit at the appearance of a first tooth, or no later than the first birthday.
SKIP THE GUILT
Considering the health impacts excessive sugar brings, its removal easily triggers emotions of guilt, said local health guru Kristi Brown.
Brown owns KPB Balanced Wellness in Eagle River and teaches a class on identifying and removing added sugars from one’s diet.
“Food is not just this outside entity that we consume,” Brown said. “It is very emotional, cultural and social. We often end up feeling very guilty about the choices we make. But if we can remove the guilt, make conscious choices about what we are eating, if we can be okay with sitting down for a meal and really enjoy food that nourishes us, we can stop feeling so guilty.”
Viola Krumanaker said switching to healthier foods has brought her family closer together.
Now that the family’s cooking routine involves whole foods instead of processed foods, they enjoy preparing their meals together and eating the results of their collective efforts, Krumanaker said. They spend more time together and support each other emotionally in their quest to avoid added sugars.
“I remember one shopping trip with Cody and Adin that I really wanted to buy frozen fudge bars because my sweet tooth just really wanted them,” Krumanaker said. “But they are just full of sugar and the boys kept nagging me to put them back. They were my support system to avoid that added sugar that day.”