(You can read Part 1 of this series on sweeteners, here.)
There were actually several reasons I could’ve qualified as the weird kid. It probably started with the fact that I couldn’t handle any sort of remotely scary movie, at all — so when Cujo was the flick for the night, I could be found with a Sweet Valley High book in one of the empty bedrooms. Second strike: I had the audacity of always being the first kid to fall asleep — leaving myself prey to everything from gawking (at my odd ability to sleep with my eyes partially open) to being the object of eyeliner pranks. Thankfully, no one ever put my bra in the freezer — because that would’ve really been traumatic.
And lastly, there was breakfast time.
Pancakes, everyone! With donuts for dessert!
Um, I’ll just have a bowl of cereal, thanks.
What??? Why would a 14-year old not want pancakes? What’s WRONG with you?
Oh, it’s nothing really. They just give me a headache is all.
And that’s where it my whole sugar thing started. One time in middle school I fainted, and ended up in an emergency room (it was unfortunate that this fainting spell happened at the local swimming pool), where they made me drink an orange soda, and then proceeded to prick each of my 10 fingers over the next two hours. The diagnosis: hypoglycemia.
Which really just meant that my body acted like it was supposed to act — that is, a little freaked out — when I ate too many refined sugar and carbs on an empty stomach. When a person eats sugar that is found in nature — like a piece of fruit — that sugar is buried among nutrients and fiber. So the body takes a while to process it all and convert the sugar into fuel (it helps that the whole fruit package brings with it some of the nutrients necessary to do all that processing). On the flip side, when you eat refined sugar, it’s like giving your body an overload of instant fuel. Not only that, but your body has to use up reserves of nutrients to process it since it comes empty-handed. Your blood sugar spikes, and then you crash.
But outside of ruining my 14-year old slumber-party rep, what else does a sugar crash do to your body?
For one, it instantly suppresses your immunity. The “crash” after your body’s blood sugar spikes causes your insulin to drop — and when that happens, your body is affected chemically in several ways. Hormones that help regulate immune response are depressed, and sugar molecules fight for space in cells, leaving no room for vitamin C (which is structurally similar to simple sugar). This, in turn, lowers the white blood cell count, which directly effects a cell’s ability to fend of viruses and bacteria.
Sugar consumption also contributes to an acidic pH in the blood, which is linked to weakened immunity, candida overgrowth, and degenerative disease. Is it coincidence that tons of viruses go around the schools right after Halloween? It seems easy enough to blame the colds and bugs on cooler weather, or more time indoors. But I tend to think it has a lot more to do with all that candy.
Whenever I read about all the ways sugar wreaks havoc on our health, I’m left with one thought: our bodies simply weren’t made to eat this way. One website I read used a great automobile analogy: it’s like we’re expecting our car to run on jet fuel (by the way, smarties — a car on jet fuel would not fly — the engine would burn up).
But this is how we grew up. What do we do about it now? Sure, it’s easy for me to avoid doughnuts in the morning — but am I advocating a Nazi-like approach to a war with sugar?
Not exactly. If you’ve spent anytime at all reading the recipes I post, you’ll notice there are plenty with sugar. My kids still went trick-or-treating, and we make loads of Christmas cookies every year during the holidays. So, how can we take a balanced approach?
There is unfortunately no hard-and-fast answer. I like to limit our sugar as much as possible without being so strict that I cause more emotional stress than it’s worth. To give you an idea of how we attempt to handle sweets (without implying that this is how everyone should do it), I made a list of unofficial rules. Which I’ve never even thought about until I tried to write them down:
1) Absolutely no artificial sweeteners, ever. This includes sugar-free gum (my family doesn’t chew much gum, but when my kids beg for it, they get a piece of Glee gum, every once in a while, as a treat). You can read the first post in this series to find out why I am a tyrant on this one.
2) Most often, our “dessert” is a piece of fruit. And — since fruit is relatively high in sugar, I do actually treat it as dessert or a treat for my kids. They don’t just snack on fruit all day — they don’t get to eat a handful of grapes unless they eat their vegetables and protein alongside.
3) We limit our consumption of processed foods. Yes, there are still nights when my kids eat boxed macaroni and cheese. But most everything else we eat is homemade, so I can control how much sugar is added. This makes a big difference in foods such as granola, spaghetti sauce (yes! those jars can be loaded with sugar!), and yogurt (we only eat plain whole milk yogurt — adding a little honey, applesauce, or real-fruit jam to sweeten. I learned last week at a talk by Michael Pollan that, per serving, flavored yogurt often has more sugar and calories than soda!).
4) We skip sweetened drinks (and soda is banned — the tyrant returns — from my house). My kids get unfiltered apple juice once a day — after they’ve consumed at least 8 ounces of water. And then, they get 4 oz juice mixed with an equal amount of water. I put honey in my tea in winter, and occasionally drink diluted juice.
5) When I make a birthday cake, a pie, or cookies (which I do often!) I use unrefined sugar when possible. But when not (a yellow cake isn’t a beautiful yellow without refined sugar) I use plain old white sugar. Baked treats are just that — treats. So when we get them, it’s ok if they contain more white sugar that we typically consume. The balance is that we eat those things in moderation; and when your sugar intake is limited, one cookie or piece of cake is all your body desires, so it’s easy to stop.
6) We have a “candy box.” We never buy candy, but when it’s given to the children (Halloween, or birthday party favors) it goes into the box. Every few days or so, if they eat a good meal, they get one piece (one lollipop, or one mini-candy bar). I’ll be honest here: I don’t even like this practice. But it’s my way of striking a balance, picking my battles.
All of these things might be difficult to put into practice, at one point or another. But it’s kind of like carseats: yes, it would be lovely to not have to deal with those bulky fortresses, and just stick my kids in the car. But we chose to deal with them because we believe it will keep our kids safe. I feel the same way about sugar — not only can it help build stronger immunity for them now, but it can also help them grow into young adults that are not already fighting a losing battle in addiction to sugar.
Realizing, of course, as I type this, that I’m effectively growing three kids who will be The Weird Kid At The Slumber Party. Oh, well. Maybe all that hazing wasn’t so bad after all…
Part three of this (admittedly long-winded) answers the question: Then what CAN I eat?
ADDENDUM: My husband read this post and told me he thought I (ahem) sugar-coated it. That I made it sound easier than it really is to avoid sugar. Which might be the case — often times I find myself writing more of a reality that I wish existed rather than the reality that… does… exist. If that makes sense.
He says our kids eat candy more often, more like every other day (every day during the week or two after Halloween). Which goes to show how consistency is difficult. AND, that I can hold myself up as a clear example of how we tend to think we eat less sugar than we actually do.
For what it’s worth. I know. Sugar is hard.