The world rains sugar on my children. The bus driver offers my child bubble gum. The teachers give cupcakes at every birthday party. The school vending machine is full of junk food; so is the one at the YMCA. At camp, the counselors offer candy and an ice pop at the end of the day. Our kids are invited to birthday parties which include a cake, a candy piñata, and then a goodie bag bursting with still more more candy.
Why are people incessantly feeding my kids sugar?
Most parents want their children to be energetic, happy, and healthy. However, I see an amazing number of adults who are doing the opposite: hurting the health of their kids by offering an alarming amount of processed sugar on a regular—if not daily—basis.
It's been proven that obesity is a problem in our country; two-thirds of all Americans are overweight or obese, and one-third of all children are overweight or obese. But for some reason, most of the adults I see do not take the logical next step of changing the way they feed their children.
In my opinion, these are the major reasons why adults put this known health hazard in front of children:
1) It's tradition to bring cakes and other sweets to school to celebrate special events.
Fifty years ago, almost any business or social event would include cigarettes, often offered as a party favor. Now, most educated people would be shocked to see people smoking at an event with children in the room. Similarly, I predict that 20 years from now, we'll look back in astonishment at the amount of sugar that we unthinkingly fed our children. Tradition is not something we're locked into.
2) We only serve treats "occasionally" at "special events."
In a class of 20 kids with 20 birthdays, plus various holidays and other special events, virtually every school week includes a reason for a party. There are many other ways to celebrate, such as making a craft or doing something active. Feeding sweets to children is an example of the tragedy of the commons. Schools, synagogues, churches, party organizers, sports teams, meal hosts—all provide occasional treats to make kids happy. These accumulate into constant exposure. Ultimately, it's our children who pay the price.
3) Treats attract children and make them happy.
There is endless academic research showing that when people or children perform a task for a reward, they lose interest when that reward disappears. By giving kids candy at school, you're not teaching love of learning; you're teaching love of candy.
4) It's the parents' responsibility to train the kids to make the right food choices.
Only someone with perfectly obedient children could make this argument. We don't have any perfectly obedient children, and neither do our friends. Children are bad at understanding long-term consequences and don't have all the facts they need. We send them to school and raise them to help develop these skills.
5) It's too expensive to serve healthy food.
To quote: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." Serving kids processed sugar now is cheap, but creates very significant long-term costs in treating obesity and diabetes. I've written elsewhere on low-cost ways to create a healthy office or school environment; also see Parsely's "Startup Diet." Many parents, including me, will gladly pay a premium to feed our children real food.
6) It's too difficult to reduce the amount of sugar that we serve.
Many schools are strictly and successfully nut-free, even though nuts are dangerous to just a small number of kids. Sugar is dangerous to all kids, so why can't schools succeed in reducing sugar? Many schools that have tried to move to a healthier diet face protests from children acclimated to eating sugar with every dish at home. It's frustrating that this dilemma exists, but it shouldn't mean that we throw up our hands and do nothing. Instead, we should focus on educating children and adults about healthy habits, and incorporate whole foods steadily into school programs.
Our schools and camps are places of education. But education is not just books; education is also nutrition and healthy living. I am not advocating forcing kids to eat things they are going to hate, but merely providing them with healthy options and offering them fewer temptations.
One alternative is to order a meal kit from Plated, a company that makes it easy to prepare home-cooked meals. Additionally, if you'd like to start the healthier-eating conversation at your child's school or camp, or on her sports team, I suggest using these form letters.
It is up to us, as parents, to protect our children. If we approach the problem head-on, and introduce real foods in a natural, gradual way, sugar will loosen its damaging hold on our kids.
My Suggestions for Healthy Kids' Snacks:
Cereal without sugar
Edamame - boiled soybeans in the pod
Whole grain, low-salt snacks
Beans and Bean Dips
Cottage Cheese with Fruit Pieces
Any vegetables: Baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, avocados, etc.
Mini rice cakes—unsalted
Applesauce (natural, made from whole apples, without added sugar).
Image of candy via Shutterstock