Sugar is an Addictive Substance: Learn How to Manage

I was just telling a friend the other day about how I used to put up pictures of gross, rotten teeth in the bathrooms of my kids (when they were little!) so that they would realize how important it is to brush their teeth.  I was really tired of nagging, and fortunately, this tactic worked.

The visual sense can be very powerful.

I will put a picture below of an example set of gross teeth.  I downloaded this image from my plan from Shutterstock.  It grossed out my assistant who didn't want to use it as the featured image for this post.  (I get it).  I will put the photo at the bottom of the post.

But I want to make a point that sugar is addictive.  The image to the left demonstrates the “vicious cycle' of eating sugar, which raises your blood sugar levels, which creates a subsequent drop in blood sugar levels (due to insulin levels), which creates hunger cravings, which can lead to more sugar (and carb) consumption.

And on and on.

Now, I am not judging! I love my sweet treats too. It is just the constant, daily consumption of sugar that I want to address. I will cover what the different types of sugar are, what foods have sugar, and what strategies we can use to moderate our sugar intake.

How much sugar is too much? The average U.S. child consumes around 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day, and the average U.S teen consumes nearly 34 teaspoons.  Yes….34 teaspoons!  I had to measure this out and take a picture of it so you could see how shocking this visual can be:

Can too much of a good thing be bad? 

Unfortunately, when it comes to added sugars (found in candy, cookies, cake, and sugary drinks), the answer is YES.  Children that consume large amounts of added sugar are at risk for conditions such as:
Tooth decay* throughout their lives
Obesity and complications associated with it such as heart disease
Type 2 diabetes and complications associated with it such as vision and blood circulation problems
A Suppressed immune system can mean more colds and flu
Poor growth due to too little vitamin and mineral intake.

* I sometimes do experiments with kids in school where we will have one tooth in a water solution and another tooth in a cola solution.  See the bottom of this post for the VISUALS for the teeth.

What are the different types of sugar?

There are 3 basic types of sugar:

Sucrose = Table sugar

Lactose = Milk sugar


Fructose = Fruit and Vegetable Sugar


As you can see, not all sugar is unhealthy!   For kids, I think the most important message about types of sugars is that they start thinking about the difference between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar.  It is the added sugar that we really want to limit.  And we do this by reading labels. Let’s look at the Nutrition Facts for a Snickers Bar:

So you can see that there are 29 grams of sugar in this candy bar.  What does this mean to a child?  I like to get kids thinking in terms of teaspoons of sugar, which they can relate to.  Sugar cubes are also quite helpful for visual examples since they are easily portable for demonstrations.  One teaspoon of sugar is equal to 4 grams of sugar, which is typically equal to 1 cube of sugar:


So now we know that a Snickers bar has over 7 teaspoons of sugar!  (7 X 4= 28, the closest number to 29).  But how do we know if this is added sugar or naturally occurring sugar?  Well, this is where Nutrition Label reading gets tricky… food manufacturers don’t tell you if the sugars are added or naturally occurring. For example, let’s now take a look at the sugar in orange juice (100% juice).  What you’ll see below is that there are over 5 teaspoons of sugar in this orange juice—almost as much as a Snickers bar!  So you might look at a product and think that it is nearly the “same” sugar-wise as a Snickers bar:
The reality is that while this orange juice does contain a whole lot of sugar, it is not exactly the same “sugar wise” as the Snickers Bar.  The difference is that the sugar in the orange juice is naturally occurring fructose, while most of the sugar in the Snickers bar is added.  We see this from the Ingredients Lists below (sugar=sucrose and corn syrup; there will be some naturally occurring sugar from the lactose from any milk products):

Again, we want to be on the lookout for added sugars, and these can be sought out on the ingredients list by looking for words such as corn syrup, sugar cane, high fructose corn syrup,  and cane juice in addition to the word “sugar”.

A note on juice:  Following the advice of my Biochemist father, I never offered my kids juice due to the high sugar content.  I am thankful to him to this day for this advice, as my kids have avoided a lot of sugar intake by not drinking juice.  However, the 2010 Nutritional Guidelines for Americans published by the USDA does say that 1 cup of fruit juice a day is OK for kids.  So you can go ahead and offer your kids up to 1 cup of juice a day, but a smarter choice would be to dilute it with water or even better, offer the whole package… the whole fruit.

What are other foods that have sugar—and how much? 

When I teach the lesson on sugar to kids, there are always a few big surprises as we look at foods and try to guess how much sugar is in each of them. Please enjoy the visuals below (photo credits:  SugarStack.com).  By far, kids are most appalled by the amount of sugar that is contained in soft drinks.  Kids can drink in so much sugar if they are not aware!




What strategies can we use to moderate our sugar intake?

You as a parent have control over the types of foods that your children can access in the home.  So one of the best things you can do is to simply buy more healthy, fresh food and buy less “junk” food.  When you offer your kids a higher sugar treat, make sure to pair it with a protein or high fiber item that will help to regulate blood sugar levels.  Beware of drinking in too much sugar:  avoid sugary drinks and eat whole fruit instead of juice.  You can help to train your kids’ taste buds by gradually reducing sugar in recipes for baked goods and other home-made items when you can control what goes in. You can also act as a great role model for your kids as you select healthy meals and snacks for yourself and display enjoyment at eating a bowl of fresh fruit for dessert instead of a high added-sugar alternative.  Taking kids through the aisles of grocery stores with you to read labels and compare sugar amounts in various items can also empower your kids with the knowledge to make great choices.  Finally, you can demonstrate moderation by enjoying your food—and sweet treats– but not overdoing it.  I read once that after the third bite of a high-sugar, high-fat dessert (like a multi-layered cake or cream pie), your enjoyment starts to fade from its peak.  So do we really want that fourth and tenth and twentieth bite?  Maybe not.

I hope you enjoyed the exploration of these questions about sugar as much as I did.  As I said earlier, I’m not the anti-sugar police, and you can surely find me enjoying some sweet treats in moderation.  Make Nutrition Fun, right?

And now, the promised visuals on teeth: I had mentioned an experiment where we see what happens when you “bathe” a tooth in a cola solution.  Ultimately, from a process standpoint, we went with the “keep it simple!” solution of having just one tooth and putting it in a cola solution along with fruit juice.  Per my Biochemist Dad (a big thank you to him as well for some great guidance on this project), we spit in the jar first –yes, yuck!– to create an environment that was representative of a mouth.  Here are a few highlights of the experiment:

-We used a sterilized canning jar, and once the tooth and the cola/juice/spit were inside, we sealed the jar with the lid
-The tooth was a beautiful white dog’s tooth with no porous details or scratches prior to the experiment
-We covered the tooth in regular Coke and “100% apple juice” (a juice box which has ingredients of apple juice from concentrate (water, concentrated apple juice); ascorbic acid (vitamin C))
-the experiment only last ONE WEEK (yes, just seven days)
-the jar was left in the kids' classroom on the counter while the kids checked on it daily to exclaim “eewwww!” as the tooth changed color.

Here are the before and after pictures…. The lego man is there to give you a sense of scale. The combination of the sugar and the acid turned out to be, well, overwhelming.

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