If you are like most parents, a horde of kids running wild is among your memories of birthday parties and holiday celebrations. And like most people, you probably think that too much sugar played a starring role in getting those children all wired up.
The problem is, you’d be wrong. Research has been showing that a “sugar rush” does not incite out-of-control behavior. Quite the contrary, in fact. A recent meta-analysis (a review study that compiles the results of other studies) suggests that sugar is more likely to put people to sleep. These researchers found that an hour after consuming sugar, subjects began to feel tired and less alert.
The Real Villain
When it comes to getting kids revved up, many experts believe processed foods are to blame. Ultra-processed foods contain additives like food coloring and preservatives that may trigger chemical and physiological changes in children’s brains. These substances can affect how children behave, sparking mood swings.
That is not to say that sugar isn’t guilty of causing harm. It is a primary perpetrator in the so-called “obesity epidemic,” which has in turn been linked with the runaway rates of diseases like diabetes and heart disease. And sugar (along with salt and fat) is a major player in the secret sauce that food companies use to foster dependence on ultra-processed foods.
For more than half a century manufacturers have been seducing children with the joys of processed foods, using TV advertising to lead the way. Humans like sweetness and food manufacturers begin manipulating this preference from a very early age. Their goal, according to investigative journalist Michael Moss, is to make us “heavy users” of their products.
Consider Cheerios, which was introduced in 1941 and remains one of the most popular breakfast cereals in the world. An article published in the New York Times examined a spin-off product Honey Nut Cheerios, which was launched in 1979. The revamped version contains about 9 times as much sugar as the original.
The primary ingredient in the original Cheerios is whole-grain oats and compared to some ready-to-eat cereals, it’s relatively nutritious. But it also contains small amounts of refined corn starch, sugar and chemical additives. At the very least, added sugars (which your body differentiates from the natural sugars in foods) can undermine your ability to extract certain nutrients in food.
These days it’s challenging to escape sugar because it is routinely added to prepared foods like soups and sauces. It even turns up in “healthy foods” like yogurt. Food companies habituate us early, by getting us hooked on sugary cereals as kids. But their relentless pitch of sugar-enhanced foods continues throughout our lives.
People who regularly consume ultra-processed foods eventually gain excess body fat, in part because engineered foods are formulated to make you want more. Consuming too many calories and inadequate nutrients leads to a condition known as “high-calorie malnutrition,” which has been linked with obesity. Obesity is a ticking time bomb, ready and waiting to explode into a raft of chronic illnesses.
How to Break the Sugar Habit
Because ultra-processed foods are made to be addictive, eliminating them from your diet won’t be easy. It requires a strategy — especially since some are household staples. Even if you resolve to get off the fast food wagon, suddenly deciding to cook everything from scratch isn’t likely to work — it’s just too big a leap.
Zeroing in on a specific vulnerability and providing a positive alternative is a better plan. How about tossing that box of ultra-processed breakfast cereal and replacing it with a nutritious breakfast — eggs from pastured chickens, sugar-free yogurt with live cultures, or a bowl of heart-healthy oatmeal?
Starting your day off with a wholesome breakfast is easier than you might think. For instance, some nutritious whole grains (like buckwheat, quinoa and millet) take about 15 minutes to cook on the stovetop. Others, like oats, sorghum, barley or wheat berries, can be cooked overnight in a slow cooker. Overnight refrigerator oatmeal is another option: Your breakfast will be ready and waiting for you in the morning. You can add other nutritious ingredients like fresh berries, fruit slices, or nuts to suit your taste.
Psychologists tell us that is takes about two months to break a bad habit and firmly establish a good one in its place. It will take effort to make these changes but you and your family have a lot to gain.
A number of studies have specifically linked a wholesome breakfast with the ability to maintain a healthy weight, in addition to many other health benefits. And research repeatedly shows that students who eat a nutritious breakfast do better in school. Once you and your family break the sugar habit and get started along this path, you’ll be inspired to start making better food choices throughout the day.
About the Author
Judith Finlayson is the author of You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics, and the Origins of Chronic Disease. Visit her at www.judithfinlayson.com.
How to Break the Sugar Habit — Sources
Mantantzis, K. et al. Sugar Rush or Sugar Crash? A MetaAnalysis of Carbohydrate Effects on Mood. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 2019.
Hakin, D. Are Honey Nut Cheerios Healthy? New York Times. November 2017
Moss, Michael. Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.
Hall, KD. Et al Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Grain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell Metabolism 2019