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Routing Out Sugar

What we don’t know can hurt us. We know soda is “bad” for us and our kids. But what about those foods touted as “healthy”? So many parents think giving their kids yogurt and juice is giving them “healthy” food.

I’m going to share a story that breaks my heart, about a child very close to me. This beautiful 5-year-old girl has false teeth. Seriously. She didn’t fall down and go boom, either.

Like perhaps hundreds of thousands of parents, the parents of this child thought juice was a healthy beverage. Meal after meal, glass after glass, she had juice. And, yes, she had juice in her bottle when her parents put her to bed. Her parents love her. They just had no idea they were giving her too much sugar.

What happened to water? When we fill our kids’ sippy cups, we should fill them with water. What they really need is hydration, not a sugary treat. And my tirade isn’t just about juice. It’s about snacks, meals and all kinds of foods.

In my house, juice is out of the question. As are sugared drinks (think Kool-Aid and the like). We have water and milk. And not chocolate or strawberry milk. Milk as Mother Nature intended. And yes, I get pushback from a 6- and 9-year-old who are used to having flavored milks.

But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing; if you want to serve chocolate milk, there are better alternatives. Ovaltine mixed into skim milk is a much better option than premixed chocolate milk from the store.

So many foods have hidden sugars. Think about those yogurts that are designed for lunchboxes and kids on the go. They are filled with sugar! Some of it is added, but much of it is from the milk and the added flavors. A tube of kid-beloved yogurt has 13 grams of carbohydrates and 10 grams (two teaspoons) of sugar. Plus, it has very little protein, which is what kids really need.

I’m not throwing yogurt under the bus. Heck, I eat a container of Greek yogurt every day. But I eat plain yogurt and stir in my own fruit, and it has twice the protein of traditional yogurts, which equals staying power as a snack. Plus, the thicker, strained product is lower in sodium, carbs and sugars.

Cereal is another place where sugars turn what can and should be a healthier option into a “treat” with as much sugar as a candy bar. And it’s not just the chocolate or brightly colored cereals. As adults, we need to read labels. If a cereal has more than five grams (about one teaspoon) of sugar per serving, we should buy a different type.

In fact, in my house, when the kids ask for ketchup, I tell them they’re asking for sugar. The basic recipe for most ketchups is one-third sugar. And kids like to eat it by the quarter cup, not the teaspoon. Same with tomato sauce. Sugar.

Corn syrup is a cheap thickener and balances the acidity in the sauce. So pizza sauce, prepared jarred spaghetti sauce and the Chef Boyardee brand of mushy pasta in a can weighs in at 10 grams (two teaspoons) of sugar per serving.

There are healthier choices: All of the major food producers make reduced-sugar brands. They are worth seeking out.

Let me show you how it all adds up. Recent studies from the American Heart Association recommend women have no more than six teaspoons of sugar a day, and men no more than nine. Sounds like a lot to work with, but when you think a single soda contains eight to 10 teaspoons of sugar, you can see the danger. Obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and even cancer have been linked to blood-glucose levels. As the adults, we must seek out these potential disease-causing land mines in our children’s diets.

Preschoolers consume fewer calories than adults, approximately 1,200 to 1,400 calories a day. So their sugar consumption shouldn’t be more four teaspoons of added sugar a day. Preteens and teens shouldn’t have more than eight teaspoons a day. And yet an AHA study indicates children ages 1 to 3 are already consuming 12 teaspoons of sugar a day.

But hold onto your hat. Four- to 8-year-olds are eating and drinking 21 teaspoons a day! And it’s much worse by the time they hit high school, when that number skyrockets to 34 teaspoons of added sugar a day.

Our kids are addicted to sugar. No, they’re not dipping into the sugar bowl, they’re getting all those extra teaspoons in their foods. So, yes, I call my TV show The Sweet Life, not because I’m pushing sugary foods, but for the opposite reason: Changing recipes and paying attention to the hidden sugars in your diet can make your whole life a little bit sweeter and healthier.

So I challenge us all to start with breakfast. Instead of pouring a bowl of sugary cereal and topping it with milk (more sugar), or toast and jam, or a toaster tart, let’s make a batch of good, old-fashioned oatmeal. Not the type that comes premixed with sugar in an instant package, but the kind you cook yourself.

Yes, oatmeal is a carb (sugar), but it’s also a whole grain. Add fresh fruit (think: blueberries), cinnamon and, for a bit of sweetness, a little stevia (a sugar-free, natural alternative). I also put almonds or walnuts in my bowl because I like the crunch and the extra protein. Because oatmeal has both soluble and insoluble fiber, it helps maintain blood-sugar control by slowing our digestion. Plus, slowly digesting foods make us feel fuller longer! That’s why oatmeal graces my breakfast table most mornings.

Click to view recipe.

Chris Xaver, Ph.D., is a local TV and radio personality with three children and five grandchildren. Her healthy lifestyle show, The Sweet Life, is airing on public television stations nationwide.

Photo above: Chris Xaver photo


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