To treat or not to treat? How much sugar is too much? We face these questions many times a day, yet many of us do so without the benefit of a compass to guide us.
In honour of Hallowe’en, I challenged myself to write down my sugar policy, along with the reasoning behind it.
While this may feel overly formal, this type of exercise can be extremely valuable, especially for those who feel a disconnect between the diet they want to consume, and the one they actually consume. A clear framework anchors us, and shifts us away from impulsive decisions that we may regret. It can also help minimize harassment from your kids!
At the core of my approach to sugar is a clear set of priorities. I seek to place long-term healthy habits front and center, while allowing for tasty and socially meaningful treats. I have the same priorities for myself and my kids, which makes it natural for us to follow the same sugar policy.
Here are the five pillars of my sugar policy:
*** Prioritize daily habits.***
Habits are everything. The foods and drinks that we consume daily, or several times a week, matter a lot more than those on special occasions.
I am vigilant about the nutritional value of the foods and drinks that we consume regularly (more than once a week) but have a more relaxed bar for health on special occasions – including our weekly “treat day” when all health bets are off.
Hallowe’en, for example, definitely qualifies as a “special occasion”. Last year, I shifted from allowing a mere handful of candies to “have fun” for my bigger boy. To my surprise, the world didn’t implode… though his stomach almost did!
The hitch to this “daily” vs “special occasion” distinction is setting a reasonably high bar for what constitutes a “special occasion” – if every week is full of “special occasions” like soccer games, bookclubs, and happy hours, the lines between daily habits and special occasions can quickly blur.
*** Know your sugar sources and eat accordingly.***
The way a sugar is “packaged”, and the dose, matter a lot more to your health than the type of sugar (ie. brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, agave). This makes sense biologically – these sweeteners are all made of the same two sugar molecules (glucose and fructose) in variable proportions.
- Green light: Whole fruits and veggies. Load up every day!
- Yellow light: Foods made with added sugars. Enjoy in moderation.
- Red light: Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). Indulge on special occasions.
Before grabbing a sweetened beverage, read the label. A single SSBs can blow my daily sugar benchmark out of the water.
*Note: I do not give a pass to drinks sweetened with organic or “natural” sugars. It’s all glucose and fructose!
***Use added sugars wisely.***
I obsess far more about filling myself, and my kids, with nutrient-rich foods than whether or not we hit zero sugar.
Thus, I take a cue from Mary Poppins: A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down! Whether I’m shopping for granola, snack bars, or baking at home, I strive to see how little added sweetener I can use to get as much good stuff as possible. If a sugary food is nutritionally bereft, it lives in my “special occasion” category.
***Know your limits.***
I aim for under 24 grams of added sugars per day (6 teaspoons or sugar packets), per international recommendations. I use this as a benchmark against which to compare potential store-bought foods, rather than a black-and-white cutoff.
We all respond differently to sweets, both mentally and biologically. Some people seem not to suffer health-wise lots of sugar. Others don’t do well with even small amounts (e.g intense cravings for more).
Last but not least, regardless of which type of sugar you are consuming, brush your teeth often and well!
Is it working?
As far as I can tell, yes. My kids are healthy, growing, and full of energy. I can only claim the first item on this list! Many chronic diseases take years to surface, but I feel confident that we are on a good trajectory, with the odds in our favour.
My kids occasionally lament the fact that our family is stricter about sweets than others, but this is rare. In general, their diet is what it is. An adorable upside of keeping super sweets to special occasions is that my kids get super excited about treats. My favourite response is the spontaneous dance of joy that the twins have been known to perform when treats are on the horizon.