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Childhood obesity on the rise

It seems as though everywhere I turn lately, the media is covering another story on childhood obesity. We are in a crisis and our kids are getting fatter. One third of our children are overweight or obese; diabetes is on the rise; and for the first time in history, our kids are not expected to outlive their parents.

Many experts believe that this obesity is due to the large quantities of sugars that our children are consuming. After reviewing such data, three months ago the Board of Health for New York City passed a rule banning sales of big sodas and other sugary drinks that are larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, concession stands and eateries.  They came to the conclusion that jumbo sizes of sugary drinks equated to more ill health. And there are also now talks on taxing junk foods. This is a good initiative and Canadian health officials may follow suit, yet really we need to look in our fridges and cupboards at home. Sugars are often hidden in our daily foods in everything from ketchup and salad dressings to pretzels and breads.  The problem is that these sugars add up daily.

But there is hope. We can help remedy this crisis if we target the sugar that we give to our children. To keep track of their sugar consumption, take a peek at the food labels.  Any word ending in ‘ose’ is a sugar. Examples are dextrose, glucose, maltose, sucrose etc. Make a point to read the labels on food; 4 g of sugar is equivalent to approximately 1 tsp of white sugar. For example, a 591 mL bottle of soda contains around 65 g of sugar, which equals about 16 tsp. Adding up sugar consumed in one day from drinks alone can be a real eye-opener. Sugarstacks.com is a site that illustrates this point. It contains pictures of boxed foods and drink items with their corresponding sugar cube content. This visual is great for the children to see – although it can be shocking for parents!

Sugars can be either refined or unrefined, with varying levels of processing. Refined sugars have gone through many processes, which strip away most of the nutrients, rendering them ‘empty calories’. Examples include white and brown sugar, corn syrup and agave just to name a few. Moderately refined sugars such as sucanat and coconut palm sugar maintain some nutrients, while raw honey and maple syrup are considered the least processed, and therefore contain more enzymes, vitamins and minerals than refined sugar. The fact remains that sugar is still sugar, and although minimally refined is a better choice, it should still be consumed in moderation. Less is always best.

I used to buy unsweetened juice tetras for my children’s lunches, but not anymore – they contain way too much sugar. On average, a 200mL tetra of unsweetened apple juice contains about 6 tsp of sugar. Pop contains about 6 tsp for 250 mL.  Sugar-wise there is not much difference. Chocolate milk such as Nesquik is no better, containing 7.5 tsp per 240 mL. Limiting or avoiding pops, sugary drinks and juice tetras is an easy place to start reducing sugar from the diet. Fresh fruit is a great alternative to juices, providing enzymes, vitamins, minerals and fibre which helps to balance blood sugar levels and create satiety. Sending kids to school with a reusable water bottle saves money and encourages water instead of sugary drinks.

The choice is ours. We know our kids are eating too much sugar – the evidence is clear. We have the power to change it. As parents and consumers we buy the groceries and we feed our children. By monitoring the sugar content in foods we are empowered to improve their well-being.

Look for my future columns where I will touch on much debated topics related to the health and nutrition industry.

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