By Susan Rubin, DMD
As a dentist fresh out of school in the late 1980’s, I was idealistic and passionate about my new profession. I gave lots of “tooth talks” at schools and childcare centers every February, during Children’s Dental Health month. It wasn’t until I started having kids of my own that I learned the truth about sugar: it damages more than just your teeth.
My wake up call came when my first daughter was 7. She arrived home bouncing off the walls, happy and proud to have earned four Skittles in a spelling bee. I also found fruit roll-up wrappers in her back pack. Apparently in addition to the teachers rewarding kids with candy, this sticky string was being sold in the cafeteria.
The more I looked into what was happening in the cafeteria and the classroom, the more shocked I was. Our school was swimming in sugar. While most teachers and parents could tell themselves that this was okay in moderation, somehow it never really sat right with me. I saw the damage with my own eyes every day as I drilled, filled and billed.
I wondered why anyone would let their kid have a series of sugar hits throughout the day. Despite anesthesia and laughing gas, having a cavity drilled and filled is no fun if you’re a child or an adult. The irony is that tooth decay is completely preventable.
At the end of 1999, I put down my dental drill and went back to school to study integrative nutrition and Chinese herbal medicine. I became a full time school food advocate and holistic nutritionist. In my new line of work, just like in dentistry, I deal with the damage done by refined sugar every day.
My education taught me that sugar doesn’t just rot your teeth and widen your waistline. Contrary to what the food industry likes to tell us, sugar is not just an empty calorie. Sugar is a serious anti-nutrient that creates a host of problems that extend beyond obesity and tooth decay. Let me just name a few:
Cardio-vascular disease: refined sugar consumption raises triglyceride levels, creates an inflammatory situation that promotes heart disease.
Refined sugar depletes minerals and vitamins B and C, resulting in lowered immunity, weaker bones.
Sugar impacts behavior
C. Keith Conners, author of Feeding the Brain, showed that children given a sugar rich breakfast became restless and hyperactive. All you really need to do is ask any teacher or parent, they have lots of first hand experience with this fact.
Sugar can be addictive. Serge Ahmed, PhD, a scientist who specializes in addiction research, clearly demonstrates that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward. His cocaine-addicted laboratory rats consistently chose sugar over cocaine (Lenoir, M., Serre, F., Cantin L. & Ahmed, S.H., 2007).
Cathleen DesMaisons,PhD, author of Potatoes Not Prozac and Little Sugar Addicts makes the case that up to 50% of the population is “sugar sensitive”, a nice way of saying addicted. According to Dr. DesMaisons, people who are sugar sensitive respond to sugar, white flour products and alcohol in a completely different way than regular or non-sugar sensitive folks. The biochemistry of a sugar sensitive person is unbalanced, leading to a whole host of problems and setting them up for sugar addiction, alcoholism, depression, obesity and more. I’ve seen this scenario myself in 10 years of private practice.
Juice is another sugar hit that impacts children’s health in a negative way. In my past life as a dentist, I worked to convince my local pediatricians not to start toddlers on juice. I saw loads of damaged teeth due to sippy cups and juice boxes. More recently, pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustic MD gave a presentation on the health impacts of fructose found in HFCS and in fruit juice (Sugar: The Bitter Truth.)
Juice has been part of WIC and the National School Lunch Program since the Nixon Administration. I would like to see the USDA reconsider the inclusion of juice in these programs when they re-evaluate the Food Pyramid. Perhaps they should invite Dr. Lustig to testify. Unfortunately major juice manufacturers such as Tropicana (owned by Pepsi) and Minute Maid (Coca-Cola) have lots of clout and will work hard to make sure that it won’t happen.
Despite all the attention on school food reform in the past years, our kids continue to ingest hazardous amounts of sugar in schools. Some school districts pat themselves on the back because they sell Vitamin Water instead of Coca-Cola. Welch’s Fruit Chews may have replaced Fruit Roll Ups in some schools. These are, in my opinion, examples of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
No doubt, your local dentist is busier than ever, drilling, filling and billing. Sports drinks are even more cariogenic than soda. "Healthy” granola bars are another great indirect revenue source for your dentist. In some areas of the country, Mountain Dew remains in school fairs and fundraisers. Mountain Dew is notorious to us dentists. Physicians in Maine are being trained how to extract teeth because there are not enough dentists to deal with the growing cases of "Mountain Dew mouth."
Chocolate milk and “flavored” milks are another source of refined sugar in schools. I was happy to see Jamie Oliver blast the flavored milks in his last episode of "Food Revolution." Sadly, it will take more than his outrage on TV to get those sugar sweetened beverages out of schools.
After more than a decade of school food advocacy, I’m well aware of how entrenched sugar is in schools. Perhaps it's time to take another approach. After all, schools are supposed to be teaching our kids. How about we raise the Food IQ about sugar? Not just in health class where most schools teach the Food Pyramid. Let’s put sugar education into the basic four: Math, English, Social Studies and Science.
Math: Here’s an elementary level math problem:
Calculate the number of teaspoons in 20 oz. bottles of Nestle’s Qwik , Coca-Cola and Minute Maid Lemonade .
First you’ve got to consider serving size: 20 oz. is 2.5 servings.
Next you’ve got to turn grams into teaspoons: 4 gm = 1 teaspoon.
Once you’re done with the math calculations, take some white sugar, count out those spoonfuls and fill up empty 20 oz. bottles.
Bonus: Calculate the number of teaspooons of sugar in a school year’s worth of chocolate milk.
English: Chew on This,by Eric Schlosser, and Omnivore's Dilemma (Young Reader’s Edition), by Michael Pollan, are two great books for young readers.
Older readers could check out a classic book, Sugar Blues by Willian Dufty.
Social Studies: Sugar has a colorful history. Studying sugar and the slave trade would be a good place to start.
Older students could read Seeds of Change: Six Plants that Transformed Mankind, which has a great segment on sugar.
Science: Learn about how sugar is made from sugarcane It takes 17 feet of sugarcane to make 1 cup of sugar. What happens to the nutrients in the process?
Learn about tooth decay. Do some experiments using soda, sports drinks and other liquids. Watch how fast baby teeth dissolve!
Once teachers and students start to learn more about refined sugar, this will help to pave the way for its reduction in school food.
Dr. Susan Rubin is a school food advocate, holistic nutritionist, and retired dentist. She is the founder of Better School Food. Her work was featured in the movie, Two Angry Moms.
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