Experience Exchange

Sickening Sweet

Steffany Moonaz, Ph.D.

Most people are aware that obesity is a major problem in the developed world, especially in the US, and our awareness of it has not managed to slow the trend. iThe diseases that are associated with obesity are also growing in prevalence, and beginning earlier in life. Type II diabetes was once called “late-onset” because it was almost non-existent prior to middle-age. This condition is now becoming a pediatric disease.

In order to lose weight, many people turn to sugar substitutes, which are calorie-free and still offer the sweet taste of sugar- a guilt-free indulgence. And for those with diabetes, sugar-free alternatives are necessary to regulate blood sugar. Scientists are now discovering, however, that it is not a solution to the obesity epidemic and that these sweeteners are also associated with diabetes!

 In a normal individual, the pancreas makes insulin in response to sugar intake, and blood sugar levels return to normal. For people with type II diabetes, the intake of sugar creates a spike in blood sugar and the pancreas is unable to adjust the blood sugar to normal levels. For those who are at-risk for diabetes, regular consumption of high levels of carbohydrate can “wear out” the system and cause it to function improperly. But when sugar substitutes are consumed, the brain still expects an increase in blood sugar, and sends a message to the pancreas to respond. This creates a low blood sugar and the body seeks out alternative sources of calories to bring levels back to normal. In this way, the consumption of sugar substitutes does not decrease overall calorie consumption, nor does it alleviate the strain on the pancreas.

 That is not to say that all sweeteners are bad, simply that they must be consumed knowledgeably, consciously, and ideally, moderately. But that is very challenging in a society where sugar is a way of life.

Children love sweets. They are hard-wired to consume sweet foods. In nature, sweet foods are often accompanied by loads of vitamins, minerals and fiber (ie. fresh fruit). And as individuals mature, they begin to expand their preferences to include a broader range of flavors, such as the bitterness of green vegetables or the spice of hot peppers. However, when the food supply is loaded with sweetness, palates fail to mature, and even fresh fruit is not sweet enough. Not only children, but mature adults require added sweeteners for foods to be palatable.

The good news is that food preferences can be intentionally changed. Research has shown that a low-salt diet will shift food preference so that salty foods become less desirable. In other words, people begin to appreciate more subtle flavors without the need for flavor enhancers, such as salt and sugar.

One approach is to gradually decrease the added sweetener in foods and beverages. This can be done by diluting fruit juices with water or sparkling water, cutting back on sweeteners in coffee or tea, and buying breakfast cereals with fewer grams of sugar per serving. When using sweeteners sparingly, try to choose those with some nutritional value (i.e. agave syrup, honey, or maple syrup) instead of refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or artificial alternatives. Foods like applesauce, peanut butter and even sliced bread often have sugar added, but unsweetened versions are also available. Moving from added sweeteners to naturally sweet foods is a way to increase nutrition while still satisfying a desire for sweet foods. Fresh fruits and even some vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes) taste very sweet once reliance on added sugars is decreased.

I have specifically been asked by parents about how to transition their children from a diet of highly refined processed foods to a more natural, wholesome diet. Obviously, the easiest approach (though it takes commitment and diligence) is to start a more natural whole foods diet during pregnancy. Science shows that the neonate experiences flavors from the mother’s diet even prior to birth, which influence food preference later in life. Additionally, breast milk flavor differs depending on the mother’s diet. This has an evolutionary explanation, because it prepares infants for the diet in their culture and region. The problem arises when the diet in the mother’s culture and region is setting the course for chronic disease!

After infancy, children continue to develop food preference based on exposure and familiarity. It often takes multiple exposures for a child to accept a new food, but modeling (eating such foods in front of the child on a regular basis) will also encourage liking. I recommend reducing exposure to unhealthy foods (in the kitchen, television commercials, etc) while increasing exposure to naturally sweet foods. Parents should be advised, however, that added sweeteners can be found in the most unexpected products. Learn the names for all types of sweeteners and read the labels of every product you purchase.

This takes time and patience, and is more difficult for older children who are influenced by many factors outside of the home. The good news is that parents are still the primary influence over their children, and the home is the place where healthy eating is most likely to take place, even if eating habits differ among peers.

Decreasing added dietary sweetness for both adults and children is a monumental task. It is the responsibility of individuals and parents, but it is made more challenging when the food supply is highly processed and sweetened. Making healthy choices isn’t easy, but the payoff is huge and we serve as role models for a generation who is now positioned to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. I have once heard it said that we vote with our dollars and we vote with our forks. Supporting companies that offer low-sugar, whole grain products is one way to encourage a shift in the food supply. Support local farmer’s markets and sellers of fresh produce to support the farmers who grow foods we need to live. Let policy makers know that families and communities want better choices for our own health and that of our children.




[Steffay Moonaz PhD – received her PhD in public health from Johns Hopkins University with a focus on health behavior and complementary and alternative medicine research. She is a Certified Movement Analyst and Registered Yoga Therapist with advanced training in the relationship between physical movement and psycho-emotional wellbeing. Dr. Moonaz earned a master’s degree of Fine Arts from the University of Maryland in 2003, and founded a local dance company, with an emphasis on the role of embodiment in everyday life. She has worked with people from all backgrounds to foster greater wellness and has received numerous awards for her work as a researcher and writer on the benefits of lifestyle change to promote a better quality of life. ]

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