Early last month, my little boy Luke came to me and said, “Mom, I want to eat really healthy. I want to go a whole week without sugar.” Spoken from the mouth of someone who sadly inherited a sweet tooth from yours truly, I was taken aback. Moreover, I couldn’t let him venture into a no-sugar week without joining him.

A few days later, on Monday, February 11, we kicked off the experiment, having completely forgotten that Valentine’s Day was during that week. (Luke is still holding a grudge about that one). Without further ado, he are a few things we both learned.

Reading food labels is educational. Luke and I spent a fair bit of time shopping to prepare for our no sugar-week. It was educational for both of us to examine the labels of foods we did and didn’t buy to discover how many foods contain sugar. Though our family doesn’t buy a lot of processed or prepared foods, we frequently eat cereal for breakfast, sandwiches at lunch and bagels at snack-time. We only found two sugarless cereals – Cheerios and Shredded Wheat — and nary a single plain bagel without sugar. (so Luke declared, “I don’t care. I’m eating bagels.”)

We are surrounded by a world of sugar. Continuing with my point above, it was eye-opening not only to see how many foods contained sugar, but also how much sugar foods contain. In a New York Times article adapted from Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss reveals how food scientists have deliberately bumped up the sugar (and salt) content of foods so they are more addictive. For example, he pointed out that a half-cup of Prego Traditional spaghetti sauce contains the equivalent of more than two teaspoons of sugar, as much as two-plus Oreo cookies. Lunchables Maxed Out contains nine grams of saturated fat and 13 teaspoons of sugar. And I haven’t even broached the topic of soft drinks yet.

Soft drinks cause more harm than kids understand. According to Dr. Robert Lustig, author of Fat Chance, “The food industry continues to add more sugar to processed foods because they know they can. And they know that when they do, we will eat more. Soft drinks account for one third of all the sugar consumed.”

We don’t buy soda at the grocery store, but we do allow Luke to get root beer or sprite at restaurants on occasion as a treat. During our no-sugar week, he ordered a soda at dinner without even recognizing this might “count” as an offender! My observation is that children don’t recognize that soda, juice or lemonade contain lots of unhealthy sugar; they only know the drinks taste good. Is it better to allow such drinks in moderation or never let them taste the forbidden fruit in the first place? I’m not sure I know the answer to that one.

Desserts are a hard habit to break, at least for Luke. I had an easier time with it. And sadly, I know I have myself to blame for Luke’s addiction to eating them. I have used desserts as part of an award system, telling him him countless times, “If you eat all your dinner, you can have dessert.” In our family,  this system works very well. He eats almost anything I put in front of him without complaint, even spinach, Brussel sprouts and tofu! However, I realize how I have entrenched this sweet pattern in his daily habits, and it’s a challenging one to break.

A sugar-free breakfast is no easy task. What worse way to start the day than by loading up on sugar (and no protein)? This is an easy task to do with all the sugar-laden cereals on the market. In Stacey Antine’s wonderful book, Appetite for Life, she recommends a game called “Let’s Play Cereal Detective.” In a  nutshell, children read the nutrition facts labels on the cereals in the cupboard and examine how much sugar they contain. Given that one teaspoon equals four grams of sugar, children can calculate the number of teaspoons of sugar in one serving of cereal. If they literally scoop out the sugar into an empty bowl, this will drive home the unhealthy cereal message quite visibly.

I’m the first to admit that breakfast can be a tough meal to enjoy sugar-free. While eggs are wonderful, you may not want to load up on cholesterol every day (not to mention, if served with toast, muffins or bagels, you’ll likely be eating some sugar anyway). Oatmeal is bland without a sweetener, too. This is  when a natural, no-calorie sweetener comes in handy.

Sugar alternatives may or may not be advantageous. We tried Shredded Wheat cereal with bananas and stevia – and it was a hit! We haven’t gone back to the sugary stuff since our no-sugar week. And for those of you who haven’t tried stevia, it’s an all-natural sweetener that contains no calories and is hundreds of times sweeter than cane sugar. Stevia comes from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant and is now produced by manufacturers under a variety of brand names, such as Truvia and Sweetleaf. The USDA has deemed the purified product safe in moderate amounts.

Artificial sweeteners, such as saccharin or aspartame, may not be quite as satisfying. Though the taste profile may pass the family taste bud inspection, there may  be other side effects which aren’t so pleasing. According to a recent Dr. Oz show, artificial sweeteners may cause diarrhea, bloating, stomach cramps, and gas. Like all good things in life, if used in moderation, the benefits could offset the drawbacks, though.

Cutting out helps cut back. While Luke only lasted five days on his no-sugar regime, with a few minor slips (including the brownies served in Math class one day), cutting out sugar helped open our eyes to how much sugar we were eating without even thinking. It helped us both realize how much sugar exists in foods which are highly popular among kids (e.g., lunchables, go-gurt). It has tweaked our eating habits so that we now eat a lot less sugar than we did before our little experiment.

You might want to give it a try. What will you learn? 

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