An Un-Sugar-Coated Study

A new, rigorous study, financed by the National Institutes of Health and published recently in the journal Obesity, addressed the question of whether health problems in overweight children who consume large amounts of sugar result from the calories in the sugar or some other factor particular to sugar itself.

The researchers removed foods with added sugar from a group of children’s diets and replaced them with other types of carbohydrates so that the subjects’ weight and overall calorie intake remained roughly the same. In a mere 10 days, obese children who cut back on their sugar intake saw improvements in their blood pressure, cholesterol readings and other markers of health.

The fact that the children in the study showed dramatic improvements despite losing little or no weight, adds to the argument that all calories are not created equal. It suggests that consuming too much sugar is especially likely to contribute to Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases, which are on the rise in children, according to the study’s lead author, Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the Benioff Children’s Hospital of the University of California, San Francisco.

And the idea that a child’s metabolic health can be measurably changed in less than two weeks without any change in calorie intake or weight is itself surprising and significant.

In February, the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended that Americans limit their intake of added sugars — the syrups that food companies put in their products, not the sugar that occurs naturally in fruit — to no more than 10 percent of daily calories. The new study of overweight children lowered sugar intake to that percentage.

The FDA has proposed that nutrition labels include the amount of added sugars in products and the percentage they represent of the recommended part of calorie intake.  (The Sugar Association, a trade group, predictably, is opposing any such move.)

Although the new study was limited to children who were considered at particularly high risk of diabetes and related disorders, exhibiting symptoms of hypertension, high blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol and excess body fat around the waist, it isn’t unreasonable to extrapolate from the results that even healthy children who regularly consume excess sugar are courting health problems.

That is significant for all Americans — but perhaps, for our community in particular.

Where our children rank on the scale of other groups in terms of excess sugar consumption is not known. But it’s likely that many, if not most, of our youngsters consume more sugar than they need, and therefore, likely, more than is healthy.

The time-honored “reward system” used by parents and rebbeim and moros for children’s good behavior and academic accomplishments often entails “goodies” that are high in added sugars.  Special treats on Shabbosos and Yamim Tovim are also often sugar-laden. “Candymen” are vigilantly stationed in shuls. “Nosh,” in some homes, is practically a food group unto itself.

Some of the hardest habits to change are eating habits, yet we are admonished by the Torah to guard our health and the health of those whose welfare is entrusted to us. It would be responsible for parents to determine whether their children are consuming overly high amounts of sugar, and to adjust their diets if necessary.

After many years of research, the FDA has concluded that artificial sweeteners are harmless, although there is insufficient data to prove whether or not they pose any particular problems for a child’s diet. And so, whether candies, cookies and soft drinks made with non-sugar sweeteners are a healthier option is a personal decision to be made in consultation with a qualified doctor.

But many families, even those worried only about tooth decay, have discovered that some healthy foods, and certainly foods that are not overly sugary, can also be special treats.  Schools would do well to examine their policies about food-rewards, and — this will be a hard one — candymen should be asked to establish some shul-wide standard that will allow parents who want their children to eat less sugar to feel confident that their own family dietary choices are not being undermined by well-intentioned but less informed people in shul.

In the wake of the recent study’s publication, Dr. Sonia Caprio, a pediatric endocrinologist and professor of pediatrics at Yale Medical School, said, “This is an important area of research that might solve some of the metabolic issues that we are facing in children, particularly in adolescents.  This study needs to be taken seriously.”

It does, indeed.