Healthy Sugar Mindset
Healthy Sugar Mindset
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Hello, Healthy Sugar Mindset
Sugar is at the forefront of health conversations these days. There is talk about how sugar is causing or contributing to obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. Sugar is quickly blamed for our children becoming less and less healthy. Plus, sugar seems to be in almost every processed food found at the grocery store today.
But we don’t think the answer is to simply call all sugar “bad.” We also don’t think the right answer is to have a mindset of restriction and control.
While too much sugar is linked to many negative health consequences, the issue is much more nuanced than just “giving up sugar.” Instead, we believe this is an opportunity to teach our kids how to have a healthy relationship with sugar. How? Keep reading!
Instead of labeling sugar as “bad” and leaving it at that, let’s dive a bit deeper. As the number of different sugars grows (262 and counting!), it becomes important to take a minute and explore the differences between natural sugars with minimal processing like organic maple syrup, whole fruit, raw honey and ultraprocessed sugars like low calorie sugars, high fructose corn syrup, and the rest. Some sugar contains nutrients while others alter the bacteria in your gut for the worse. The crazy thing is that not even all honey is created equal. Unfortunately, Big Food makes things “ultra” complicated for us as well.
So let’s dive in!
Join us this month to learn all about the nuances of sugar and how you can build a healthy sugar mindset for your kids and your family!
Sugar is Everywhere
Becoming aware of the sugar in our food is the first step in developing a healthy mindset around sugar and in understanding why this mindset matters.
Sugar is in many, if not most, processed foods. This includes the obvious foods like cookies, baked goods, and sweet drinks but it’s also hidden in a host of less obvious ones including: ketchup, salad dressing, barbeque sauce, spaghetti sauce, yogurt, breakfast sausages, cereals (even the healthy sounding ones), canned soups, canned baked beans, and protein bars.
Combine the fact that sugar is added to most processed foods with the fact that we’re eating more processed foods than we ever have, and it’s no wonder Americans are eating way too much sugar!
When sugar is hidden in all these different foods, you have to learn how to look for it and how to understand what you are looking at. If you aren’t making a food yourself, it’s hard to see how much sugar is actually going into it. If you hear a suggestion like: “eat less than six teaspoons of sugar per day,” you might think that’s no problem. But unless you’re cooking all your own food (and few people in America are these days), it’s difficult to judge how many teaspoons of sugar are in a sweet tea or a cookie or a can of soup.
Additionally, with over 260 different names for sugar, it can be hard to recognize the sugar you are consuming. Tricky food companies purposely add in many different types of sugar so that it isn’t the first ingredient. (Remember, ingredients are listed in order of highest to lowest content. So, the first ingredient is the ingredient that has the highest amount present in the food.) Adding in multiple forms of sugar allows sugar to be listed further down in the ingredient list, which can trick you into thinking that there isn’t as much sugar in the product.
Added Sugar vs Natural Sugar
We’ve been talking about added sugar which is different from natural sugars. Natural sugars are found in whole foods, and we don’t worry about trying to keep track of these sugars. Foods with natural sugars include plain yogurt, milk, and whole fruits and vegetables. Natural sugar generally occurs along with healthy fiber, protein, and fats all of which help slow down our body’s uptake of the sugar. So, you get the energy without that rush and crash of added sugar.
Because the fiber is broken down or strained out during juicing, we count fruit juice as an added sugar and whole fruit as a natural sugar. Eat your fruit (don’t drink it) for all the benefits of the fiber!
Added sugars are, well, ADDED during preparation and processing. There is a big range of the types of added sugars available, some contain more nutrients (like raw honey and maple syrup) and some are more highly processed and refined (like corn syrup and sugar alcohols). We talk more about these different types of sugars farther down in the article.
Even with the more natural (or less processed) forms of sugar, moderation is key. Dr. Michael Gordon of SugarProof, who is in our eyes, THE expert on sugar, gives detailed recommendations for daily added sugar intake that we use as a guide for our family. These numbers don’t need to be strictly adhered to as that can cause unnecessary stress on your and your kids’ relationship with sugar. But, these guidelines can help you visualize how much sugar is appropriate for each stage of your child’s development.
When you turn from these recommendations and look at common snack foods for kids, the contrast is striking. Kids’ snacks like yogurt, granola bars, fruit snacks, and graham crackers are all loaded with sugar. Even cereal and oatmeal packets are full of sugar, and these are the foods that many kids start their day off with at breakfast. When a serving of Pop Tarts has 27 grams of sugar, it’s easy to blast through the recommended daily limit of added sugar in just one snack.
Let’s look at a concrete example. When you break down a common school lunch box, you will find that most of the time, this one meal has exceeded the daily added sugar recommendations.
In summary, Americans are eating more prepared foods, most of which have added sugar sometimes with names that are not recognizable as sugar. That’s an easy recipe for a sugar overload! This is why it’s incredibly important to build a healthy relationship with sugar when your kids are young.
Bottom line here is that when it comes to sugar, it can be nuanced. But no need to fear, we’ve got you covered! Your homework is to start looking at how much added sugar is in common grocery store items. This can give you a rough idea of your daily sugar intake. Gold stars to those that can come close to eliminating processed foods that have added sugars.
Can’t I just say all sugar is bad and avoid it all?
One response is certainly to say, “sugar is bad” and avoid it altogether. But we don’t believe that is the best approach for several reasons:
- It’s nearly impossible to unconditionally cut out sugar, especially for kids. We aren’t around all the time to decide what our kids eat. Plus, setting up sugar as the evil villain might unintentionally encourage our kids to have an unhealthy relationship with sugar.
- You will inevitably become the “Sugar Police” in your household which might create power struggles with you and your children and be just plain exhausting for you.
- Let’s be honest, sweets are delicious and we believe they SHOULD be enjoyed in a mindful way! But the key here is defining what kind of sweets we want! Hint – it doesn’t come in a box and it IS going to require some time in the kitchen. (More to come on this below.)
So, that’s why we advocate for focusing on creating a healthy mindset around sugar in your family.
What is a healthy sugar mindset?
We believe it’s important to cultivate a healthy mindset around sugar rather than focusing on a militant attitude toward consumption itself. Yes, we do a lot of work to reduce the sugar our family eats, especially when it’s hidden in processed foods. Still, we want to empower our kids to relate to sugar in healthy ways. As parents, we are responsible for feeding our children. We are also responsible for setting them up to feed and care for themselves.
For us, a healthy sugar mindset includes:
- Being mindful about the sugar that we are eating.
- Knowing that Big Food makes things hard and baking nutrient dense desserts at home is the solution.
- Never demonizing sugar to our kids and having grace for occasional splurges.
Let’s break these points down.
Be mindful of the sugar you are eating
What does being “mindful” about sugar mean? Well, number one: it means being intentional about the sugar you bring home. In other words, only bring home what you are happy with your family eating. And number two: it means understanding the spectrum of sugars. Not all types of sugar are made equal, some have more nutrients than others.
Be intentional about the sugar you bring home
You would be hard pressed to find much of anything in our house that has added sugar. Once you get in the habit of reading labels – you will find that there is added sugar in so many processed foods BUT there are also brands popping up everyday that are making products without added sugar. A great example is ketchup. Most ketchup that you find at the store contains high fructose corn syrup, at a relatively high amount. This is completely unnecessary. First, the quality of corn syrup is poor. It is highly processed and does more harm in our bodies, in terms of promoting disease, than good. Second, tomatoes themselves have a wonderful flavor that doesn’t need to be masked by cheap sugar. Thankfully, you can find some really great ketchups at the store that DON’T have any added sugar! You need to read the nutrition label on the back to look for 0g of added sugar. Additionally, you can check the ingredients.
As we mentioned above, added sugar lurks in MANY processed foods, including salad dressing, yogurt, granola bars, cereal, fruit snacks and much more!! By not bringing these foods into your house, you will significantly cut down on your daily added sugar consumed.
If you don’t see an alternative, a great practice to get into is to make it at home instead. A good example of this is salad dressings. This is something you can whip up at home in under 2 mins and the nutritional value is far greater than anything you will find in the store.
This leads us to the next point:
The Sugar Spectrum
Food choices are nuanced. As the spectrum illustrates above, there is a range of quality in types of sugar. It is okay to eat sugars as a part of a healthy, balanced, diet, especially if you choose natural sugars that are more nutrient-dense and not as addictive as their processed counterparts. Balancing out the sugar with healthy fats and nutrient density helps.
Even though it’s still added sugar, local honey and organic maple syrup are forms of natural sugar, as they contain more nutrients. Raw honey and maple syrup contain antioxidants that help neutralize free-radical damage and keep the body healthy. These sugars, along with whole fruits, are always our first choice of added sugar. But the best form of sugar to have is always through real, whole fruit. Ripe bananas and dates are great options for adding sweetness to dessert.
The worst choices are foods with artificial low calorie sugars and processed high fructose corn syrup. We always stay clear of those! So, instead of walking through the world battling all the different types of sugar, choose the natural forms of sugar.
The best way to do this is to bake and cook more at home.
There are three main points to examine when researching the types of sugar in food:
Quality, quantity or amount, and degree of processing. These are great topics to talk about with your kids. You can ask them to read the ingredients on food. Together, you can look up the ones they can’t pronounce. More often than not, it’ll probably be another form of sugar.
Quality of the Sugar
The quality of the sugar depends on where the ingredients were sourced and how they were grown. Is the product organic or was it grown with pesticides? Does it have a few recognizable ingredients or a list of words you can’t pronounce?
In general, for added sugars, we prefer raw honey and 100% organic maple syrup and use that where we can first. Of course, this is after fruit.
Fruit is a natural sweetener and using fruit like dates and bananas to sweeten any dish is always the first priority. Not only is it the most natural sugar, it is also nutrient dense and not processed. Our next choice, especially when baking is unrefined coconut sugar, followed by organic cane sugar. In our house, that is usually where we draw the line.
On rare occasions, my kids may have some organic monk fruit or organic stevia, as part of something they are eating. One example are the keto cups by Evolved. They contain all organic ingredients, including healthy fats like MCT oil and coconut butter. The last ingredient is organic monk fruit extract. I’m ok with this on RARE occasions, but you won’t find me giving this to my kids regularly for several reasons. The first is that it hasn’t been tested long term in kids and the second is that both are very highly processed with little to no nutritional value that may be claimed, left.
This leads to the next point:
How much Processing
Consider how much processing went into the making of this product. The more an ingredient is processed, the more difficult it is for our bodies to recognize and digest. High fructose corn syrup is nothing like local raw honey. The less that’s been done to the food, the better. The same can be said about refined sugar vs cane sugar. Of course any artificial sugars are not only processed but are damaging to our health. You won’t find any of these in our house at all. And again this reinforces the point that we must always read ingredients. You can easily find these artificial ingredients in common snacks, cereals and drinks that are marketed to kids.
Quantity or amount of Sugar
Finally, be mindful of the quantity/amount of sugar in the recommended serving size. Dr. Goran recommends no more than 16-17g of added sugar per day for six-year-olds and no more than 24g of added sugar for adult women. Refer back to the chart at the beginning for a breakdown of recommendations of each age.
You may find things like yogurt that claims it has 12 grams of added sugar per serving, but the container is actually 2 serving sizes, therefore it has 24 grams of total added sugar.
Also, with the exception of making gummies, we usually avoid juice in our house. With our gummies, we pair the juice with grass fed gelatin (a protein) and full fat coconut milk (a healthy fat) to avoid a sugar spike.
A final note on the “quantity of sugar.” To be very honest, we don’t count added sugar in our house. For me, it’s clumsy and tiring and can send a message of anxiety and stress. Plus, if you aren’t bringing products into the house that have added sugar, what is the point?
I think it can be relevant if you consume a lot of processed foods. It is a way to become aware of the added sugar you are eating. Think about the lunch example above.
In our house, we bake all the time and use sugar. But the beautiful thing about baking at home is that you control the ingredients. And when you use nutrient dense ingredients, without any natural flavors or seed oils, your body will naturally tell you when it’s full! I dare you to try and eat more than 2 of my homemade chocolate chip cookies!!
What about “sugar free” items?
You may see things like: “Sugar free” on the front of certain processed food products. In these cases, you have to do a bit more digging. Likely you will find one of the 2 scenarios:
- These foods contain artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols. You definitely want to avoid these types of sugars for kids. Artificial sweeteners like AceK, Equal, NutraSweet, Sweet N Low, and Splenda are chemicals made in a lab and have been linked to cancer. You may also see these artificial sweeteners listed under their generic name, in the ingredient list. Sugar alcohols, like xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol and maltitol are known to cause digestive upset: abdominal pain, gas, cramping and diarrhea. This is because our body doesn’t absorb and fully digest these sugar alcohols so they sit in our guts and ferment. Beware of stevia and monk fruit too. Many stevia products have little to no stevia and often monk fruit sweeteners are mostly erythritol. That’s why you have to beware of these sweeteners in processed foods. You don’t really know what kind they’re using.
- It is a brand that has come up with a way to make a product without any added sugar! One example from above is ketchup. The brand Primal Kitchen advertises that their ketchup is sugar free and it’s one of our favorite ketchups to buy.
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It’s not you……. It’s BIG FOOD!
It would be entirely easy to beat yourself up right now. But we are here to tell you not to go down that road!! Our food today is very different from the food our great grandparents ate. Big Food (giant corporations like Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s) hire food scientists to develop “natural” flavors designed to manipulate your taste buds so you can’t stop eating the food. Additionally, seeds oils are used, which are not only detrimental to your health but also have an addictive component. The fact that these two ingredients, along with some kinds of processed added sugar, is in most of the processed foods at the store today, means that you will never win, in terms of trying to limit what you eat. The best bet is to avoid them as much as you can!
Worse yet, Big Food uses many tactics to advertise this highly processed, unhealthy food. These brands are cheap, easy, appealing, and addicting. It is HARD to walk through the brightly colored cereal aisle and say no to your kid over and over. It is also hard to decode the labels that shout “sugar-free,” “low-calorie,” and “heart-healthy” yet list out artificial sugars, artificial ingredients, and seed oils in the ingredients.
At the end of the day, if you listen to BIG FOOD, you won’t win. We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but they don’t care about your health and often the claims they make are deceptive and favor their profits.
Have Grace for Sugar Eaten Outside the Home and on Special Occasions
Food is not just the fuel we run on. It’s also a way we celebrate, create rituals, relate to other people, and show them care and gratitude. So, if birthday cakes are an important part of celebrating your kid’s birthday, then, by all means, have a birthday cake! But maybe try out a recipe with no added sugar, like our banana birthday cake, or swap the sugar for honey, maple syrup, or coconut sugar and reduce it by half. You’d be surprised by how sweet the cake still is!
Sometimes, your kid is invited to birthday parties or celebrations featuring cakes loaded with refined sugar and topped with artificially colored blue icing. Having grace for these moments is critical to cultivating a healthy relationship with sugar. One day of your kid eating double or triple the recommended daily sugar intake will not kill them (although it might be a hard day for you!). What matters are the foods they eat daily, weekly, and throughout the year. Keep the big picture in mind.
The only side note I would mention here would be to avoid the artificial colors if you can. For me, I find a piece of the cake that has little to no blobs of bright artificial color. In some cases, I may swipe off a bit of the frosting before giving it to my kids. Thankfully, once you bake at home, your kids can taste the difference themselves and will often leave the frosting behind on their own, because it doesn’t taste good to them anymore.
How we eat our sugar and what we eat it with also matters. We not only teach our kids the importance of all the macronutrients – fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Fat or protein pair well with a dessert because they help to stabilize our blood sugar. This means our kids have less of that big sugar rush after dessert. We also teach them that certain ingredients like artificial colors are harmful to our bodies and don’t make us feel good.
The solution: BAKE AT HOME!
Baking at home has tons of perks, and the biggest one is that you don’t have to wonder what is hidden inside those processed cakes and desserts! At home, you get to choose how much and what kind of sugar goes into your sweets, and everything else that you eat.
When we make chocolate chip cookies at home, we use grass-fed butter, pastured eggs, organic flour, organic chocolate chips like Hu, aluminum free baking soda, and unrefined coconut sugar. These cookies are nutrient dense, have higher-quality sugar, and have tons of nutrient density. I feel good about giving these cookies to my kids because they are free of processed sugar and balanced out with protein and healthy fats. They’re nothing like Oreos we buy at the store.
I don’t even have to limit my kids on how many cookies they have or how big of a slice of cake they want. The beautiful thing about cooking with nutrient-dense, quality ingredients is that your body knows when you are full, so kids find their own limits. On the other hand, natural flavors and artificial sweeteners leave you constantly craving more.
Practical Tip: Try cooking your favorite desserts at home. Find a recipe online, but prioritize using high quality ingredients like grass-fed butter, pastured eggs, and organic flour. When looking at the sugar content, try cutting it in half or by a third and use a higher quality sugar like maple syrup, honey, or coconut sugar.
Have fun when you’re baking at home and adapting recipes. Make a game out of trying to see how much sugar you can cut from recipes. Remember baking at home with kids isn’t about perfection. It’s about having fun together. Treat all recipes as an experiment, and it’ll always be fun even if the desserts aren’t great all the time. It’s a great lessons for your kiddos for other areas of life as well!
Perk! Baking at Home = Family Bonding!!
One of my best childhood memories is cooking with my dad. On Friday night, we would make pizza. On Saturdays, we’d bake chocolate chip cookies, and on Sundays, we make pancakes. It was an excellent way to talk, laugh, and spend time together. Our kids will be out of the house before we know it. Don’t miss these opportunities to bond, create memories and spend time with your children.
When we cook, we do fun things like turn on the music and dance around. Other times we have meaningful conversations, and other times we are just silly. That time with our kids means way more to them than they can express. And that time is so limited.
Cooking together is our family’s favorite way to spend quality time together!
Communicating a Healthy Sugar Mindset
The way we talk to our kids about sugar and the way we behave around sugar ourselves will guide them as they develop their relationship with sugar.
In addition to what we’ve described already, there are three tools you can use to help create a healthy sugar mindset. These tools are inspired by Michaeleen Doucleff’s book Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans. They are:
- Explain natural consequences
- Use stories
- Expect kids to want sugar
Explain natural consequences
Many times, when we tell our kids NO over and over, they just stop listening. This approach of denying kids something and deciding for them doesn’t teach them to think. When we talk about creating a healthy mindset around sugar, we want our kids to think and be curious about sugar.
Instead of saying NO, try telling your kids the natural consequences of eating too much sugar. Keep it simple and direct. “If you eat too much cake, your belly will hurt.” “If you eat all that candy now, you will be cranky later.” Then, leave it. Let them decide for themselves whether to gorge or to stop. You can remind them later if they need help connecting the cranky mood or achy belly with the sugar, but say it matter-of-fact without judgment. In this way, you’re giving your kids practice with self-control and decision making. They might miss the mark sometimes, but that’s what practice is for.
You can also try telling stories about the consequences that are harder for kids to experience in the moment. Kids love stories. You can tell your kids about the microbiome and play games by speaking for the little creatures in their gut. “The little city of creatures in your belly doesn’t like candy, it makes them sick and sad. And they can’t do their jobs of helping you digest your food.” Describe the creatures and what they do. You can even dramatize a scene about what happens when a tidal wave of sugar crashes over the microbiome city. Don’t make your kids feel guilty, but invite them to play along. It’s okay if they don’t make the choice you want them to make. They will learn slowly. This is why we included a sugar monster in My SuperHero Foods, our children’s book on healthy eating.
You can also create some kind of monster that takes kids away when they eat too much candy. Or something that has a level of scare that you are comfortable with. Kids enjoy scary, creative monsters, and this transforms a NO (and a potential fight) into a game. Often, kids will get excited about describing the monster and playing along.
Expect kids to want sugar
Humans crave sugar, especially kids. Of course your kids want Oreos and Pop Tarts and spoonfuls of sugar on their oatmeal! It’s unrealistic to expect kids to use self-control and not choose the bright, sweet, exciting foods that are created to hit all their happiest taste buds. Again, this is how Big Food sets themselves up to win.
You can win against them just by denying these foods to your kids. Instead, create a food environment you’re happy with, then let them be. This means only bring food into your house that you want your kids to eat. That way, you don’t have to argue or be the police at home. You’ve already made all the choices at the store.
Hello Healthy Sugar Mindset challenge:
Sign up #SuperHeroYOU2023 to participate in challenges!
Use #SuperHeroYOU2023 AND tag @mysuperherofoods on Instagram to share your progress!
Challenge: Bake a Nutrient Dense Dessert with your kids at Least once a week.
Once a week this month, bake or make a nutrient dense dessert with your kids. Leave all of the store bought desserts at the store. Replace conventional butter for more nutrient dense grass-fed butter, use grass-fed or raw milk, replace the processed sugar with the less processed forms of sugar like raw honey, organic maple syrup, or coconut sugar. We’ll be sharing lots of recipes this month for you to try with your kids. Some of them will be super easy to make, and may involve no baking at all!
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There’s no time like today. And there’s nothing like building a community of SuperHero friends to help us stick to our goals. Have a chance to earn prizes while learning new tips and tricks to help you and your family thrive ALL year.
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