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Mother Nurture

© Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac. 2001, 2002, 2003

Being Careful with Sugar

I'm so busy that often I'll have coffee for breakfast and then a donut mid-morning. But then I crash a few hours later - plus I'm gaining weight. And I worry about my kids: how to get them to not live for sweets?

The average American today eats over 150 pounds per year of refined sugars - compared to zero pounds during most of human history. High consumption of sugar (and the elevated levels of insulin that come with it) is associated with Type II diabetes, weight gain, bloating, fatigue, arthritis, migraines, lowered immune function, gallstones, obesity, breast cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

Sugar is also depleting, the last thing a mother needs, draining (or disrupting the absorption of) the B-vitamins, chromium, calcium, magnesium, and copper that she needs to manage her increased stresses. Rounding out the bitter aftertastes to all that sweetness, sugar forcefeeds microbes in the digestive tract - which is already vulnerable to infection due to maternal stress - leading to impaired nutrient absorption, diarrhea, gas, or fatigue.

These problems are as relevant for our children as they are for ourselves. For example, obesity and Type II diabetes among children are growing rapidly, and the bad eating habits that lead to these conditions often begin during the preschool years.

Happily - er, sweetly! - there are plenty of things you can do:

  • Set a personal goal of eating less than twenty grams of refined sugar a day (about two tablespoons). That's roughly what the average American ate a hundred years ago - and still more than the zero refined sugar our bodies are designed for. But if you have any digestive problems, we think you should eat no more than ten grams a day. Food labels will tell you how many grams of refined sugar a serving contains, and it probably doesn't much matter if it's refined or "natural" (like fructose or honey).
  • The easiest way to eat less sugar is to cut out the soda or juice. Two soft drinks a day adds up to ninety grams of sugar: sixty-five pounds of sugar per year. Instead, try carbonated water with a squeeze of lemon or lime, diluted juice, or delicious herbal iced teas.
  • Check the labels on packaged foods like breakfast cereal, peanut butter, or spaghetti sauce, and try brands without any sugar.
  • Think twice about extra sugar, like a second teaspoon in your coffee, tons of jam on toast, or a second helping of ice cream after dinner.
  • By having fewer sweets around for your kids, it will be easier to avoid them yourself. Try not to let them get started on sugar in the first place, so they can still appreciate a juicy apple, bowl of strawberries, or handful of raisins.
  • Avoid temptation by not having cookies, candy, ice cream, etc. at home. If you want something for your sweet tooth, purchase a single item. And if you do keep dessert around, try to have only one kind, since we eat more if there's a variety.
  • Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has judged aspartame (NutraSweet), to be safe, many people have still reported negative reactions, including headaches and depression; a large fraction of the non-drug complaints to the FDA are for aspartame. (Using artificial sweeteners doesn't seem to help people lose weight, either.) We're naturally cautious about man-made molecules for mothers, and an alternative is an extract of the plant, stevia rebaudiana, which tastes intensely sweet in very small amounts, but without any calories. It comes in liquid or powdered form and you can use it just like sugar, including in baking (an advantage over aspartame). Like aspartame, there's an aftertaste, but you'll soon get used to it.
  • If you are, like Jan, a chocolate addict, try high-quality unsweetened chocolate. Once you get used to it, it tastes very satisfying. You can melt it, add a couple drops of stevia and a handful of nuts, and make your own candy bar.
  • Try to understand the forces that keep you hooked on sugar. For instance, Jan worked with a single mom who ate a huge, double handful of chocolate chips each day. She knew it wasn't healthy, but she said: I know it's not good, but I work hard all day long, and this is about the only thing I do for me. By finding better ways to nurture herself, she was able to cut down on this daily blast of sugar.
  • Sugar is the ultimate comfort food, so it's really important to be nice to yourself while you reduce it. And try to think about all the wonderful things you are doing for your body by nourishing it in healthier ways.

I can resist everything except temptation.
Oscar Wilde

(Rick Hanson is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson is an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and son, ages 12 and 14. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin. You can see their website at or email them with questions or comments at; unfortunately, a personal reply may not always be possible.)