Sugar is poison. At least that's the word on the street, in the papers, in my social media feeds, and discussed by my friends in evermore hysterical voices over dinners where dessert is strictly off the menu. That pervasive menace has made us all fat. It's going to kill us. It's addictive. It's in everything. We all eat too much of it and if we don't change, we are going to die by the sweetest, sweet sword.
Perhaps we have always known it. That charming gingerbread house heaving with the campest candy lead Hansel and Gretel to their near-deaths, and we have always been warned against taking sweets from a stranger. Only, it seems the stranger wasn't really the one we should have been worried about.
Apparently, the average Briton consumes 238 teaspoons of sugar each week—both in free form and in the form of additives in previously non-scary foods like baked beans, yogurt, cereal, ketchup, and in your friendly bananas and benign, hospital-visit grapes. The devil is in our cupboards and our fruit bowls, hidden in complicated ingredients lists, sneakily trussed up as healthy, and given more aliases than Jason Bourne. Twenty six percent of Britons are obese, half are overweight, and the direct costs of this amount to £5.1bn a year, while nearly 26,000 children went under general anesthetic last year in order to remove their rotten teeth.
Action on Sugar chairman, Professor Graham MacGregor, states the frightening facts. "Obesity in children leads to the premature development of cardiovascular disease, stroke, heart attacks, and heart failure, which are the most common causes of death and disability in the UK," while academics say sugar has become as dangerous as alcohol and tobacco.
So where does all this terrifying news leave us? How can we balance the research claiming that we are a nation addicted to sugar with the rational response that moderation is key, that a little bit of everything is fine? How do we deal with the fear of a food, and is it right to pass this along to our kids?
This mother of four decided to cut sugar out entirely for 30 days and took her family along for the ride. It's pretty smart, this cold-turkey thing, but the demonization of all those pretty normal foods feels a little harsh. I get it, but it's not something I would ever attempt to do. I am the mother to a bunch of small boys, and I am responsible for feeding them, and also teaching them how to feed themselves, and how to feel about food, and to guide them to make good choices when they finally leave home and stop trashing the house. I have to decide how to navigate the new sugar news and keep everyone safe and alive.
Instilling fear around types of food is undoubtably harmful at worst—kind of stupid at best—as my youthful forays into demonizing food and adopting fads proves. I was terrified of fat. This meant the hard, white kind on meat that, when rendered, gives a whole world of flavor. It meant avoiding butter like the plague, giving croissants a wider berth than you might an early morning commuter who's let one go in a packed tube carriage. It meant being horrified by the congealing spaghetti bolognese-stained trails on my teenage plate.
I blame Rosemary Conley.
When I was a slightly hefty, impressionable and precocious 12-year-old, I found a copy of Conley's Hip and Thigh Diet. I had my first diet epiphany—looking at Rosemary's swimming-besuited arse and thighs before and after she cut saturated fat (even though she was a depressed, spreading grown woman with a sedentary office job and I was a developing child) so inspired me, and I took her advice that fat was the monster causing my cellulite and "wrong" thighs. In order to become Someone Without Any Lumpen Bits—a youthful Conley-clone who could wear a swimming suit without weeping with the shame—I promptly cut out butter until I was 25-years-old.
So many sad, sad years of dairy-denial. I used to spread avocado on my toast and mutter to myself that it was "nature's butter," while everyone else smiled their shiny, grease-slicked smiles and sank into their happy toast comas. It goes without saying that my bum and thighs, starved of New Zealand's finest export-quality dairy products for so long, still stubbornly refused to behave and tighten up like Conley promised they would.
Around that time, navigating this weird wilderness of stupid dietary advice without the help of a similarly-obsessed mother—mine has no interest in weight, or discussions of fat or thin—I read in a magazine that Elle Macpherson drank a liter of water every day before breakfast in order to speed up her metabolism and to clear the "toxins." And so I began my daily early morning liter-of-water routine, which caused me to become very concerned if my ungodly torrent of urine wasn't as clear as a mountain stream, and lasted until I went to university. Again, chump-like, ill-advised and misinformed behavior. It didn't help my long-term bladder capacity, either.
I want my kids to make smart informed choices, based on common sense and the tiniest sliver of risk. Food should never be scary, and nor should they be overwhelming. Kids should be free to make some of those choices for themselves, to be educated on why sugar—if you funnel it down your throat in vast quantities—is a demon in white clothing, and why it's important to keep their teeth healthy, not just that sugar = evil. I don't want them to begin their journey into nascent adulthood with any ill-informed hang-ups or nervousness surrounding food like the ones I had.
So, while I'm not about to turn a blind eye to stashed bags of Haribo Tangfastics that are sneakily bought after school and stored inside pillow cases, it strikes me that a militant no sugar rule would only serve to counteract any greater message of balance that I can teach them. After all, that's what's important.
There'll always be fruit on the table at my house.