When my son tasted the cupcake I baked for his first birthday, he made a stink face. A “What the hell is this?” kind of face. I can assure you the cupcake wasn’t bad; I meticulously followed a great recipe and had tasted one—ok, several—myself. I think, actually, that my son was in shock. After all, it was the first sweet treat he’d ever tasted.
When I explained the back story to my friends, some of them bristled. “You mean to say you’ve never let Dean try a bite of cake before?” one asked. (Undertone: Have you become a crazy person?) Nope, I replied. Nor had I ever let him taste a cookie or a candy or a brownie or even Mott’s sweetened applesauce, for that matter. I mean, when he first started eating solid food, I didn’t even let him try fruit for a month. I’ve studied the science of sugar for two years, and I am raising a sugar-free baby.
I know: it sounds horrible. It’s also monstrously hypocritical, because I eat ice cream like freezers are going out of style. But I don’t think Dean minds; at this early age, it isn’t reducing his quality of life. And I’m not going to do it forever. But I think that even if I let him have free reign over his food choices from the time he turns two—and sprinkle his bed with Skittles every night from toddlerdom until eternity—he’ll live a longer, happier life for having started out sugar-free.
He made a stink face. A “What the hell is this?” kind of face.
Sugar is like the sketchy kid you don’t want your child hanging out with. The more time my son spends with him now, the more likely he will be best friends with the jerk forever and unable to escape his evil influence. If, by limiting sweets now, I can shape Dean’s taste preferences so that he ultimately eats less sugar later on—so that he just doesn’t want to eat ice cream by the bucketload like his mother does—I believe he will be less likely to become obese and develop heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Let’s start with a simple fact: We are wired to love sugar. Our ancestors relied on taste to tell them what was safe to chomp on and what was not. Poisonous plants are often bitter, whereas sweeter plants and fruits signal needed calories and are both nutrient-dense and safe. Soon after trying his birthday cupcake, Dean went from confused to voracious, and he devoured the rest. To steal from Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire, my son seemed to be thinking, “Your world contains this? From this day forward I shall dedicate my life to it.”
But even though our love for sugar is largely ingrained, some evidence suggests that the food choices babies are exposed to in the womb, and soon after birth, can affect their health and culinary preferences later in life. People are more likely, for instance, to chronically overeat and become obese if their mothers either ate too much or not enough during pregnancy. In addition, the flavors from a woman’s diet linger in her amniotic fluid and in her breast milk, where babies can taste and get familiar with them. In a 2001 study, researchers at the Monell Center in Philadelphia randomly assigned groups of pregnant and breastfeeding women to drink either carrot juice or water four days a week for three weeks.
Sugar is like the sketchy kid you don’t want your child hanging out with.
Later, the moms fed their babies cereal flavored with carrot juice for the first time and watched their facial expressions. The babies whose moms had consumed the carrot juice seemingly enjoyed the carrot flavor more than did those whose moms had drunk just water.
Okay, so this article is not about carrots. But there is also some evidence that children who are fed more sugar also prefer sweeter foods later. In a 2002 study,researchers offered apple juice of varying sweetness to a group of kids. They found that the children were more likely to prefer the sweetest ones if their moms had been regularly adding sugar to their foods at home; these children also reported liking sweeter cereals.
This could just mean that sugar begets sugar, at any age—the more you eat, the more you want. But scientists do believe that the environment (including food) babies encounter soon after birth programs the way their genes will operate for life. So it’s not that crazy to think that by keeping sugar from Dean now, maybe he won’t want it as much later.
Not everyone agrees with me, though. As Gary Beauchamp, director of the Monell Center told me, just because kids fed more sugar will prefer sweeter foods in some contexts, they don’t necessarily have more of a sweet tooth in general. (In other words, maybe the kids who liked unsweetened cereal in the above experiment also had serious Mars Bar addictions.)
It all boils down to the fact that our bodies don’t know how to handle really sweet foods.
And there’s no evidence suggesting that exposing kids to less sugar will make them less candy-crazed. So in Beauchamp’s opinion, Dean’s love for sugar is probably here to stay—yet he admits he can’t really see a downside to what I’m doing, unless my over-controlling tendencies backfire once Dean is old enough to rebel. (Note: Beauchamp’s institute is funded in part by The Sugar Association, the trade group that represents American sugar companies.)
So why am I trying to curb my son’s sweet tooth, anyway?
Thousands of years ago, having a penchant for sweet foods wasn’t a bad thing, because fruits were only seasonally available and there was no such thing as a cookie or a Twizzler or a six-pack of Chubby Hubby ice cream. (Plus, the sugar in fruit is balanced by healthy fiber.) But now, we can have sugar whenever we want it—and we seem to want it all the time: Sugar intake has tripled worldwide over the past 50 years.
And it’s taking a serious toll. A 2012 study published by Harvard researchers found that out of more than 42,000 men, those who drank the most sugar-sweetened beverages over the course of 22 years were 20 percent more likely to develop heart disease than those who drank the least. An earlier study by some of the same researchers reported that women who drank at least one sugared soda a day for 8 years were 83 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than were women who drank less than one soda a month.
What if giving up M&Ms weren’t a big sacrifice at all, because I didn’t care much for candy anyway?
It all boils down to the fact that our bodies don’t know how to handle really sweet foods. When you down a can of Coke, the sugars used to make it (actually, one type of sugar in particular, called fructose, which is found in pretty much equal proportions in table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup) travel straight to the liver, which is like the body’s Poison Control center: its job is to rid the body of all the nasty things you put inside it, like sugar and alcohol. But the amount of sugar in that soda—which, if you’re curious, is the equivalent of 10 teaspoons—overloads the liver. So in desperation, it turns some of the sugar into fat and releases it into the bloodstream. Then you’ve got fat circulating through your blood, where it can clog arteries and increase levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol. The rest of the sugar, which is still in the liver, contributes to insulin resistance (a hallmark of type 2 diabetes, which is twice as common in the U.S. as it used to be) and can also cause liver disease (which is also twice as common as it used to be). And if that’s not enough, that Coke might also make you hungrier, because its sugars mess with the hormones that help regulate appetite.
It doesn’t take a lifetime of soda-drinking to see some of these effects. In 2011, researchers at the University of California, Davis, asked a group of healthy young people to drink one beverage at every meal that had either been sweetened by glucose, fructose or high-fructose corn syrup. After just two weeks on their “diets,” the volunteers who were drinking the fructose or corn syrup-sweetened drinks had higher blood levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and fats than did the people who drank the glucose-sweetened drinks—despite the fact that nobody gained any weight.
This is why I’m going to great lengths to keep my son from a lifetime love affair with sugar. Some might say I’m delusional. Do I really think I can trump hundreds of thousands of years of evolution—and prevent a barrage of chronic diseases—simply by keeping my son away from chocolate chip cookies for a while? Maybe not. But honestly, what’s the harm? If anything, I’m just keeping his liver happier for a few years.
And if it works even just a little bit, I think Operation Sugar-Free will be well worth it—both for Dean’s health and his happiness. If I had the choice between enjoying a bag of M&Ms every day but suffering a heart attack when I was 60, or skipping the treats and staying healthy, I’d probably grudgingly stop buying the candy. But what if giving up M&Ms weren’t a big sacrifice at all, because I didn’t care much for candy anyway? It’s hard for me to even imagine that alternate universe. How could it be possible? But I try. And I hope in 20 years that my son can tell me all about it.