Putting Sugar in Its Place

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You know the scenario.

“May I have a treat, please?”

“Just one more, Mommy. Just one more. I promise. That’s it. I PROMISE”

This is about candy and nosh. It goes on in school. It goes on in camp. It goes on at home. Candy and nosh are everywhere.

And it even goes on in the pediatrician’s office!

You would think that when parents bring their children to our office, everyone would be on good behavior. This means at least acting like they are living and maintaining a healthy lifestyle filled with no television or electronics, lots of exercise and movement, and a nutrition-filled eating regimen.

Perfect, we are not. I accept that. But the amount of candy and nosh that abound in our world is mind-boggling. They are being used at home and in both school and camp settings as a motivational tool, a reward and even for discipline.

There is something wrong this picture.

The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that children (and parents and grandparents) limit added sugar to less than 10% of their daily calories. However, the average American diet is so high in sugar that children can easily exceed that limit many times over without even realizing it. The insidious part of ingesting sugar is sugar “goreres” (leads to more) sugar because it can fuel cravings for even more sweet foods and drinks. Americans get about 13% of their total calories from added sugars such as sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks and candies.

And from childhood over-consumption of sugar we go to the adolescent overload.

It’s a documented fact that between 2010 and 2015, the consumption of soda declined while the ingestion of sports drinks increased. Sports drinks are electrolyte and carbohydrate-containing soft drinks, often flavored and sweetened, designed to restore energy and fluids. The average American child, let alone the average frum child, does not expend the amount of physical activity that requires electrolyte replenishment. Further, sports drinks add unnecessary calories to children’s diets.


Sugar can put kids (and adults) into orbits. There is a rush that follows excess sugar consumption which is almost immediately followed by a “crash” or a dramatic dip in the person’s energy level. It’s not a fun phenomenon for a teacher to manage in a classroom. Nor is it wonderful in any other scenario. It hinders growth and progress. And imagine what the sugar roller coaster can do to children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I wouldn’t want to be that child, student, parent, teacher, worker, colleague, whatever.

How can we break the cycle of excess sugar?

It takes education and time. Here are some simple, consistent changes that can be instituted over time.

First, figure out how much sugar you are ingesting. Know how much sugar is added into food by reading the labels on foods. Current food labels display total sugar, which includes natural sugars like those found in fruits. This past July, it became mandated that food labels must display “Includes X g Added Sugars” under Total Sugars. This makes it easier for all people to understand how much sugar these products really have. Know the conversion of sugar from grams to teaspoons, i.e., 4 grams = 1 teaspoon. For example, in a diet of 2,000 calories per day, 10% would be equal to about 50 grams or 10 teaspoons of sugar.

Get to know how and where “sneaky sugar” lurks. Many foods marketed as “health foods’ can have loads of added sugar. It’s a MUST to always check the labels on sports drinks, smoothies, protein and granola bars and yogurt. Whole fruits are infinitely preferable to these foods. If your children balk at first (and they will), melt some dark chocolate and let them “dip” fruit into chocolate. Dark chocolate contains 70% cocoa and has less than half the sugar of milk chocolate.

Stick to “basic beverages” meaning milk, almond milk, water. Keep fruit juices to a bare minimum. Rather than starting with fruit juices, place sliced fruit into water to give the water some flavor but without the excess sugar. It is unnecessary to give babies apple and other juices.

Avoid rewards with sugar. Please. Far too often and in almost every setting, kids are rewarded for good behavior with sugary treats. It’s a short-term fix at best. It becomes a much bigger problem later when children learn to expect a reward for appropriate behavior – and then the taste buds and cravings have been trained accordingly. If your child wants sugar in preschool and gets it, then what will he expect as an adolescent? Consider yourself warned.

A note to Rebbes, teachers, and camp staff: It is totally unnecessary to reward the children for learning or behaving well with candy or sodas. An apple a day will make them just as happy to learn and to play. And you might even then keep the doctor and dentist away.

It’s time to change the culture. Is there a Jewish child who goes to shul and who hasn’t (yet) found the lollipop man? Is there a way we can make going to shul, learning, behaving, etc., into something exciting and fun but without the sugar? This requires a collective thinking collaboration to create a new culture. My contemporaries associate Simchas Torah with apples on flags, not unending nosh. What are your thoughts?

Like everything else in life, we have to find balance. As much as we want to banish sugar from their lives, we also want them to learn how to balance all the available choices when they are able to make food decisions for themselves. Banning sugary drinks and snacks could become a case of “forbidden water is sweeter.” It’s okay to have one dessert per Shabbos meal. Sweets and snacks are appropriate in moderation.

Rosh Chodesh Elul is imminent, although by the time you read this, it may be upon us. It’s a great time to think through some of the information here and begin effecting positive change for the new school year and Jewish year. Start with restocking the vending machines in schools with better foods.

I’d like to have my cake and eat it too but there are limits. Knowing that the best teacher is to role model appropriate behavior for our children in this area and throughout life is most humbling.

As always, daven.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.