Are We Hooked on Sugar?

Sugar and other refined carbohydrates are linked to diabetes, depression, and addictions in our children. We’re hooked, but there’s a simple solution…

Are We Hooked on Sugar?

The statistics aren't new, and they aren't pretty.

Nearly one-third of American children are overweight. Forty percent of girls and a third of boys born in 2000 will acquire type II diabetes by the time they turn 50. At the same time, increasing numbers of children are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, depression, and generalized anxiety disorder.

While many schools focus on diet in combating childhood obesity and diabetes, few pay attention to how diets affect student behavior and academic performance. Most often, the interventions for these problems are pharmacological — the Drug Enforcement Administration reports that 85 percent of all amphetamine prescriptions are administered to children, and doctors now prescribe 30 times more legal amphetamines to children than they did in 1990.

As schools and communities consider the importance of food in the lives of our children, it is critical to acknowledge how what we eat — in particular, the glut of refined carbohydrates in our diets — affects our brains, behavior, and health. Since 1970, American consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has increased by 40 times, and we eat 300 calories more per day. One-third of American children eat fast food every day — in addition to the processed foods they receive through school meal programs and packaged foods at home.

An array of evidence suggests that obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, and assorted addictions share neurochemical roots that are seriously influenced by this high-carbohydrate diet. According to Dr. Kathleen DesMaisons, bestselling author of Potatoes Not Prozac, "sugar sensitive" people are born with low levels of the brain chemicals serotonin (a condition tied to depression, aggression, and poor attention and impulse control) and dopamine (drug and alcohol addiction, low self-esteem, violence, and anger). They also have volatile blood sugar (associated with diabetes, fatigue, moodiness, feeble concentration, and emotional outbursts). Additionally, these people are born with low beta-endorphin, a condition associated with chemical dependence and a sense of victimization and alienation.

As with any addict looking for a fix, sugar-sensitive people with these traits seek substances that alleviate the symptoms, if only temporarily. And, as with any addiction, the short-lived relief compounds the problem — people grow helpless to the pull of refined carbohydrates and low-protein foods (the template of the contemporary American diet), which only deepens their despair. Research suggests that a dependency on refined carbohydrates that begins early in life also creates a higher risk of addiction to drugs and alcohol as adults.

"The good news about biochemically based behavior is that it can change, and it can change rapidly," DesMaisons says. "You do not have to pursue years of psychotherapy to get results." Nor do we have to imagine a future where young people, just to feel healthy and normal, are treated with insulin for diabetes, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication, amphetamines for hyperactivity, and gastric bypass surgery for obesity.

DesMaisons has developed a food plan that stabilizes the biochemical conditions behind sugar sensitivity and improves the body's regulation of blood sugar. The diet is highlighted by the steady removal of refined carbohydrates and processed foods. DesMaisons champions quality protein and complex carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables, essential fatty acids, and consistent mealtimes. For children, sweetened and caffeinated drinks are out. Even diet soft drinks are excluded, as sweet taste alone stimulates the addictive opiate response in the brain. Regular snacks are in, if they contain protein and a complex carbohydrate.

I have partnered with DesMaisons to found the Sugar Project, to explore and design treatments based on the relationships between brain chemistry, the unprecedented consumption of refined carbohydrates, and our health. We believe we have a nation of children facing lifelong, irreversible health and psychological difficulties due to their diets. A key part of our strategy is offering local, sensible tools for transformation in family diets, school meals, alcoholism treatment, and public health interventions. We have seen powerful results in thousands of people from these low-cost, food-based solutions.

After a recent workshop I gave to high school biology teachers, a teacher told me, "My rural school district is worried about methamphetamine and our kids. This is true for maybe ten students. But the behavior and psychological issues associated with teenage diet that you describe fit every single one of my 130 students. This is a huge epidemic happening right under our noses."

A public alternative high school for at-risk students in Appleton, Wisconsin, responded to the same issues by changing student diets. Students were required to eat breakfasts and lunches at school that contained omega-3 fatty acids, dense protein, fresh vegetables and fruit, complex carbohydrates, and freely available water. Truancy and dropout rates, school violence, classroom disruptions, and academic underachievement evaporated.

"Even though it may seem obvious and simple, the foods in this plan actually create profound physical and emotional change," DesMaisons says. "Don't be deceived by the simplicity. This is powerful medicine."