Motherload posed an interesting question recently, “Should we regulate sugar to protect public health?” The question itself stems from a recent issue of the journal Nature, where public health experts report that plain old sugar is as toxic and just as dangerous for society as substances like alcohol and tobacco. The researchers, working out of University of California at San Francisco, aren’t wrong. Past research has compared junk food addiction to heroin addiction and some research shows that only regulating some sugar won’t work – you need whole community regulation to make a difference. And whole community regulation is exactly what these researchers think should happen. The Wall Street Journal reports that the study authors suggest taxing sugar, limiting sugar in schools, reducing sugary advertising, zoning ordinances for sugar and even placing age limits on the types of sugar-laden products kids can buy. But, is regulation the answer? Can’t parents limit their own child’s sugar intake? It is a very good question. So good in fact, that I asked our readers via the Inhabitots Facebook page, the very same question to see what they’d say.Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.
What Our Readers Think
On Facebook, reader Amanda’s answer was by far the most popular. She notes “I think that regulating sugar isn’t the answer. I think it’s more important to teach our children to make good and healthy choices for themselves and then trust them to do so!” Some readers, like Lucinda and Heather felt that sugar should be regulated in specific places and products, such as in typical food items like spaghetti sauce and in our public school system. Very few readers were for regulation, although Natalie points out:
“I would like it less visible as a way to reduce consumption. Last night I went to trader joes for the first time- came home with 4 different sugary treats- why- because they are at my eye level all above frozen foods. So while I am looking for organic strawberries, all I can see is “peanut butter goodies,” “dark chocolate, carmel with black sea salt” I was ravenous and lost the fight. Would a huge tax prevented my BINGE? Maybe!!!!“
Maybe a tax would help prevent binges, just like Natalie says. Still, by an incredible landslide, most of our readers seem to think regulation is a bad, and even dangerous idea.
But what about the other side of the fence? Is regulation necessary?
Sugar, and the calories that come with it, are a serious problem in the United States. The childhood obesity problem has leveled out as of late, but even so the Nemours Foundation notes that 1 in 3 kids are overweight or obese in the U.S. and it’s not due to kids gorging on carrots and apples. It’s due to kids being allowed to eat excessively huge portion sizes and foods laden with fat and yes, sugar. Studies show that while many like to candy coat this issue, (even doctors) realistically as many as 90% of overweight children already have key markers for heart disease. To be very blunt, so many kids are overweight in the U.S. and at risk for countless health issues, that researchers estimate that this may be the first generation of kids who live shorter lives than their parents.
While it’s PC to say, “Parents should regulate their own kids” – it’s clear there’s a fine line between should and will. Happy meals don’t buy themselves. Sugary snacks don’t magically appear in kids hands. Advertisements don’t give kids money to spend on chips and sweets. One in 3 kids is overweight and it’s extremely hard to see how parents aren’t 100% responsible. Some parents do limit sugar, teach kids about portions and strive for balance and healthy meals. Others parents don’t seem to care. I know many parents who let their kids eat 3,000-4,000 calories a day or who let their kids put sugar on everything from cereal to fruit to chicken. I’ve even met parents who let their kids eat entire quarts of ice cream.
I’ve been researching the overweight kid issue lately, and thus visited a forum for kids struggling with weight to see what the kids thought. One preteen girl very smartly noted, “If you drink or smoke, you’ll get grounded, but if you eat too many sweets your parents say nothing.” Many other kids echoed this same point, noting that they want help, but their parents won’t tell them no when it comes to food, so they’ve got zero backup. Maybe, if you consider this side of the coin, regulation makes sense.
Remember, 1 in 3 kids is overweight and we don’t regulate sugar or other fatty foods. Now, note that we do regulate smoking and alcohol. The result? Fewer than 1 in 3 adolescents smoke, drink alcohol or have sex, which is great but beyond regulation, parents also discuss these issues with their kids. A recent survey found that parents would rather discuss drug use, smoking and sex with their kids, before discussing weight and food issues. Obviously there’s a problem with food in the U.S. that won’t perhaps just be solved with parent education.
Why Not Regulate?
I’m very much on the side of healthy kids. I want kids, in spite of their home situation, to be exposed to healthy foods, honest discussions and truths about calories, portions and weight. Clearly not all kids get this at home, so it makes me feel like we’ve got few choices left beyond regulation. That said, most of the time I agree with what our readers noted on our Facebook page – regulation of food, sugar, or otherwise, is a bad idea and a super slippery slope. For instance, I know parents who let their kids gorge on tarter sauce, chips and fatty buttery foods instead of sugar. Fatty foods contribute to childhood obesity too. Will we now ban tarter sauce and sour cream? What about chips or high calorie bread? What about kids who are allowed to eat massive adult+ sized portions? Portion sizes really do contribute to obesity, so how will we handle that? Take kids from parents and place them in small-portion foster homes? As Margo on our Facebook page noted, “Regulation is a tricky thing, we’d probably screw it up.”
I know we need something to change in this country if we want the majority of our kids back on a healthy track, but I’m just not so sure regulation is the key ingredient. I think we need to insist that we see just as many public service announcements regarding healthy food choices as we do for candy and chips. I think we need major public education campaigns about food, exercise and other healthy lifestyle choices. I think that health care providers owe it to the country to address weight and food issues with parents and I think that we as parents need to buck up and listen to our kids doctors when they do speak. Not deny, not ignore and not let our kids figure out complicated calorie and food issues on their own.
It’s shocking to me that parents are so willing to discuss smoking, alcohol and sex, yet clam up about food issues. Kids deserve to know what an appropriate portion of food is and that too much sugar isn’t smart, just like they deserve to know smoking is bad. As one of our readers, Morgan, notes, “Regulating sugar will take away parental responsibility as well as the child’s. We have to learn to make decisions for ourselves as well as be held accountable for teaching our children how to make the best choices for them. ” Morgan is dead-on. The only way our kids will learn how to make wise food decisions for life, is not from bans, which remove their choice entirely, but from parent-based conversation and education.
Lead image by deyna03 via sxc.