Sugar is Toxic, Get it Out of Schools

The most comprehensive study of sugar toxicity, specifically as it relates to causing diabetes, was published on February 27th. Mark Bittman, writing for the NY Times, does a wonderful job summarizing the study and explaining why it is such a game changer in the debate about sugar. The bottom line is that we now have conclusive proof that sugar causes diabetes as surely as cigarettes cause lung cancer.

As Mr. Bittman explains, our dramatic upswing in chronic disease is not caused by obesity alone. It is caused by our over-the-top consumption of sugar. Our body handles sugar differently than other calories. While each 150 kilocalories/person/day of total calories relates to an insignificant 0.1% rise in diabetes, each 150 kilocalories/person/day of sugar is associated with a 1.1% increase in diabetes. For every 12 ounces of sugared soda or fruit drink or juice in a country’s food system, the rate of diabetes in that country increases by 1%. This is true whether the sugar is in the form of high-fructose corn syrup or cane sugar.

It is time for us to finally act on the use of sugar in schools. In many elementary schools it is common, and expected, for parents to provide sugary treats to the entire class to celebrate their child’s birthday. As allergies have become more prevalent, pre-packaged and nut free treats have been mandated. Frequently this also means sugar drenched “fun food”. This practice of celebrating birthdays with food at school needs to stop. It is obvious to anyone who has observed a classroom, short-term these high-sugar birthday breaks can cause behavior problems in some kids. Now we know they may also be causing long-term damage to young bodies by priming them for insulin resistance.

More disturbing to me than the birthday party treats is the growing tendency for teachers to motivate and reward students with candy. From high-stakes testing drills to speech therapy to merely walking quietly down the hall, teachers bribe students to comply with candy. Frequently this happens without even the parents being aware. Just yesterday, I happened on my child at school with his speech therapy teacher and a bowel of candy. If he said the words correctly he got a piece — just like treat training a puppy. My child has been in speech therapy all year and never once have I been consulted or informed that candy was one of the standard motivators. We have known for a long time that sugar can, at least psychologically, be craved. Now we know it is also toxic. Given all this, schools need to implement policies against sugar bribes. We would be appalled if teachers to let compliant students have a drag on a cigarette for every correctly spelled word on a test. We need the same attitude toward sugar rewards.

My kids have been in three different elementary schools in two different districts over the last 6 years. Every single one of them, has used sugar in the classroom. None of them informed the parents, either before or after the fact that sugar was one of the behavior modification tools used in the classroom. It was always information I had to drag out of my children, usually after they had a particularly bad day. This needs to stop. Teachers and schools should start treating sugar as a toxin, like they treat peanuts and stop allowing it and using it as a classroom shortcut.