"Fed Up" With Childhood Obesity? Blame Sugar

"Fed Up" With Childhood Obesity? Blame Sugar

A documentary is claiming to have uncovered the real cause of America’s obesity epidemic, and it ain’t sweet. The movie Fed Up, which opened in select theaters May 9, 2014, places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the nation’s food industry and its love affair with added sugar.

According to the film, the problems began 30 years ago with the growing demand for low-fat foods. That led to many food manufacturers replacing the unwanted fat in processed foods with added sugar to make fat-free products taste great.

Mark Hyman, MD, a featured expert in the film, says the movie is “a powerful indictment of how the food industry hooks us on … processed foods laden with hidden sugars.” 

That sugar addiction is what’s driving the nation’s childhood obesity problem, says pediatric nutritionist Deb Kennedy, PhD, co-author of Beat Sugar Addiction Now! For Kids and founder of the “Build Healthy Kids” nutrition program. “Data shows the average America kid is eating his or her weight in sugar every year,” she says, “And excess sugar is more dangerous for kids than excess fat, non-organic foods or genetically modified foods.” She adds that the modern American child’s diet is awash in sugar – including mainstays such as juice, chocolate milk, sugary cereals, soda, candy and cookies along with the added sugars and corn syrup in processed and fast foods.

Research shows that refined sugar is addictive and affects the brain much like a drug -– by stimulated the brain’s pleasure centers. “Sugar addicts crave it, and suffer withdrawal symptoms when they don’t get enough, they have to eat more and more to get the same pleasure pay-off and after a binge there’s a big, hard crash,” Kennedy says. “Those are clear addictive patterns.”

Most people have no idea how addicted they are, or how much added sugar is in unexpected foods like jarred spaghetti sauce, Kennedy says. “I’ve worked with parents who say, ‘Oh, my kid likes savory foods. Excess sweets aren’t the problem,’ but when I sit down and add up a day’s worth of added sugar, they’re shocked.”

So how can you slay the sugar beast, break your family’s addiction and take your brain and body back? Try the “slow and steady wins the race” approach, advises Kennedy. Here are some of her suggestions: 

  • Start by limiting liquid sugars: Cut back on juice, sweetened water, sodas and energy drinks. Kennedy says limit younger children to four ounces of naturally sweetened juice drinks each day and no more than eight ounces for anyone else. Cut out all drinks with added or artificial sugars.
  • Track the amount of added sugar in your diet: Start by reading food labels. You can also use Kennedy’s “Added Sugar Database” on her website to add up the numbers.
  • Focus on one healthy change at a time: Spend a month adding in vegetables. Next month, eliminate unhealthy treats.
  • Don’t replace table sugar with artificial or “natural" sweeteners: Forget honey or agave. “Sugar is sugar is sugar and the bottom line is too much is too much.” And artificial sweeteners train your tastebuds to want more sugar.
  • Cut yourself off: Limit all added sugars, especially for kids. Keep boys under eight teaspoons day, five teaspoons or less for girls. (The American Heart Association recommends no more than about nine teaspoons a day for men and six teaspoons for women.)
  • Allow kids one small treat each day: “You need to train the dragon, and completely eliminating treats only makes children crave them more… but make kids work for that treat!”
  • Take the Fed Up challenge: Try eliminating all sugar from your diet for just 10 days. Both Kennedy and Hyman agree you’ll be surprised how great you’ll feel… fast.

Medically reviewed in February 2020.

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