Brace yourselves. I’m about to advocate for sugar.

I know, I know — haven’t I read the research that says it’s toxic? That we’re poisoning our children? Haven’t I read about how even kids who eat “healthy” diets are consuming unsafe levels of the sweet stuff? What in the world could I possibly be thinking?

What I’m thinking is that, as with most of the discourse around not only eating but actually many, many topics of importance these days, we’ve let it all go to the extremes. And extremes are hard to sustain.

I’ve been watching the evidence against sugar mount over time, and being a reasonable person who cares about my family’s health, I’ve certainly tried to keep a more watchful eye on the amount of added sugars my kids are getting during the course of a day. We’ve also talked more about sugar in this household than about any other single food item, ever. My boys know that it’s not good for them, and that while we don’t ban desserts in our household, we will sometimes ask them to think carefully about what they’ve eaten over the course of a day before they reach for a little after-dinner treat.

I know there’s always room for improvement. But when I heard that the new recommendations advanced by the American Heart Association were advocating for kids to get no more than 3 teaspoons of added sugar per day, I had a bit of a head-desk moment. Three teaspoons???

Playing a bit fast and loose with math (not my strongest subject, I admit), I was able to calculate that by those standards, even if my boys had an entirely sugarless day (not impossible, but unlikely), a single homemade cookie — depending upon the recipe — could be “too much.” And then I tried to envision parenting two young boys under such tightly controlled food standards that we’d be able to achieve that sugarless day consistently. Or how I’d explain to them that Mom’s cookies were now permanently, forevermore, off the menu, along with basically every other dessert, pancakes with maple syrup, jam on their unsweetened peanut butter sandwiches, honey in their plain yogurt, homemade granola, brown sugar on their plain oatmeal….

Now, I’m strong enough in my opinions and well-versed enough in feeding my family that I was able to bounce back fairly quickly from this particular crazypants scenario. Putting it in perspective, I was able to talk myself off the ledge and realize that in the grand scheme of things, the AHA is just trying to set this forth as a goal, not an absolute. But an unrealistic goal is not a goal at all. In my work, I often refer to SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-Focused, and Time-Bound. And if I tried to SMART-goal this 3 teaspoons of sugar business, I’d get something like this:

Specific: Limit sugar intake to more than 3 teaspoons of added sugar per family member, per day
Measurable: By quantity of added sugar (<3 teaspoons)
Achievable: *quiet sobbing*
Results-Focused: Increase in general resistance to Mom’s rules, food sneaking, and binge-eating junk when Mom’s not looking (Also something about long-term health outcomes which I think are supposed to be positive)
Time-Bound: FOREVER mwahahahahahahahaha (or at least until the kids go to college and start really rebelling)

(Disclaimer: before you start sending me hate mail that tells me about the dangers of childhood obesity, the inflammatory properties of sugar, and how sugar feeds cancer cells, please understand that I’m not saying sugar is good. I’m just saying that if I want my kids to eat nutritious foods like oatmeal and yogurt, it helps if they don’t taste like wallpaper paste. Also, if you think 3 tsp. per day is a consistently achievable goal for your family, then I am pleased as punch for you. But around here, it is not going to happen, at least not consistently, without somebody losing their mind.)

But was my reaction to the recommendation extreme? What would other parents think about this new “rule?” And what good, solid advice would a respected nutritionist — a human being far more qualified than I to dish out feeding advice — give to families about sugar intake? Should I suck it up and deal with harsh reality? I turned to my trusted friend Sally of Real Mom Nutrition, leaving a comment on her Facebook page that was (I admit) ratcheted up a bit in hysteria in the hope that I’d be able to speak for ordinary parents everywhere who’ve tried for years to feed their kids well, only to be told that yet again, they’re failing.

Me: “Sally, this is really helpful, but I’m seeing other sources (such as this one:…/my-healthy-eaters-are…/) that state the actual new guideline is kids shouldn’t eat more than 3 tsp. added sugar per day. I did a little math and realized that means even a single homemade cookie, depending on recipe and yield, may actually be “too much” sugar — without any other sugar consumption at all! How would you suggest handling such a guideline? I have to admit I’m feeling a little defeated and stumped by that. We already don’t eat any sweetened cereals and we add our own sweeteners to plain yogurt, etc., make our own salad dressings and all of that…but if I can’t feed my kids a granola bar here and there or let them have a mug of hot cocoa or a homemade cookie after eating a day’s worth of unprocessed foods and fruits and vegetables, YIKES! I mean, even making homemade oatmeal for breakfast and drizzling a little maple syrup over the top is going to leave very little room that day for anything else. What’s your take?”

Sally: “That 3 tsp figure is from the American Heart Association. Personally I don’t think that’s realistic for most people (they also recommend everyone get 1500 mg sodium which I don’t think is realistic either). I think the Dietary Guideline’s recommendation is probably tough for most people too. I think overall diet quality is really important. As you say, if your children eat a largely unprocessed diet I don’t think going over the 3 tsp limit is going to be “toxic” for them (that headline, which I’m guessing the author did not write is a bit alarmist). The bottom line is that we should all be taking a look at the added sugar we are getting and see where we can cut back. The top source of added sugar in the American diet is sugary beverages. People simply cutting back on those would go a long way in reducing overall consumption. Personally I’m not worried about the added sugar in your (I’m sure amazing and delicious) homemade cookies, it’s the added sugar in the sweetened drinks people are guzzling that worry me.”


But here’s the thing. I’m not the only one who’s a bit flummoxed by all the sugar talk. And you know how I know? Not only do I see people talking about it on the internet every day, but my kids recently came home from school talking about their Health class — in which the teacher told a roomful of elementary school students that they should severely limit the amount of FRUIT AND DAIRY they consume.

I dug into this claim, and 3rd grader L. swore up and down it was true. “Mom. She said fruit and dairy are loaded with sugar and that sugar’s toxic. So we are supposed to eat way less of those things and replace them with grains and vegetables.”

Deep Breath….

Vegetables, OK…. “L., did she say WHOLE grains?”

L.: “Huh?”

So now I have a 3rd grader who is already somewhat resistant to eating fruit, and who would rather eat grain-based items than pretty much anything on the planet — which is, I suspect, a pretty common preference among kids — and he believes he’s right to reach for breads and pastas over the oranges I pack for him because oranges are now TOXIC. Because SUGAR. And my first-grader confirmed that the information had been given to his class as well, saying “Milk is full of way too much sugar, Mom. Just like soda.”

I’ve deprogrammed the boys successfully by explaining the difference between added sugars and naturally occurring sugars, and reminding them that while teachers are to be respected, they are not always infallibly correct. But I can’t help feeling frustrated all over again, because after years of doing my best to feed these kids well without being overly restrictive, to introduce them to the pleasures of eating (even chocolate cake, sometimes, yes!) AND the pleasures of feeling strong and healthy, the latest sugar demonization has finally gone far enough that the American Heart Association would (theoretically) deem me a failure when they eat oatmeal, and a respected teacher at their school has convinced them that I’m trying to kill them with apple slices and white milk.

It’s all a bit much. I’m re-reading Sally’s words like a mantra, but tell me: Is anyone else finding that the sugar backlash is starting to feel like too much to bear? Am I the only one seeking a little bit of sweet relief?