Nutritionist expert and holistic lifestyle coach Benjamin Cooper claims sugars have been a staple of the human diet for centuries. “Sugars are the quickest form of energy, so even when we were in the wild as hunters-gatherers, we would use vegetation, like berries, to give us quick energy to be able to do what we need to do,” Cooper said.
Yet, there have been several fundamental changes in the food industry resulting in a surplus of sugar in most diets. Cooper believes it was not until the end of World War II that the diets of Americans and Britons alike started to focus more on sugar with the profligacy of food supplies.
Diets changed once again when nutritionists advocated for the reduction of fat consumption. “If you take fat out of food it does not taste nice, so [the food industry] added the sugar, and they found out that there is a lot of money to be made from it,” Cooper said.
Today, Cooper believes sugar’s evolution has taken a more sinister turn. Cooper has observed the development of “hidden sugars” has dramatized the obesity epidemic. “When the body eats something that contains either sucralose, aspartame, or high fructose corn syrup, it’s expecting sugar but it does not get it, so then your body keeps calling for sugar because it needs the energy,” he said. Common examples of foods with these ingredients include diet sodas and cereal products.
While Cooper works with many clientswho experience an addiction to sugar, and consequently manage substantial weight gain, food industries beg to differ. “There is no association between sugar consumption and obesity” according to a 2003 report from the National Soft Drink Association.
Despite sugar’s vices, Cooper believes the body is apt to processing natural sugars. “I think the amount of hidden sugars have increased over the last 10 years, which is more of a concern,” Cooper said. “Sometimes I recommend to my clients that they actually go back to a sugar-containing food if they are on a substitute sugar because the body will recognize it and will be able to handle it a lot better.”
While some turn to caffeine to go through the day, Anna Graham (’16) consumes sugar. She used to drink at least one energy drink a day, usually Monster or Red Bull, but stopped when she found she couldn’t sleep properly. “I find it difficult to go through a day without any caffeine or sugar,” Graham said. “If I don’t have any caffeine, I get a headache, or without sugar I get a headache, and just feel kind of tired and ill.”
Because Graham drinks mostly diet sodas, the majority of her sugar intake comes from food like McDonalds, or snacks like Skittles. “I just eat a lot of processed foods and stuff that’s sugary, like fast food.”
In juxtaposition to Graham, after being told by a doctor and nutritionist to stay away from wheat, lactose and gluten because of intolerance, Virginia Galbraith (’16) took it to the next step to include processed sugars. Eliminating certain foods from her diet became a “lifestyle choice” for Galbraith. Galbraith believes it to be hard to find foods that don’t contain sugar, simply because it can appear in unexpected things. “There are so many things that you don’t realize have processed sugar in them,” Galbraith said. “So things like breads for example, even if they’re gluten free or healthy, a lot of the time they have higher amounts of sugar than breads that aren’t gluten free because they have to substitute for the taste, so you have to make sure that you’re reading the labels.”
Similar to Galbraith, Andrew Noorani (’16) has become more aware about what he eats since he started cooking. “As soon as I started cooking I was more aware of ingredients and what goes into food and what I’m putting into my body,” Noorani said.
Eating cleaner for Noorani means finding ways to incorporate vegetables into his cooking. Noorani currently doesn’t eat candy or juices, and stays away from pastas and carbs because of the sugar crashes he experiences after eating them. “If I have pasta I will crash two hours later, my body will just feel bloated and cramp and I can’t do sport or I can’t focus.”
In a contrast to Noorani, Stephanie Bell (’18) is in the midst of cutting out processed sugar from her diet for the second time. Her first attempt, – last year the summer before her freshmen year -, failed because she wasn’t “committed to it” and allowed herself excuses to consume sweets.
Rather than weening herself off of sugar, Bell cut herself off of it completely, resulting in being very moody for the first few days. “It wasn’t a physical withdrawal, it was more of a mental kind of thing, where it felt like I needed it so badly,” Bell said.
The complete exclusion of cutting out processed sugars was prompted by her mother, who is also sugar free. as well as research Bell had read. “I decided to [cut out sugar] just because my mom told me about how good she felt and also I know how bad sugar is,” Bell said. “I’ve read the articles and I just figured, why put something in my body that’s going to do such bad things to me?”
Because of how ingrained and prevalent processed sugar is in the food we eat, Bell thinks that it is very difficult to not be addicted to sugar. “I believe that everyone is addicted to sugar unless you are off sugar,” she said.
Before giving up sugar, Bell would have cereal every morning for breakfast, something she replacde with eggs. Although Bell doesn’t feel drastically different, she feels the most important aspect of not consuming processed sugar is the lack of wanting it anymore. “I feel like I don’t need sugar, and that’s the best part,” Bell said. “Now I’m starting to get to the point where I don’t even want any sugar, it’s just irrelevant to me.”
Soda, candy, everything with processed sugar, had to go. This was the scenario in Physical Education teacher Grant Hiller’s previous school in New Zealand.
Hiller’s past school was overrepresented with regards to national obesity statistics. Many of the students came from a “lower socio-economic background,” he said. Echoing Cooper’s previous assertion, Hiller found the lower price of usually processed products with high sugar content often overshadowed healthier, more expensive alternatives.
When Hiller started at his previous school he played an instrumental role in removing sugar from the campus. “In New Zealand the government had initiatives for schools dealing with obesity, and so one of those initiatives was the Healthy Schools project,” he said. “What that meant was schools get extra funding if they make certain changes within their school, for instance, the cafeteria having less sugary products or less products with refined products in them, like colas or other sodas like that, fruit flavored drinks [and] candy.”
Despite his previous school’s progressive attitudes towards sugar, Hiller cannot directly speak to the success of the change. “Some teachers noted that their students’ behavior, especially after lunch times, had gotten better, however, there is no hard evidence that backs that up at all,” he said.
To a certain extent, Hiller believes the student’s relationship with sugar actually worsened. “There were some corner shops near the school,” Hiller said, and that’s where students started to get their soft drinks before school.
The negative impacts of the sugar ban were clearly noticeable Hiller. “I do remember distinctly seeing students getting a two liter bottle of soda at 7:30 in the morning and coming to school swigging on it, whereas before hand we were less likely to see that happening because they could get those products in school,” he said.
Only three years ago the Catering Department, in coordination with Head of School Coreen Hester, took a particularly austere route in limiting the sugar content of cafeteria items. For roughly one year, milk and water were the only beverages sold in the cafeteria in an effort to reduce sugar consumption. “Really the reintroduction of the juices was because of the ground swell of feeling from particularly High School students, who felt that we had taken away so much, it was one thing that they wanted back,” Head of Catering Christine Kent said.
Juice, however, is only a stepping stone in the transformation the cafeteria has experienced over the past decade. Previously, students could purchase candy bars, oreos and off-brand sodas.
Despite the school’s radical transformation that Kent believes has made ASL cafeteria “exceed” national benchmarks, the menu is still not all healthy. “You don’t want someone to have plain pasta, garlic bread and a jacket potato everyday, but the option is there because we give everyone from Grade 5 upwards the ability to make their own choices,” Kent said.
Although the cafeteria has moved towards providing healthier options, Kent explained that the booster club does not follow the same guidelines. “The booster club should be a little bit more accountable. From a nutritional point of view, and my financial point of view as head of the catering, you kind of think its unfair competition. Sometimes in the afternoons if you have choices of chocolate bars and sodas as opposed to baked crisps and bags of nuts,” Kent said.
With mounting evidence, sugar is quickly muscling its way into a position of infamy. “We have got 60 percent of adults [who] are obese in the U.K.,” Cooper said. “So you have got a big problem with sugar.” The problems Cooper works with on a daily basis extends beyond obesity, with research suggesting sugar has connections to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes.
It’s not easy to just alter one’s diet though, as Cooper has seen with his clients. “Sugar has a similar effect to the brain as say cocaine,” he said. Change will only occur if “people [receive] education, and as soon as they are educated they will switch to healthier alternatives and then that will change the industry because where there is no demand, supply will change.”