The American Heart Association did a dramatic policy shift a few years ago, changing the dietary recommendations for the prevention of heart disease. The long touted low-fat diet was out and replaced with the recommendation of a lower carbohydrate diet with very restricted added sugar. This was based on a growing body of evidence that the broadly recommended “healthy diet” since WW II was actually contributing to the obesity and diabetes epidemic that contributes to, of all things, heart disease risk! For a discussion of that research that led us into the low-fat era see Alzheimers and Egg. Low fat actually translates to high carbohydrate, and the food industry quickly learned that added sugar would increase consumption.
Unfortunately, there has been a wealth of social norms developed around carbohydrate and added sugar consumption. One is that it is the most commonly used rewards to make happy children. “Treats” have become the norm after school, after a soccer game, any time we eat out, and many more circumstances. A recent study wanted to examine the exact level of added sugar consumption in infants (11 mos or less) and toddlers. The findings were startling and suggest that behavior lags behind science derived guidelines somewhere between several years and never!
Habits are developed early and often the earlier, the harder they become to break if a new understanding finally emerges. The team of researchers stressed this in their discussion of their study data that “points out that eating patterns established early in life shape taste preferences later.”
This was demonstrated in a study which looked at exposing rats to both sweet taste and cocaine. Once one was chosen the access to the other was blocked during that session. Over time, 94% chose “sweet” over cocaine. The researcher’s conclusions were chilling:
“We speculate that the addictive potential of intense sweetness results from an inborn hypersensitivity to sweet tastants. In most mammals, including rats and humans, sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants. The supranormal stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, would generate a supranormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction.”
It appears that we are not wired to moderate frequent sugar exposure. Perhaps not starting the sugar/reward learning early in life is the best option.
Herrick et al. Added Sugars Intake among US Infants and Toddlers. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Vol. 120, Issue 1, p23–32
Lenoir et al. Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. PLoS One. 2007; 2(8): e698.