I like dessert; most of us do. The problem is we are eating dessert for breakfast, lunch and dinner – and we drink dessert all day long.
Sugar used to be a condiment; but now it’s a diet staple. Soda, juice, sweetened coconut water, sweetened teas, Frappuccinos —these are all desserts. Foods with added sugar are dessert if any form of sugar is one of the first three ingredients. Granola is dessert. Fruit-flavored yogurt is dessert. Chinese chicken salad is dessert. We, and especially our kids, are eating and drinking dessert all day long. While dessert captivates our brain’s “reward center”, it is creating a tidal wave of chronic diseases – diseases so nefarious and insidious that our healthcare system is not prepared for the flood of children with Type 2 diabetes and liver disease, who will be sick for decades and are already clogging up our healthcare system. And we know that the added sugar in food stimulates the “reward center” of the brain, similar to drugs of abuse; which of course is why the food industry puts it there, to get you to buy more. Tell a cocaine addict to lay off their drug of choice — see how far that gets you. About as far as telling a kid to cut the cookies.
Thirty-nine percent of our children eat school lunch, and 25% of our children eat school breakfast every day, as part of the National School Lunch (and Breakfast) Program (11). The American Heart Association limits kids to 4 teaspoons, and adults to 6-9 teaspoons of added sugar per day (12). Yet a typical school breakfast consists of Froot Loops and a glass of orange juice. That’s 11 teaspoons of added sugar! Should they be eating dessert for breakfast? The National School Lunch Program serves 1% milk, and 1% chocolate milk, which has 4 teaspoons of added sugar. Should they be drinking dessert with lunch? Who really is responsible for our children’s food supply in schools? The same people who sent our soldiers to war, and didn’t prepare for their return. The same people who are attempting to gut the “Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act” and replace it by the “Dessert for Lunch Act”. Their first step is allowing schools to opt-out of the program which gives schools additional money for healthy food. They haven’t prepared for the glut of childhood type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes and chronic metabolic disease that will follow these kids till they die.
The documentary movie “Fed Up” (2) (full disclosure, I’m in it) is an exposé of how what the food industry has fed us has undermined the American diet, leading to a pandemic of obesity and diabetes, all in the name of profit; and how the U.S. Congress has aided and abetted the industry at every turn. Indeed, it was Congress that declared pizza a vegetable (3). The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act passed by Congress in 2010 raised the national per-pupil lunch expenditure from $2.80 to $2.86 — not even enough to cover the cost of a carrot (4). The increase wasn’t enough to allow school cafeterias to subsist on their own. True to its [JJH1] nature, instead of upping the dollar amount, this week Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) and the House Appropriations Committee decided to gut the ridiculously low bar they themselves had previously set, by allowing schools to “opt-out” of the federal nutrition standards. This will no doubt start the roll back the nutrition standards for all schools, which Congress expects will ultimately culminate in the “No Hungry Kids Act”, winding its way through the House (5). Might as well call this the “Dessert for Lunch Act”. And why did Congress engage in this schizophrenic exercise? Because the American Legislative and Exchange Council, a lobbying group for the food and drug industries, makes campaign contributions to 338 of 535 members of Congress (6).
But “Dessert for Lunch (and Breakfast)” has ramifications. We have already seen the medical devastation of our current sugar glut. In 1977, the McGovern Commission issued the first dietary recommendations for Americans which espoused the “low-fat” hypothesis (which was also the high-sugar hypothesis), and in response we saw childhood obesity rates increase from 5% to 30%, we saw children develop Type 2 diabetes (never seen before), and we developed a completely new disease (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease), which is now seen in one-seventh of American children (7}. In the process, we have seen academic test scores fall, behavior problems and the need for medication increase (8,9), and we have seen our percent GDP spent on health care rise from 9.0% to 17.2% (10). More people are shuttled through the medical system every day, and 75% percent of healthcare dollars are spent on sugar-related diseases that are preventable. If we don’t acknowledge and aggressively address the inherent connection between “all dessert all the time” and the medical, social, and economic devolution we are currently facing, America will find itself fat, stupid, and broke.
The fate of General Shinseki and the Veteran’s Administration health debacle is a cautionary tale of a given input and a predictable output. That is, if you send 2 million troops to war over a 17-year period (a given input), then you should anticipate the need to scale up, en masse, the medical system for returning wounded veterans (a predictable output) (1). Anyone could have predicted the flood of sick veterans entering the VA system during and after numerous military interventions and the longest war the U.S. has ever fought. We did not engage nor execute a ‘surge’ healthcare strategy commensurate to our military operation to mitigate the suffering of our veterans.
Send soldiers into battle — expect more health consequences of war. Flood the cafeterias of our schools with sugar — expect the health consequences of sugar. The future of our children and their children’s children is dependent on whether we, as a society, are OK with dessert everywhere and dessert all the time…or we reframe how we think about dessert.