Just the Facts column: Excessive sugar over a prolonged period can lead to pre-diabetes
Our kids bring home oodles of goodies each Halloween. Then comes the guilty-pleasure part — chowing down on all that candy for days after. Adults are in the same boat as children, with many consuming even more Halloween treats than do kids — whether the candy’s absconded from their brood’s stash, from bowls in workplace break rooms or elsewhere.
Should we be concerned?
Before answering this question, let’s put Halloween into context. Halloween is the big kahuna of U.S. candy-dominated holidays, followed by Easter, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Amongst all these holidays, Coloradans eat about 20ish pounds of candy per year. By candy, we’re talking about chocolate, licorice, suckers and the ilk. Kids eat about 3 to 5 pounds each Halloween.
Candy is delicious. But it’s challenging. Two of those fun-size candy bars contain more sugar than a can of full-strength Coke — equivalent of gulping about 10 teaspoons of white table sugar. Yowza!
Correlation and Causation
The most common concern about Halloween candy is the same one that we hear at birthday parties: That all this sugar makes kids hyper. It turns out that scientists and psychologists have debunked this urban legend many times and in many ways. A sugar blast doesn’t alter kids’ behavior in such settings, not in boys, girls, kids with ADHD or those without. This urban legend is a classic example of the difference between correlation and causation. We observe kids eating a ton of candy or cake, and then we note their rambunctious behavior, and we conclude that one must cause the other.
But these events are correlated, not causal. What tends to happen in this setting is that other factors associated with these events (being excited, scared, tired, having skipped dinner, dressed up, etc.) cause kids’ behavioral changes. Moreover, parents, because they “believe” that they know what will happen with their kids’ post-sugary behavior, also unknowingly change their own behavior and expectations. This changes the way they perceive their kids’ behavior and the way they interact with their kids, including the way they warn, criticize, time and discipline their kids. In some cases, parents impact the way children behave by telling them that they’ll be hyper after eating so much cake or candy.
Rowdy behavior aside, the real issues with all this candy are longer-term and more hair-raising than any haunted house. They include scary-sounding phenomena such as pre-diabetes, diabetes, obesity and tooth decay.
Like HIV, these conditions don’t kill you directly — but they make it easier for other maladies to mar your life.
They occur not with a few-nights-per-year of candied abandon but with daily, long-term dosing of our bodies with what’s called free sugars or simple sugars, which are what’s in candy, juice, soda, cookies, honey, corn syrups and processed foods. In Colorado, we eat approximately 120 to 150 grams of these free sugars per day, but the World Health Organization recommends that we eat much less — not more than 25 to 50 grams per day. That’s the equivalent of about 6 to 12 teaspoons of sugar, or one or two full-sized Snickers per day. Egads — I’m way over that limit, even without Halloween!
Sugar isn’t quite in the same league as tobacco because we need a little bit of it to thrive. But it’s getting there.
For example, our high-calorie, sugar-rich diets can lead to a pre-diabetic condition known as metabolic syndrome, or pre-diabetes. In this situation, our bodies regularly have higher levels of insulin, a sugar-regulating hormone produced by special cells in our pancreas, termed islets. Higher insulin levels result from excess sugar consumption and lead to obesity. When we’ve had a sugar-rich diet for a long time, we become less sensitive to insulin, and these insulin-producing cells become overtaxed and exhausted. This is when pre-diabetes gives way to Type 2 diabetes. It’s like what happens to the long-battered liver of an alcoholic — except there are a lot more of us harming our pancreas than those who damage their livers.
The scary part: One in three Americans has pre-diabetes.
The alarming part: Pre-diabetes lacks any external or obvious symptoms.
Colorado’s Catching Up
The good news is that Colorado, save its rural areas, lags the rest of the United States in these conditions. But we’re catching up — our pre-diabetes and diabetes rates, like our obesity rates, have doubled in the last 20 years.
Fortunately, these things don’t need to haunt us because we can change the future. Pre-diabetes, like obesity, is readily resolved by tempering our intake of sugar and by increasing exercise. Exercise helps to reduce blood sugar levels and to diminish pre-diabetic insulin resistance. We don’t have to swear off Halloween candy, but perhaps just eat it in moderation or in consideration of the overall mountain of sugar that our poor ol’ pancreas has to deal with every day.
James Hagadorn, Ph.D., is a scientist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Send suggestions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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