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How My Family (Sort of) Failed on the Fed Up Challenge

Photograph by Yvonne Condes

My boys and I tried the Fed Up Challenge to go sugar-free for 10 days and we failed miserably. I had seen the documentary that chronicles the lives of four teens as they struggle with obesity and I was deeply affected by it. Even before I wrote my review of Fed Up and interviewed the film’s producer, Laurie David, I told my sons that I felt that we’d been eating too much sugar and it was time to cut back.

The film documents how the food industry has slowly been adding more sugar to foods consumed by and marketed to children including cereals, granola bars, crackers and fast food. My boys and I talked about what it would mean to eat less sugar: No leftover Easter candy, no ice cream after dinner and no cookies in their lunches. My boys are 8 and 10 years old and they seemed to get it.

What they didn’t get, and what was shocking to me, is that there is added sugar in everything; 80 percent of processed foods contain added sugar. The organic granola bars I packed them every day had 11 grams of sugar, the jelly for their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches had 8 grams, and the organic yogurt squeeze had 9 grams of sugar. That’s 28 grams of added sugar in one lunch box! According to the American Heart Association, 4 to 8-year-olds should be getting about 12 grams sugar a day and preteens about 24 grams a day. That means my 8-year-old was getting way too much sugar every day, and from products that are considered healthy.

It’s the “healthy” designation for food that was most upsetting about Fed Up. The kids in the movie were trying desperately to lose weight by exercising and watching what they eat. But there’s so much stacked against them.

Approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Childhood obesity rates have doubled in the last 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and rates are higher for Hispanics. One boy, 14-year-old Joe Lopez, weighed 400 pounds. Doctors and his parents were so concerned about this health that he undergoes gastric bypass surgery. The complications are terrifying and it was heartbreaking to watch his parents, who are overweight themselves, have to make the drastic decision.

The parents in the film agonize about what to feed their kids and what to do to help them. But we don’t have those problems, I thought. I imagined that it would be easy for us to cut back. I cook often, rarely let my kids have juice or soda, and we only have fast food when we’re on a road trip. My goal was to use this opportunity to become the mom I had once been, the one who pureed organic vegetables for baby food and frequented the farmers market. I would cook more, we would embrace whole fruits and vegetables, and my kids would thank me for it.

In 2011-2012, obesity prevalence was higher among Hispanics (22.4%) and non-Hispanic black youth (20.2%) than non-Hispanic white youth (14.1%), according to the Centers for Disease Control.

After the first day, my 8-year-old wailed, “I don’t want to do this!” He questioned why I made him do this horrible thing when I thought we’d come to the decision together as a family. My husband has type 1 diabetes—formerly known as juvenile diabetes, as it’s often diagnosed during childhood, and only five percent of people with diabetes have this form of the disease—so he couldn’t participate.

My son didn’t understand why I wouldn’t pack him the same granola bar I’d been putting in his lunch all year. I packed cheese and whole grain crackers, made him sandwiches, loaded his lunch with apples and strawberries and, like I do every day, gave him water to drink.

My older son seemed fine with it until we went to his baseball game. I had told both boys that they should use their best judgment when faced with a sugary treat and make good choices. But it was the birthday of one of his teammates and the parents had brought cupcakes for the whole team. He looked at me and looked at the cupcake. He chose the cupcake—and I didn’t stop him.

Sadly, I didn’t do any better for myself either. When a friend handed me a margarita on that Friday night, I took it and didn’t realize until I had half of it that it was loaded with sugar.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say that we failed miserably. We may not have done well on the challenge, but even so, it has changed our lives. I asked my older son what he thought of the challenge and he said, “We’re definitely eating less sugar than we were before.”

Yesterday at the grocery store, he was reading labels and asked if he could have a box or crackers noting that there was no added sugar. Both boys are much more aware of what they’re eating and I’m much more aware of what I’m buying. Hopefully, we'll be able to continue on the path to eliminating all the extra sugar we've been consuming.

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