As Muslims, we know we should avoid substances that negatively affect our health. We are, for example, prohibited from drinking alcohol and taking recreational drugs. However, there is one particular substance that is completely halal but potentially dangerous. It can be found almost everywhere we go and nowadays it is incorporated into nearly everything we eat. As you may have guessed, the substance is sugar.
While it can be found in obvious foods like cupcakes and ice cream, sugar is also found in some unexpected places, like ketchup, bread, multigrain cereals, salad dressings, and soup. In its natural forms, such as in fresh fruits and dairy products, sugar can be beneficial. However, most of the sugar we consume in modern times does not come from a glass of milk, an apple, or a date. Rather, it’s in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, processed cane sugar, refined fructose, maltose, sucrose, and other added sweeteners.
Even many “health foods” like yogurt, smoothies, and granola bars often contain a great deal of added sugar. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), “American kids consume 81 grams per day, equaling over 65 pounds of added sugar per year.”1 That amount far exceeds the AHA recommendation that “children ages 2 to 18 should limit their added sugar consumption to less than six teaspoons (25 grams) per day.”2 In other words, American kids, on average, are eating over three times the amount of added sugar that they should.
Is sugar addictive?
There’s a reason sugar is so popular and ubiquitous — our bodies naturally have a strong, positive reaction to it. Eating sugar releases opioids and dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is a key part of the body’s “reward circuit.” When a certain behavior or substance triggers a large release of dopamine, we feel a pleasant “high,” and our body longs to repeat the experience. Eventually, though, we grow accustomed to the dopamine spike, and we need more and more of that substance or behavior to achieve the same “high.” This is why many doctors believe that sugar is an addictive substance, and some say it’s proven to be even more addictive than cocaine.3
What are the risks of consuming too much sugar?
According to Harvard Medical School, “Consuming too much added sugar can raise blood pressure and increase chronic inflammation, both of which are pathological pathways to heart disease. Excess consumption of sugar, especially in sugary beverages, also contributes to weight gain by tricking your body into turning off its appetite-control system because liquid calories are not as satisfying as calories from solid foods. This is why it is easier for people to add more calories to their regular diet when consuming sugary beverages.”4 The article quotes Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, as saying, “The effects of added sugar intake — higher blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease — are all linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke.”5
What can parents do?
As a mother of five, I know how extremely challenging it can be to reduce my kids’ sugar intake. In most cultures, people routinely use sweet foods as a reward and almost all celebrations and holidays include treats like cake, cookies, ice cream, and candy. Prohibiting sugar completely might seem like the obvious solution, and yet this approach can be problematic, too. Making sugar seem taboo might cause our children to want it even more.
“You don't want to vilify sugar,” writes [nutritionist Lauren] Harris-Pincus. “It doesn't promote a healthy relationship with food. We worry too much about what foods to avoid and not enough about what foods to include. Half of your plate should be fruits and veggies. The more room you give to the healthy items, the less room there is for the junkie stuff.’”6
Our sugar intake, then, needs to be treated with wisdom and balance. Islam is a faith of moderation and so this concept of balance is congruent with our beliefs. As parents, we do need to educate ourselves and our children about the negative health effects of added sugar. We should also read ingredients carefully, learn the many ways sugar is disguised and renamed, and teach our children the difference between natural sugar and added sugar. We might not want to deny our kids a cupcake at an Eid celebration or an ice cream cone on a hot summer day, but we can definitely limit the added sugar in our day-to-day life.
Here are four steps we can take immediately:
1. Completely eliminate sweetened beverages from your home.
Soft drinks, sports/energy drinks, and processed fruit juice are leading sources of added sugars in the American diet.7 These beverages have no nutritional value. One simple yet very powerful step parents can take is to eliminate sweetened beverages completely from their household. A child who grows up drinking water and milk will not crave soda or think that it’s an everyday indulgence.
2. Make your own treats.
Eating muffins, cakes, and cookies occasionally can be fine, particularly if the treats are made with natural ingredients and less added sugar. Fruits are a delicious dessert on their own and can naturally sweeten many recipes, making added sugar unnecessary. Here’s another sweet tip: instead of serving ice cream, try blending frozen bananas or pineapple with a tiny bit of milk, almond milk, or coconut water. Blended frozen fruit is as creamy, sweet, and delicious as ice cream without any added sugar.
3. Reward your children with treats that are not food-related.
If your child earns a good grade, wins a sporting event, or memorizes a new chapter of the Quran, reward him/her with something other than sweets. There are many alternative rewards that will not reinforce the idea that sugar is associated with happy feelings and celebrations.
4. Model responsible behavior.
Our children watch what we eat and how we treat our own bodies. If we prioritize our own health and make conscientious food choices, our children will notice and absorb this information. We need to practice what we preach or else our words will be meaningless. Eliminating most added sugar from our own diet will convey a meaningful message to our children. When they see us enjoying fresh fruits for dessert, hydrating with water instead of soda or sports drinks, and cheerfully (not regretfully) saying “no” to the dessert menu, they will realize that healthy food choices matter.
Laura El Alam is a freelance writer and editor and a first-generation American Muslim. She is the author of over 100 published articles and has written a children’s book, Made From the Same Dough, due to be released in 2023, inshaAllah. A wife and mother of five, Laura lives with her family in Massachusetts. You can visit her online at www.seaglasswritingandediting.com.