Sugar Free January and the Modeling of Health Behaviors

by Jay Maddock, PhD

The Dean’s Perspective focuses on issues pertinent to the relationship between academic public health and the practice community.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

In the middle of this past December, I had finally had it. After receiving a three-pound box of chocolates, four pecan pies, countless cookies and candy, and attending six holiday parties in a week, enough was enough. I decided that the dean’s office would be doing Sugar Free January, where there would be no sugary treats, sugar-added celebrations, or other public mass consumption of sugar for a 31-day period.

The evidence is clear. Sugar is bad for health, and Americans consume too much of it. The American Heart Association recommends that women should consume less than 100 calories a day in added sugar, and men should consume less than 150 calories. A 20-ounce bottle of soda exceeds these limits. Data from NHANES showed that over 70% of adults consumed more than 10% of their calories from added sugar and that 10% consumed more than 25% of their daily calories from added sugar. Consumption of added sugar has been linked with obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and, most concerning, cardiovascular disease mortality. The evidence is fairly clear that if Americans decreased their added sugar consumption, there would be a positive effect on the public’s health.

The effects of social modeling of behaviors has been studied extensively. Bandura’s classic studies in the 1960s with the Bobo doll demonstrated the effects of observational learning in children. Since then hundreds of studies have examined norm setting and group expectations for alcohol consumption, exercise participation, food consumption, and a variety of other behaviors. For food consumption, there are numerous studies showing that people respond to social cues that it is acceptable and normal to eat a certain food in a specific setting.

Shortly after the holiday break, while my 9-year-old son was still on school vacation, I brought him to work. In an effort to keep him busy so I could get some work done, I sent him throughout the school with notes announcing No Sugar January to place on people’s candy, doughnuts, and other sweets. Sadly, he found sugar-added foods in the common areas of almost every suite in the building. While most people were receptive to the no sugar initiative, some people were upset that they were being asked not to offer sugar to everyone who entered their office suites.

So what is wrong with having a candy bowl or a box of doughnuts out for everyone who enters the office? It certainly is the social norm in offices across America. Of course, smoking in the office was also a social norm just a few decades ago. As public health professionals, we should be modeling healthy behaviors. No one is expecting everyone to be perfect all the time. If you enjoy something sweet at the end of your lunch, feel free to bring it with you, but don’t bring fifty of them to share with everyone who passes by. It’s the food environment that needs to change to support healthy eating. Over 10% of American adults has diabetes. That means that 1 out of 10 people who come into your office could be diabetic. Do we really want to be offering them candy? If those of us in public health cannot follow this, how can we expect our students, patients, or community members to do the same thing?

Health departments and schools of public health were some of the first places to ban indoor smoking in our efforts to reduce the effects of secondhand smoke. Is it time to do this for sugar?

Don’t plan on there being a candy dish in the dean’s office on February 1 either.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD is the Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]

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