Laura Washington: Chicago pediatrician sees the ravages of sugar daily

SHARE Laura Washington: Chicago pediatrician sees the ravages of sugar daily

Fighting obesity and diabetes begins with parents keeping sugary drinks and junk food out of the house. | THINKSTOCK.COM

As the war over Cook County’s sweetened beverage tax rages on, our children are the biggest casualties.

Dr. Icy Cade-Bell cares. A pediatrician for nearly 30 years, she knows high sugar consumption leads to deadly outcomes.

“Everybody knows pop is not good for you or, rather, you should not drink a lot of pop,” she said when we met last week.


Yet she battles childhood obesity every day, treating children and adolescents at Comer Children’s Hospitaland the Friend Family Health Centeron Chicago’s South Side.

Cade-Bell also is the medical director of the University of Chicago Pediatric Mobile Medical Unit, which visits schools to treat children who lack access to regular medical care. Many are African-American and from low-income families.

A 2013 study by the City of Chicago found that 48.6 percent of Chicago Public Schools sixth-graders were overweight or obese. Among 9th graders, it was 45 percent.

At every clinic session, Cade-Bell said, sees at least one child who is overweight to obese.

Sugar is a leading culprit, leading to Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other serious maladies. She cites the mantra of a national anti-obesity campaign:“Rethink your Drink.”

Yes, parents know pop is bad, she said, “but I’m not sure people think about Capri Suns, or Hawaiian Punch or Kool-Aid or juice.”

Even 100 percent juice has sugar.

Keep them out of the house, Cade-Bell advises parents. “It starts there,” she notes. “I also talk to them about other houses the child might go to.”

Like grandma’s.

“I talk about getting all the adults that take care of the child on the same page,” said Cade-Bell, a mother of three. “I think maybe that’s the hardest thing for families, because you can imagine. You are talking to your mom, the child’s grandmother, about how you want your child fed.”

She avoids two words: “fat” and “diet.”

“I don’t want to label people. I don’t want people to walk out, particularly kids, walk out of this and say, ‘she said that I’m fat.’I think that’s not actually helping them be more healthy.”

Don’t starve yourself. Don’t focus on special diets. “When you talk about weight loss. People translate that into I am going to go on a diet. And we are not really talking about a diet.”

It’s about nutrition, about choosing more milk and water, stocked with calcium and vitamins, instead of pop, loaded with calories and sugar. Pop is OK, but not every day. And in cups, not liters.

Yet childhood obesity is growing, leaving her “a little frustrated,” Cade-Bell admits. “You also wonder if how you do it is making an impact.”

There are so many complexities. Parents are busy. They don’t get enough crucial information. Some face an array of social and economic barriers.

“I think more about motivation. In a busy clinic visit you’ve got a lot to do in that 15 to 20 minutes and it’s tempting to kind of just throw out the sound bites.”

Telling children sugary drinks will lead to diabetes in 20 years doesn’t always work, but “telling them they might feel better and they might perform better on that sports team. That might resonate with them.”

“You’ll fit better in clothes, you have more energy… . It will change your life in ways that you will not expect.”

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