Sugar-Coating Our Religion: Building the LDS Diabetes Ward of the Future

This Sunday, drop by the Primary (the LDS children’s organization) and look at the children as they sing during opening exercises. Then consider that one in every three of them may develop diabetes during their lifetime. This will very likely be a contributing factor in their premature death and will contribute to a significantly reduced quality of life. Some of these children may develop Type 2 diabetes (often called “adult onset” – representing over 90% of diabetes cases) long before they become adults. Once they get diabetes, it means a lifetime of expensive management of the disease and the constant risk of complications.

Most of this suffering is preventable. About 80% of type 2 diabetes is preventable by adopting a healthy diet and increasing physical activity. But so many children are at risk because they eat so much junk food, living on empty carbs while getting little exercise. Some of the children you look at this Sunday will soon be victims of the debilitating disease, diabetes. So why not bring a plate of brownies or a bag of candy and pass it around?

One parent recently told me how difficult it is to teach good nutrition to his children and keep them on healthy diets, because his efforts seem countered at every turn by well-meaning authority figures. Primary children are often rewarded with cookies, candy, brownies, etc. Ward socials, baptisms, and other events involve high-sugar foods and sometimes little else. And then outside of our sugar-coated religion, school teachers reward kids with candy and sweets, and numerous other events involve sugar-based refreshments. The word “refreshment” is now synonymous with empty carbs.

In a Church that places great emphasis on health (the Word of Wisdom) and provident living, it seems most improvident of us to be promoting unhealthy diets that can cause our people to suffer from the largely avoidable plague of diabetes.

Are we really building up our wards, or are we building up a future diabetes ward in the way we “reward” and “motivate” our young people?


Author: Jeff Lindsay

25 thoughts on “Sugar-Coating Our Religion: Building the LDS Diabetes Ward of the Future

  1. Thanks for posting this. People in our ward think we are crazy for not wanting to have food (which as you said is usually junk) involved with every ward function. Also when I was teaching primary I wanted to wring necks when candy was passed around. It’s so hard to be reverent when you are hopped up on sugar.

    Your words are very timely, very wise. Thanks again for saying this!

  2. My husband and I have been primary teachers for 1 1/2 years, and we’ve brought treats for our class exactly once (grapes and dried figs during a lesson about where/when Christ lived). This is because our Primary presidency asked that we rarely (if ever) bring food.

    I’m sure if they hadn’t given this direction, I would have brought food more often, thinking it would be fun. My husband and I had just been married 1 month when we were called, and we don’t really know much about kids. However, I noticed that the kids in our class didn’t get more excited about food than they did about coloring or ‘going fishing’ or any other activity we did. It’s been an eye opener, and I’m glad that our Presidency asked us not to bring food.

  3. The policy in our stake and ward is no food at all in Primary or youth Sunday School classes. (Or any adult classes, for that matter.) While this rule is overlooked on occasion, we generally do not see food on Sundays. I think the rule was created for building cleanliness and allergy reasons, though, not for general health!! The issue of obesity & diabetes is a relatively new one, and it’ll take a little time to adjust attitudes and practice.

  4. My wife and I have taught primary in our current ward for just over a year. Our stake has a policy against using food as a reward. The only time I can remember giving our kids food was a lesson on the word of wisdom. The lesson instructed us to bring healthy foods for the children to try. I was amazed that most of the children couldn’t remember ever having tried cantaloupe or honeydew melon!

    When we were first called, the class would whine and ask over and over if we had brought a snack for them. After a few months they only ask every once in a while, and we just tell them that we don’t bring snacks to primary and move on.

    Thanks for this insightful, frightening post.

  5. This has been a problem for quite a while, at least as long as I’ve been involved in the church, since the 80’s.

    I’ve made a stink about it locally, and people look at me like I’m crazy.

    But at least I’ve noticed more healthy food, such as veggie platters, in addition to the sweets at the functions.

    I’m glad more reasonable people such as Jeff are now pointing this out. Welcome to the choir.

  6. This is a good point Jeff. I think food at church activities should reflect the churches councils on maintaining a healthy diet. I think my branch is usually pretty good. I only remember having 1 teacher who’d bring us treats. Down in Brazil at the moment, I don’t think I’ve seen any food in the church at all in the past 3 months. They don’t even have food at baptisms, as is the custom in my branch branch, because there’s typically multiple baptisms every week.

  7. I am the primary president in my ward. I have had a few parents express concern over the candy their children sometimes come home with. Any suggestions on how to tell my well intentioned teachers to cut back on the treats. It’s mostly with the youngest kids. With church from 11:00-2:00, they get hungry. Advice would be appreciated.

  8. Joni:

    Just. Say. No.

    It’s up to the parents to feed the kids before and after church. And let the parents give their own kids snacks during or right-after sacrament if the parents believe the kids need to snack.

    Whenever I’ve been in a sacrament meeting that had kids in attendance, I believe at least some of those kids were snacking. I’ve always seem some form of crumbs or food on the floor in just about every sac meeting for over 5 years.

  9. Both of my daughters are on specific doctor ordered meal plans for separate medical reasons. There are many medical conditions beyond diabetes that are affected by foods. The food and treats at all church events and in classes has been a very devestating emotional experience for my children over the years. They have been singled out and embarrased by teachers and the other kids for not accepting the treats – they have felt hurt and angry when others eat in front of them – understandably, they have not wanted to even go to church sometimes…and just as bad were the well-meaning teachers who “brought something special” for them, which singled them out again and caused further embarrasment. When they were younge, they gave in and ate a treat a couple of times and ended up severely ill. Then, we had to work through the guilt issues on top of everything else.

    Bottom Line: We live in a day and age when it is time for everyone, especially members of the church – to wake up and get educated. Food causes chemical reactions in our bodies. Thus, FOOD IS MEDICATION! Any time you hand out something that goes into the mouth, you are unwittingly and incorrectly medicating that child! It can be dangerous. It can harm emotionally and physically. Tragically, it can even be deadly.

    Don’t wait for a church policy.
    PLEASE “feast upon the WORD” ONLY at church!

  10. Joni..

    I agree with The Bookslinger, just tell your teachers No snacks at all ever. Of course you might have to police them for a while. But I’m sure at your next primary board meeting you might explain why you want this policy and that you really need their support. If might be a good idea as well, to let the parents know that they need to make sure their kids have a snack before primary starts. Or at least develop a list of permissible things. When I taught primary years ago, we would only bring apple slices, baby carrots and grapes…nothing processed, nothing from a box, bag or can. THe PP was ok with that. I suggest consulting with the bishop and seeing what you can come up with.

    And the food alergy/dietary restrictions are something that really should be taken into effect when having food at a ward function as well. We have a family in our ward with multiple, different food allergies, they just don’t come to things if there is food, which is sad, because we really miss them, but they can’t take that chance.

  11. Aren’t the empty calories, sugar, saturated fats, and trans fats safe for us to eat after we “bless them to nourish and strengthen our bodies”!

    I almost laugh outloud during each prayer that contains such an awkward plea. It’s just hysterical when our leaders remind the person who is going to pray to ‘bless the refreshments’.

  12. I almost laugh outloud during each prayer that contains such an awkward plea.


    I remember in a youth activity once the young man offering the prayer over the refreshments (horribly over-sweet brownies, as usual) started on that vain repetition, then stopped, and changed it to “bless these refreshments that they won’t hurt us too much.”

    He got some weird looks, let me tell you, but should have gotten an ig-nobel prize: “makes you laugh, then think.”

    The odd thing is, I’ve yet to make a fruit- or bread-based dessert that wasn’t universally raved over, even though I routinely cut the sugar to tablespoons instead of cups. Remind me again why we only see sugar when people actually like the healthy alternatives?

  13. If you take any food items to a church function, such as a ward dinner or picnic, it’s good to put a little sign on the container/pot stating if it contains any foods that people are commonly allergic to:
    wheat (for those dishes which don’t obviously contain wheat, such as bread), soy (beans, sprouts, oil), peanuts (including oil), seafood, crustaceans.

    I often use multi-grain pasta, which contains soy. When I fry or brown chicken, I usually use peanut oil. Other related grains need to be included in wheat warnings, such as millet.

  14. Great post!!!!

    Since President Thomas Monson is a diabetic, I look forward to him
    adding “Sugar” to the Word of Wisdom. What an important addition and blessing that would be for all Saints.

    God Bless

  15. hmmm… I think this is the FIRST time I’ve ever disagreed with you Jeff!! Oh my goodness… maybe I should make a note in my journal. I mean, this is a big moment!! 🙂
    I don’t disagree with the overall point– we eat too much sugar. That’s a “duh”.
    But eating sugar does not CAUSE diabetes. And your article sort of insinuates that. Essentially, “go into primary and sunday school, look at all the kids, realize that one in three may develop diabetes and that’s at least partly due to teachers bringing in treats”?
    What they eat once a week does not cause diabetes. It doesn’t even LEAD to it. (and generally, teachers are NOT bringing treats every week, so it isn’t really “once a week”)
    People eat intermittingly from the time they get up, to the time they go to bed, every day, of every month, of every year. And you’re sort of making it sound like what happens only every now and then at church is going to cause diabetes? What may happen once or twice a month is a “problem”? I don’t think so. The problem is what’s in their HOMES, not what’s happening at church.
    And I hardly consider that a teacher bringing in treats on the occasional Sunday is ‘promoting’ an unhealthy diet.
    We’re supposed to eat meat sparingly, too. So if 2 or 3 three people bring a chicken dish, and someone brings a beef Chili dish, and someone brings a Lasangna with hamburger in it to the next ward social is “the Church that places great emphasis on health (the Word of Wisdom) and provident living” promoting an unhealthy diet?
    So why is it any different if 5 or 6 people bring a cake or plate of cookies?
    Understand, I DO agree that generally speaking, people eat too much sugar. We also eat too much unhealthy fats, too much meat– and we probably simply eat “too much”, period. We should all have smaller portions than we generally do.
    But what are you going to do?
    Tell everyone that from now on, at all ward socials, wedding receptions, baptisms, etc, that everyone is only allowed to bring stuff made from stone ground whole wheat? Or better yet, stone ground spelt? Only products made with Stevia? Everything has to be organic? Nothing pre-packaged, canned, processed, no hydrogenated oils, no trans-fats, etc?
    I mean otherwise, the Church is “promoting” unhealthy diets, right?
    Anyone ever go to the Bishop’s storehouse and see what they give to all the those who need church assistance? 5 pound bags of refined white sugar, products made from white bleached flour, canned foods, jars of peanut butter with all that sugar in it, jelly, pudding mix, fruit drink mix, etc, etc. I mean really– unless you think the Church’s method of decreasing the number of poor and downtrodden is to slowly kill them off by poisoning, then maybe we all need to lighten up just a little. 🙂

  16. We have a culture of prepared foods intersecting with a culture of showing caring through foods. I wish I could give or share without having to share goodies. Haven’t found a solution yet.
    Part two should be spiritual diabetes and sugar-coating our religion with doily’s and barbecues. Tough to make it positive enough to fit with your style, but interesting riff.

  17. Tracy:

    One of Jeff’s points was that if all of the authority figures in a child’s life are handing out sweets as snacks and rewards (as currently happens), it undermines the efforts of parents to teach good eating habits and alternative reward methods at home.

    Of course, for too many kids it simply reinforces the bad eating habits already in place at home. A little “undermining” of those habits with healthy foods might be a good thing!

    BTW, Jeff, was it intentional to post this right before the second biggest sugar glut of the year? I’m NOT looking forward to Sharing Time tomorrow morning… instead of learning and singing we’ll probably end up running laps around the cultural hall to burn off the Easter Bunny’s influence.

  18. Ryan said:
    “One of Jeff’s points was that if all of the authority figures in a child’s life are handing out sweets as snacks and rewards (as currently happens), it undermines the efforts of parents to teach good eating habits and alternative reward methods at home”

    Except that not ALL authority figures hand out sweets and rewards. And they certainly don’t do it EVERY time. Think of all the “authority figures” in children’s lives that they interact with regulary. School teachers, principals, church teachers, their friends’ parents, grandparents, etc, etc. They’re not ALL throwing out gumdrops and bon-bons at every occasion they meet or every time the child does something well. Sometimes they get stickers, sometimes verbal praise, sometimes a hug or pat on the back or some other kind of positive reinforcement. Especially in schools, the sweets in return for good behavior has really diminished.
    Even if one specific person DOES hand out “sweets” as a reward on a regular basis, does that NEGATE the fact that other authority figures do NOT?
    For the sake of argument– let’s assume for a minute that a particlular teacher DOES give a piece of candy as a reward each Sunday. Does that one piece of candy, once a week REALLY “undermine” what that child is being taught at home all day, every day, every week, every month?
    I think parents who believe that the intermittent actions of others have SO MUCH MORE influence
    than what they do and teach consistently in their own homes, completely underestimate their own power, and over estimate the power of others.

  19. From the title, I thought you were going off about superficial, happy-face Sunday School lessons.

    That said, our Primary also bans food. Unfortunately, they more than make up for it in Sunday School with the youth…

  20. Ditto to Mark. I also believe that “happy-face Sunday School lessons” and other oversight of the role of adversity in our lives, and the real emotional responses we have to that adversity that are awkward, uncomfortable, difficult, heavy, etc. can have the same damaging effect to our Spirits and progress that a poor diet has on the body. Those who feast on the words of Christ will understand that the Plan is one of Happiness, but that there is opposition to it all. That God is a God of emotion– although well-checked, perfectly disciplined emotion– and these emotions are very fundamental to the Characteristics that make God God. If we are striving also to become Gods and Goddesses, would it not be wise to allow ourselves to feel these “negative” feelings and then learn how to master them while we are in this probationary state?

    Just like fats are to be avoided in excess, they still need to be a part of our diet for healthy development and maintenance of necessary processes in the body. We have to know the bitter so that we can appreciate and really know the sweet. It is better, as our wise mother Eve noted, for us to go through all of these struggles.

    When we “sugar coat” life and think we must always have the happy face, we may err and begin to overlook the service we can offer to others who can’t so easily dismiss the sorrows and troubles in life. Who could use our love and compassion and succoring. If we are sugar coating it all, we might be quick to wrest the scriptures to our destruction, such as happened in a relief society meeting recently, where John 16:20 was interpreted to mean that if you feel unhappy about something you should just get over it because the rest of the world has moved on and is happy, and if you are lingering in your sorrows it is because you are self-centered and resisting the joy of the Gospel. This interpretation was met with many nods of agreement, and not a single protest, except a clarification by the teacher of what the footnotes reveal about the true meaning of this verse and the scripture in it’s context of the chapter.

    We can become lazy and our hearts can become cold if we are sugar coating our lives and gospel principles to present it all as if there was nothing but sheer Joy in this world and this Gospel. With it being Easter Sunday, I remember my childhood days when my mother would take sugar and moisten it and press it into molds to make little eggs. It made a hard crust. We must be careful not to crust over our hearts in a similar way.

  21. I just want to second what Tracy said. As a public school teacher, I see kids eat a lot of junk food, but they also eat a lot of good food. And while too many sweets all the time can be bad for you, the occasional sweet is not. Look at the food pyramid, and you’ll see that sugars, fats, and oils are not forbidden – rather, they are counselled as “occasional” items.

    It is one thing if a Primary or Sunday School teacher is telling kids, “Don’t eat healthy food! Only eat cookies and candy!” It is something entirely different to say, “Here’s a small treat. Remember – it is a treat, which means it is only meant to be eaten on special occasions.”

    Sorry, Jeff, but I think you’re creating a false dilemma here.

  22. In parts, I disagree with nearly everyone who posted in here. There IS a happy medium. We don’t have to BAN eating food in church. We don’t have to BLAME authority figures for giving food as a reward to children. Here’s what happens: You go to church for three solid hours without food (which is VERY bad for you by the way) and go home and snarf everything you see. Children especially. The only thing my family can’t seem to get out of their heads during church is how hungry they are!

    1. Food is a GOOD thing. We should celebrate it. Eat it. Bring it to church. Have activities that are surrounded by it. Don’t BAN food. Ban BAD food. For thin people, fat people, those who are allergic, everyone. We need to be accountable for ourselves and our children.

    2. We need to take advantage of healthy alternatives. Sugar free/Splenda, PB and celery, fruit, veggies, etc… promoting foods like this will reinforce it in our children. Give an APPLE as a reward. Give CHEESE as a reward. Give RASINS as a reward. PARENTS are to ensure you know their child’s allergies.

    3. The only people I see giving bad food to kids are housewives and moms who bring their tater-tot casserole to church. Authority figures are rarely contributors. As parents, we need to make HEALTHY things for our families and our church.

    4. Stop making excuses. Yes, the banana pudding has fruit in it. Yes, so does Jell-O. Brownies have eggs, cookies have wheat, etc… whatever. You know it’s bad for everyone, don’t bother bringing it.

    Bottom line is, PARENTS are responsible for what their children do and do not eat. Whether they are fat, thin, allergic or not – PARENTS should take responsibility in what their family eats.

  23. Thanks for the comments. I agree that sugar per se does not cause diabetes, nor do carbs or fats per se. But there is no question that poor diets and lack of exercise are major factors contributing to diabetes, and that obesity is very closely linked to type 2 diabetes. Some parents are trying to get their kids on healthy diets and want their kids to lose weight, and many other parents need to be doing the same, for 1/3 children today is likely to end up with diabetes later in life, most of which could be prevented. Handing out cookies on Sunday is not going to be the primary source of calories an at-risk child gets, but it’s a step in the wrong direction and reinforces the desirability of unhealthy food. Concerned parents have good reason for being ticked.

    One final note: it’s easy to think that it’s just one cookie you’re offering. But it’s easy for a child with an eating problem to put away two or three cookies without you noticing. And then you might not realize that an hour later another teacher or church leader might be giving out ice cream bars, and another two or three are put away. And then some other child might share a bag of candy, and then there might be a baptism with cookies and punch the same day. I can think of plenty of days in my life where junk food at church events probably was my major source of calories over a 24-hour period.

    So much of life is about the “slight edge” – the cumulative effect of many small positive or negative actions. And I think our sugar-coated approach to religion could make a long-term negative difference in many lives. Let’s cut back on the treats and leave nutrition and medication to parents.

  24. I think the reason people tend to bring snacks is because today’s kids are so hard to manage. They behave terribly during class because they have overly permissive parents who don’t discipline the kids on their own time or enforce proper church behavior. Then they turn them over to a teacher for 2 hrs who cant discipline them or send them back. Snacks are a nice way to bring some level of enjoyment to classes that bore hyper kids, fill the time and provide an incentive to behave in class. Lighten up people. The church culture is already serious as a heart attack as it is. Let’s enjoy ourselves in some aspects, geez.

  25. Why does the church have had a sugar industry, while sugar is a proven poison.

    Sugar is sucrose, and sucrose consists of glucose connected to fructose, which are separated when you have eaten it.

    So you are stuck with the poison fructose
    (see on youtube: "Sugar: the bitter truth" by professor Robert H Lustig)

    Was the "church-sugar" unrefined sugar, which is less bad?
    Someone knows?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.