An occasional sweet treat probably won’t do any harm, but many children eat far too much sugar each day, setting them up for health problems now and in the future. Alana Kirk-Gillham investigates how too much sugar could be hurting your kids.
Kids love sugar. But unfortunately so does dental decay, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, ADHD and a host of other debilitating diseases.
From birth, babies naturally develop a preference for sweet things, which is absolutely necessary for early growth. But if that preference turns into an addiction, then excess growth and in some cases obesity, is only one damaging punch from the sugar hit.
The level of added sugar in our children’s diet is becoming a serious problem, leading to long-term health issues. Sugar can have an immediate impact on children in terms of teeth decay and obesity, but also memory under performance. Over consumption of sugar has been linked to poor memory function, learning disorders, and depression. Research has also shown that chronic consumption of added sugar dulls the brain’s mechanism for telling you to stop eating.
But amidst the current buzz around the dangers of sugar, it’s important to remember we all do need it. A healthy diet should contain a significant amount of naturally occurring sugar from fruit and grains. Our brain and body need it to function properly and children especially require it for energy and growth. In fact, our brain cells need twice the energy of all other cells in the body, and derive it from glucose (blood sugars).
Sugar is not the enemy. But added sugar is.
So what is added sugar, and how much is too much?
Added sugar is sugar that is used as an ingredient in any form of processed foods such as bread, cakes, jam, and sauces. It is also the sugar that is added in its own granulated form to food and drinks such as our breakfast cereals or cups of tea and coffee.
Added sugar is so embedded in our everyday diets it can be hard to realise how much our children are consuming.
Alarmingly, sugar is a key ingredient in fruit juice, flavoured milk, energy and fruit drinks, types of yoghurts and most children’s cereals.
Added sugar comes in many forms and can be labelled as glucose, sucrose, maltose, corn syrup, fructose, hydrolyzed starch, lactose, mannitol and honey so be careful when reading labels as it is not always called sugar.
Healthy sugar (such as those found in fruit and vegetables) come with lots of fibre, which can make you feel full and restrict how much you eat. However, added sugars are ’empty calories’ adding no nutritional value, and will rarely leave you feeling satisfied. The sugars in fruit are also broken down and utilised differently to normal table sugar, and won’t be combined with preservatives, artificial colours and flavourings that you find in processed foods. The added benefit of fruit over other sugary foods is that it also contains fibre, vitamins and minerals.
How much is too much?
It is recommended that a child has no more than 12g of added sugar a day. There are current proposals to reduce this to 5g. When you think that one fizzy drink contains four times the current daily recommended amount of added sugar at 40g, you can see how easy it is to over-consume! Even fruit juice has all of the sugar but none of the fibre – one 8oz glass of orange juice contains 21g of sugar.
When checking out labels take note of where sugar is placed. Ingredients are listed in order of weight, and so if sugar, or any form of it, is in the top three ingredients that food has a high added sugar content. As a rule of thumb, a high sugar item has 15g of sugar per 100g or more. Low sugar content is 5g or less per 100g of food. Children develop cravings for sugar at an early age. Early eating options often develop into later eating preferences so the earlier you start your children on a diet with low added sugar, the easier it will be for them to adhere to it as they grow up.
There are three main signs that your child is consuming too much sugar:
- The first is cavities. No matter how well they clean their teeth, if they eat too much sugar, they will get cavities.
- The second is when thirsty do they ask for a sugary drink, or water? Sugar is addictive. Children typically not addicted to sugar will ask for water.
- Finally if you don’t notice a difference in your child’s behaviour when they eat something sugary, they may have developed a high tolerance. If your child can drink a can of soda and show no behavioural change, it could be a sign they consume too much sugar.
To reduce the sugar content in your child’s diet, pull back slowly, reducing bit by bit, and make the replacements as fun as possible. You can still make sugars ‘sometimes’ food given in small amounts on occasion rather than as a staple part of the diet. It’ll make your child sweeter, but not over-sweetened.
How to reduce sugar in your child’s diet
- Replace all juice and fizzy drinks with water.
- Read the labels – many children’s foods have added sugar.
- Buy plain yogurt and add natural sweeteners such as raspberries and other fruit.
- Do not buy breakfast cereals with high sugar content – most children’s cereals will exceed their daily recommended allocation of sugar in one bowl! Porridge and whole grain cereals are low sugar.
- Keep a store of healthy snacks – nuts, carrots, crackers and hummus, and even some peanut butter.
- Eat regular meals. Sugar cravings are caused by low blood sugar levels so eating often and well will reduce the need for a quick fix.
- Swap sugar for fruit.
More like this:
Vital benefits of multivitamins
How to boost immunity
First aid essentials