Is your child in a sugar trap? We asked a top dietician to weigh in on the risks of high-sugar diets for kids. By Tammy Jacks
Children can be fussy eaters at the best of times, which often leads to parents feeling baffled about what to serve at the next meal. In a desperate bid to get your little one to eat something, you may promise dessert after dinner or slather chocolate spread on his sandwiches. “Recent research points to the staggering negative health consequences of high-sugar diets, particularly for children,” says Johannesburg-based dietician Abby Courtney. Besides childhood obesity, a high-sugar diet can raise the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, to name a few issues.
Added and hidden sugars
Making matters worse is the fact that supposedly “healthy” convenience foods and beverages on supermarket shelves are loaded with added, or hidden, sugars. Hidden sugars get their name because you may not recognise them as being sugar, or pay much attention to them on the label.
Added sugars are defined as sugars that don’t occur naturally within a food or drink like fruit or milk, says Abby. They include table sugar, syrup (including maple and agave), maltodextrin, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, and fruit juice and fruit-juice concentrates that are added to foods during processing or preparation. The most common foods with added sugars include processed baked goods, fruit rolls, breakfast cereals, muesli, crisps, fizzy drinks and flavoured waters.
Just because a food contains honey and not white sugar, it doesn’t mean it’s a healthy alternative, say researchers at Harvard University in the US. “The body metabolises all added sugars the same way; it doesn’t distinguish between brown sugar and honey.” They suggest that, when reading a label, you make sure to spot all sources of added sugars – even if they’re not listed as the first few ingredients.
3 dangers of added sugars
1. Weight gain
Sugar is energy dense, and excessive energy intake can lead to weight gain. This is often evident in
children who drink too many sugary beverages. A recent study published in Nutrition Research Journal shows that the more sugar-laden drinks and sweets children consume, the poorer their health will be later in life. This is because sugary foods often replace good-quality proteins, fats, fruits and vegetables, making little ones more accustomed to a sweet taste.
In South Africa, a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages is set to be implemented in April 2017 in an attempt to curb rising obesity rates.
2. Dental cavities
There is an increased rate of dental cavities in baby teeth and permanent teeth in kids who eat more sugar, compared to those who consume less, says Abby. The problem has become so widespread that authorities around the world are implementing steps to combat it. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the UK has released a set of guidelines to prevent tooth decay and gum disease. “Children of today eat too much sugar,” says Professor Mike Kelly, director of NICE. He urges all parents to reduce the amount of sugar in their children’s diets, and to supervise teeth brushing on a daily basis.
3. Empty calories
Most food and drinks that are high in added sugars are low in nutrients, says Abby. If a child’s diet comprises mostly of sugary, processed foods and junk food, it can lead to nutrition dilution, which results in a range of health and behaviour problems as well as nutrient deficiencies.
How much sugar is allowed?
Given the fact that sugar is hidden in a number of foods, including tomato sauce and peanut butter, it’s no surprise that the average child aged between one and three consumes about 12 teaspoons of sugar each day. The average four- to eight-year-old takes in 21 teaspoons, according to the American Heart Association. No more than three to four teaspoons per day is recommended for children, so there’s no need to panic if your child enjoys a piece of cake at a birthday party or some sweets at a playdate.
Dealing with fussy eaters
If your child is used to eating sweeter foods it may be tricky to start cutting sugar from his diet, but the health
benefits will outweigh the effort, explains Abby. Follow her advice to encourage your little one to eat a
variety of healthy foods.
- Make one family meal everyone can eat. Don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t like a food on the first try as it can take at least 10 attempts before he accepts a new taste and he’ll be more likely to try something new if the whole family is eating it. Serve new foods in small amounts and when your child is hungry. Also, try to serve them in different ways. For example, if he’s resistant to carrots, try grating them with some pineapple or making carrot and zucchini muffins.
- Sit down at the table for mealtimes. When children eat at set times, they’re more likely to come to the table hungry and try new foods. If your child refuses a meal, calmly remove his food and let him down from the table. Try again a little later, but avoid offering him something sweet to replace his dinner.
- Let him control his portions. It’s normal for your child’s appetite to vary from day to day. His desire for food can vary depending on where he’s eating, if he’s having a growth spurt, is more physically active, or is tired or sick. However, if your child refuses to eat for a day or two, or is losing weight, consult a dietician for assistance.
Healthy food swaps for kids
Keep your kids happy and healthy with nutritionist and wellness coach Desi Horsman’s top food swaps.
- Swap fruit juice for flavoured water by adding a little mint or fruit slices to plain water.
- Swap sugary hot drinks for fruity herbal teas. Their natural bright colours are appealing and, once cooled, they can be enjoyed as iced tea.
- Swap a packet of chips for plain or salted popcorn.
- Swap sour sweets for fruit jellies made from pure fruit-juice concentrates with no added sugar.
- Swap white or milk chocolate for dark chocolate. The richer taste is more satisfying and it’s packed with antioxidants.
- Swap a milkshake for a fruit smoothie made with a little plain yoghurt or nut butter to thicken.
- Swap white bread for brown seeded bread.
Tammy is a wife, mom and freelance writer with 15 years’ experience in the media industry. She specialises in general lifestyle topics related to health, wellness and parenting. Tammy has a passion for fitness and the great outdoors. If she’s not running around after her daughter, you’ll find her off the beaten track, running, hiking or riding her bike. Learn more about Tammy Jacks .