Sugar might seem like it’s practically a swear word in health circles these days, and not without good reason. The sweet stuff certainly isn’t the cause of all of our health problems, but the simple fact is our kids are getting too much of it, and it’s hurting them.
We’re not talking about the natural sugars you find in fruit or milk. The trouble comes from added sugars that are put in food and drinks for flavoring — stuff like dextrose, sucrose and high fructose corn syrup. All these sugars do is boost the calories while adding no nutritional value whatsoever. While there isn’t a standard recommended daily amount of sugar kids should have per day, it’s safe to say that many foods and beverages with added sugars go way beyond what most health experts say is OK.
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Sugar contributes to childhood obesity
We all know about how sugar contributes to childhood obesity, although the numbers and facts bear repeating. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that, as of 2012, more than one-third of children and adolescents in the U.S. are overweight or obese. Obese youth are at far greater risk for heart disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, as well as social and psychological issues.
Outside of obesity, too much sugar also can contribute to tooth decay, dehydration, headaches, liver problems, and a laundry list of other ills.
Sugar can be addicting
So if we know it’s so bad for us, why can’t we get enough of it? Well, that’s tied in with another drawback: sugar can be addicting. Literally. Recent studies have come out showing that the more sugar your body gets, the more it craves. That, and sugar seems like it’s absolutely everywhere on the food shelves.
Tips for parents
While the battle may be tough, there are ways to keep your kids’ sugar intake under control. Keep these tips in mind when making food and beverage choices:
- Read labels: Some sugar bombs are obvious, like soda, candy, and cereals featuring a cartoon mascot, but you also need to watch out for fruit juice, sports drinks, granola bars, salad dressing, flavored yogurt, and soup, to name a few. Always check the label.
- More fruits and veggies: Beyond all the nutrients found in these healthy items, the natural sugars in fruit can be quite filling — certainly more filling than the empty calories in junk food — and keep your child from extra snacking.
- Home cooking: Restaurants might tell you the fat and calorie content of their food, but it’s not always as easy to find out how much sugar might be hiding in that burger. By making meals at home, you have more control. And it’s quite possible this could lead to more quality family time as well!
- Sugar substitutes: These can be tricky, as many artificial (and even some natural) sweeteners come with their own health concerns, and can trigger the desire to eat more sweets. But you can always use spices and herbs to add flavor to food, and drop a lemon in a glass of tea.
Moderation is the key
The message here isn’t necessarily anti-sugar as much as anti-too much sugar. Like many things in life, moderation is the key. It absolutely can be tough to break the sugar habit, but the good news is that once you’re doing it for a while, it’ll get easier. And a little bit of pain upfront can pay off with a big-time improvement in lifelong health.
Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin has primary care offices throughout southeast Wisconsin, including North Shore Pediatrics in Mequon. Find a pediatrician near you.
Learn more about Cynthia Running, MD.