As parents, we have lots of reasons to limit sugar in children’s food. The most immediate one is the surge of energy kids seem to experience almost instantly after indulging their sweet tooth. The more dangerous is less immediate health effects, like diabetes. It’s great to be mindful of sugar in kid’s food, but what if I told you the sugar you thought you were avoiding is actually right there, lurking in the shadows of your child’s diet?
Why is this a problem? What exactly does sugar do? To understand the hazard of hidden sugar in your kids’ food, it’s important to know why too much sugar can be harmful to children.
Sugar is a carbohydrate, an energy source for the human body. Although it’s found naturally in dairy, fruit, vegetables, and grains, when eaten unprocessed, these foods also contain nutrients such as protein, calcium, fiber, antioxidants, and essential vitamins that help the body digest these foods slowly and without a spike in blood sugar.
Added sugars don’t occur naturally in a food; they have been added from another source and are the ones to look out for. They’re responsible for sudden increases in blood sugar—and hyper behavior—followed by a crash in blood sugar levels, which results in your child’s energy level plummeting. Added sugars often appear in disguise as unexpected names; these are what we call hidden sugars. See the section below for surprising sources of hidden sugar and keywords to beware of.
Added sugar is especially dangerous for kids who have juvenile (type 1) diabetes. This type of diabetes occurs when a child’s pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, a hormone that regulates the amount of sugar (specifically glucose) in the blood. When there’s too much glucose present in the blood, the body of a child who doesn’t have enough insulin cannot remove the glucose from the blood. This causes the body to seek an alternative energy source, often muscle cells or stored fat, which leads to severe complications.
Juvenile diabetes symptoms include increased thirst, frequent urination, fruity-smelling breath, hunger with unexplained weight loss, fatigue, and changes in vision. These symptoms usually present from ages 4-7 or 10-14. If your child has signs of juvenile diabetes, consult a doctor immediately to determine a course of treatment and create a strict diet consisting of whole foods without added sugars.
Effect of high sugar in children’s diets
Consuming high amounts of sugar can result in many health concerns, including chronic illness later in life.
Weight gain and obesity–Excess energy from sugar (and other sources) is stored in fat, leading to weight gain.
Tooth decay–Sugar combines with saliva and bacteria on teeth to form plaque. Plaque can eat the enamel on teeth to create cavities. Kids should brush their teeth at least twice daily, especially after consuming sugar.
Type 2 diabetes–Unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes can result from too much sugar consumption over time. Spikes in blood sugar can lead to insulin resistance, meaning the body can’t properly regulate sugar anymore.
Heart disease–Excess sugar in the blood can lead to the development of free radicals, unpaired oxygen molecules that cause damage to cells, promoting the growth of plaque that can clog arteries and cause heart blockages and disease.
Fatty liver disease–Consumption of sugar has been linked to the increase of liver fat, reducing hepatic (liver) function and, therefore, the removal of toxins in the body.
Cancer–Weight gain increases the risk of obesity and diabetes, which are both cancer risk factors.
Although sugar isn’t the only way for kids to consume excess calories, it tends to be a simple one, especially since sugar is not a sufficient replacement for the nutrient-dense foods a child’s diet needs.
How much is too much?
Okay, so how do you know if your child is eating too much sugar? Although public health experts would like to decrease this number, the current dietary guideline for children over 2 is less than 25g of sugar per day (something like 6 teaspoons) or less than 10% of total recommended calories.
Added sugars should be avoided for kids under 2. Unfortunately, research has established that 54% of children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years exceed the recommended amount.
Surprising sources of hidden sugar
How are you supposed to make sure your child isn’t consuming too much sugar? Awareness of hidden sugar content on food items will help you identify which ones to avoid offering your child.
The word “sugar” is a dead giveaway, but that sneaky added sugar can be disguised on nutrition labels as corn syrup, sucrose (the most common form of table sugar), fructose (sugar found in fruits and honey), dextrose, lactose (milk sugar) and sneakier still as ingredients like honey, maple syrup, molasses, caramel, agave nectar, barley malt, beet sugar, and evaporated cane juice.
The main culprits
The majority of hidden sugars are in products easily discounted as sources of caloric intake, like drinks and condiments, even those marketed specifically for toddlers or older children. Watch for hidden sugar in these kid’s foods:
Beverages–15% to 25% of kid’s added sugar intake comes from sweetened beverages. Restrict sports and energy drinks, juice drinks, soda, and sweetened tea and coffee. Offer milk and water instead.
Processed foods–Not only is sugar used for flavor, but it is also a preservative. This means that sugar appears in unexpected foods for increased shelf life. Read food labels carefully.
Condiments–Condiments are easy to overlook as hidden sugar sources in your kids’ diet, but they add up. Ketchup, for example, contains 4g of sugar per tablespoon. Be mindful of your child’s dips, dunks, and toppings.
Low-fat foods–Creating the low-fat version of a food involves removing the fat from the full-fat version along with a lot of the flavor. To enhance the flavor, producers often replace the fat with sugar. Dairy and nut butter products are a prime example of this.
What to do when your child eats too much sugar
Sugar in the diet causes the brain to release dopamine and opioids, similar to the way the brain responds to addictive drugs. This might explain why sugar cravings occur, and it can be so difficult to cut back.
Try these suggestions for removing sugar from your child’s diet:
Eat whole foods: The naturally occurring sugars will satisfy the craving for sweetness.
Replace sugary cereals with those with less sugar: Crisped cereals tend to have lower amounts (3g or less per serving) of sugar, yet they still appeal to young tastebuds. Hot cereals are another solid option. Try Cinnamon Nutmeg Oatmeal.
Offer fruits and vegetables: Do this throughout the day to satisfy snack-seeking kids. Make veggies more appealing by arranging them in a silly shape or face.
Limit or eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages: Aside from milk and water, fruit-infused water is an excellent alternative to lemonade, sports drinks, juice, or soda. Here’s a berry and melon-infused water recipe kids will love.
Choose full-fat products over sugar-enhanced options: Even if you wish to sweeten these foods up, adding sugar at home would likely still equate to less sugar content than the processed version. Try this smoothie recipe using full-fat cottage cheese and fruit; it’s just as flavorful as the kid’s yogurt drink you would find at the store, minus the added sugar.
Cook at home: You’ll know what ingredients are going into your food. This is a super simple homemade cracker recipe.
It may not be easy at first, but once you make a habit of offering your child foods with fewer added sugars, the sugar cravings will subside, and the results will be sweet!