Sweets for the Sweet? How to Lower Your Child’s Sugar Intake (and Why It Matters)

L. Matthew Schwartz, MD, FAAPM&R, FAADEP, , UCS | November 16, 2016, 6:07 pm EDT
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Who doesn’t love cookies, candy, cake, and ice cream? Soda, fruit juice, starch? They satisfy our brains’ pleasure and addiction centers. It’s even harder to limit our intake of sugar, as it is added to so many foods we eat. Why? It’s cheap and it sells. Just read all of your food labels for a real shock!

What is the downside? How about serious chronic degenerative disease, which is appearing earlier and earlier in our lives. Life expectancies are starting to shrink. Obesity, diabetes, fatty liver, heart disease, stroke, metabolic syndrome, and cancer incidences are rising and there is evidence that the high amounts of sugar (in whatever form) the average American consumes is a probable contributor. Our youth are vulnerable—incidences of premature illnesses are skyrocketing.

Photo credit: Artem Gorohov/123rf.com

Obesity, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses are increasing in adults and children, and sugar is a contributing factor. Photo credit: Artem Gorohov/123rf.com

Additional negative health consequences of frequent or excessive sugar consumption among children include: Immunosuppression (through reduction of healthy bacterial flora in the intestinal microbiome), insulin resistance (leading to diabetes and obesity), appetite suppression for nutritious meals, and aggravation of ADHD. It is, at once, amusing and sad to watch a parent who might acquiesce to a child’s demands for sweets to placate her, but then suffer the behavioral torrent shortly thereafter.

Paradoxically, our own tax dollars are spent to subsidize sugar production, so we are actually paying twice—once to make sugar cheaply for maximal profits for the producers, and again for costly healthcare bills. You can thank the powerful sugar lobby for that one.

The recommended daily sugar intake limit for children is 25 grams (6.25 teaspoons)—ONE serving of something sweet often surpasses that limit. Fruit juice, without fiber, has a higher glycemic load than a candy bar. Fruity yogurt may have more sugar than a regular soda.  Starch (potatoes, pasta, bread, corn, etc.) are metabolized into sugar. “Sport drinks” are just sugar water with vanishingly low nutritional value.  It certainly doesn’t help matters when the stuff is so darn tasty!

Sugar sweetened beverages aren't the only foods that have shocking amounts of sugar. Cereals, yogurts, and energy drinks are also often filled with added sugars. Photo credit: Flickr/Shardayyy https://www.flickr.com/photos/shardayyy/

Sugar sweetened beverages aren’t the only foods that have shocking amounts of sugar. Cereals, yogurts, and energy drinks are also often filled with added sugars. Photo credit: Flickr/Shardayyy https://www.flickr.com/photos/shardayyy/

So, what is a conscientious parent to do to minimize their kids’ sugar intake when it is so ubiquitous and plenty? Several options exist to be successful:

  • Buy healthy portable snacks and put them into appropriate containers within your kids’ backpacks, sports bags, and overnight bags. Leave these better food items visible in the kitchen when your kids head there to graze.
  • Cut up nutritious vegetables and fruit (preferably organic) and keep them in reusable containers in the refrigerator for immediate consumption (so they can compete with the less healthful but easily accessible options).
  • Consider giving away the unhealthy food items that are sitting in your pantry or refrigerator/freezer to people you don’t like, avoiding the temptation to eat them.
  • Go shopping with a list AFTER you eat, limiting impulsive purchase of lower-quality food items.
  • Buy several stainless steel thermoses and fill them with water or even cold-brewed green tea with Stevia (a natural harmless sweetener) and keep them in the refrigerator for spontaneous consumption or portability.
  • Use nutmeg or cinnamon for sugar replacement.
  • If you suspect that your child is pre-diabetic, get a copy of the Glycemic Index and buy/cook/serve the foods with index ratings less than 50—this will slow the rise of blood sugar after eating and reduce the risk of diabetes.

In addition to making changes to one’s daily routines in an effort to reduce sugar intake, there are also ways in which concrete policy changes could help to improve the food environment for children and adults alike. For a start you can join me in signing onto this letter calling for strong guidance from the USDA and HHS on added sugar consumption in the next Dietary Guidelines for Americans, or you can take action here to urge the FDA to set a limit for added sugars on food products bearing health claims.

Life has become very hectic. As we all try to keep up with our busy juggled schedules, we can’t forget that our bodies need the best fuel to run well. Sweets are enticing, delicious, and fun—but remember, sugar throws a party in the mouth … and a party foul just past it! Reducing sugar consumption and associated health impacts in the US will take a multi-stakeholder effort, and the food industry will ensure that it’s not easily done. But parents can do their part to protect their children’s health in spite of industry’s best efforts with some planning and mindfulness.

Bio: Dr. Matthew Schwartz is the President of MyHealth360 in Philadelphia, PA. One of a the very few physicians in the Greater Philadelphia area recognized as a “Top Doctor” for the past 12 years by Philadelphia Magazine, he has been in private practice since 2007. He is triple board certified in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Pain Medicine, and Integrative Holistic Medicine. Dr. Schwartz is a UCS National Advisory Board member and Science Network member.

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