Advice Column, Health, Lifestyle, Nutrition

How Sugar Can Affect Our Children

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Sugar is addictively awesome, but is the long term health effects really worth that momentary indulgence? It is blamed for most health issues, from behavioural problems to skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity and diabetes. Yet babies come into the world with a ‘sweet tooth’ (nature’s way of drawing them to breast milk), so you may wonder, how could an occasional lollipop or cupcake be so detrimental?

In modest amounts, sugar can have a healthful place in a child’s diet (or an adult’s). But many kids get too much, too often. Worse, sugar-rich foods tend to be full of empty calories and often displace the nutritious foods children need. A recent landmark study of more than 3,000 babies and toddlers found that close to half of 7- to 8-month-olds are already consuming sugar-sweetened snacks, sodas and fruit drinks, a percentage that increases dramatically with age.

These findings are of concern to health experts, since eating sugary foods at an early age makes you crave them even more later on. Fortunately, parents can do a lot to train their young child’s taste buds so that he or she doesn’t end up wanting sweetness so much.

Beware of Hidden Sugars

Sugar can hide in foods where you least expect it. Get in the habit of reading labels. You don’t always see the word “sugar” on a food label. It sometimes goes by another name, like sucrose, glucose, dextrose, fructose, maltose, malt sugar, fructose sweetener, liquid fructose, honey, molasses, anhydrous dextrose, crystal dextrose and dextrin on the ingredients list of packaged food. If any of the above-mentioned names appear in the first 3 ingredients of a product, it’s best to avoid the product. Also remember that ingredients are listed by decreasing weight so if you see sugar by any name near the top of the list, reconsider the product.


Why should we cut back on sugars?

Added sugar means empty calories which put kids at risk for obesity and health problems that can show up as early as adolescence. High-sugar diets can increase a child’s risk of developing Type 2 diabetes or the pre-diabetic condition known as insulin resistance syndrome.


Tooth decay

Sugar fuels the growth of bacteria which causes tooth decay. While fluoridated water and regular tooth brushing help prevent cavities, a steady stream of sugar in the mouth increases the likelihood thereof.

When babies or young children have prolonged exposure to sugars found in sweetened water, fruit juice, milk, breast milk and formula such as giving a baby a bottle in bed or by sweetening a dummy, they are at an increased risk of tooth decay. That’s why dentists advise against putting babies to sleep with a bottle of milk (it contains milk sugar called lactose) or fruit juice, or letting them sip these drinks throughout the day.


Behavioural problems

When your child consumes refined sugars, there is a sudden spike in blood sugar levels. The body responds by producing a large amount of insulin, a hormone that sweeps sugar out of the blood and into body cells. When the sugar levels begin to fall, your body produces adrenaline which can contribute to hyperactivity in children to compensate for the low blood sugar levels. Blood sugar levels may then drop so quickly below normal that your child may feel shaky, sluggish, experience behaviour disturbances and impair learning by decreasing attention.

This is often the case in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). A study comparing the sugar response in children and adults showed that the adrenaline levels in children remained ten times higher than normal for up to five hours after a test dose of sugar.


Some children and adults are sugar sensitive, meaning their behaviour, attention span and learning ability deteriorate in proportion to the amount of sugar they consume. Children with ADHD are often sugar-sensitive. Not surprisingly, low blood-sugar levels can trigger a craving for more sweets, which creates a vicious cycle of sugar highs and lows.


Childhood obesity

Children gain too much weight when they take in more calories than they burn. Unfortunately, sugary drinks and treats typically supply calories above and beyond what kids need to satisfy their hunger. A can of soda contains ten teaspoons of sugar (160 calories), and many sweetened fruit drinks have as much or more. Regularly drinking even one sugary drink (soda, fruit punch or sweetened iced tea) a day increases the risk of obesity.


Overweight or obese children are at increased risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type II Diabetes, asthma and sleep apnoea. 80% of children who is overweight before the age of 13 years, will be obese as adults.


Weakened immunity

Excess sugar intake can cause cold-like symptoms in children causing runny noses, excessive mucus, cough and symptoms of sinus infections. Consuming sugar also alters the balance between good and bad bacteria in children’s bodies, weakening their immune systems which leads to worsening of symptoms and prolonged recovery.


Studies have found that excess sugar in the blood (including fruit sugar fructose and honey) caused a 50% drop in the ability of white blood cells to fight bacteria. In contrast, ingesting complex carbohydrates did not lower the ability of these white blood cells to engulf bacteria. The immune suppression was most noticeable two hours after eating lots of sugar, but the effect was still evident five hours after ingestion.


Poor diet

Sugar can cause stomach ache and poor appetite in children causing them to eat poorly when healthy nutritious food is offered.

What to do as parents?

  • Limit the amount of refined sugar in their diet by providing meals consisting of lean proteins such as lean chicken or beef, eggs or low-fat dairy and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado and olive or canola oil.
  • Desserts and sweets: Limit portions of cookies, candies and other baked goods. Instead try fruit-based desserts.
  • Cereals: Limit sugary cereals. Look for whole-grain cereals, such as oatmeal, that don’t have added sugar — or salt. Add nuts, fruit or cinnamon if you want to jazz it up.
  • Yogurts: A 250g serving has about 12 grams of natural sugar. This is included in the total sugar listed on the Nutrition Facts Label. Many flavoured yogurts also have a significant amount of added sugar. Avoid those and instead opt for plain yogurt and add your own sweetness by blending in frozen berries or other fruits. For kids over 5 years, fat free flavoured yoghurt can be given.
  • Beverages: Stick to water and unflavoured milk (most of the time). Limit juices, sports drinks and other flavoured beverages.
  • Limit fruit juices! You wouldn’t eat 2-4 apples in one go so why drink all that sugary juice without the fibre and remember that 125ml of fruit juice equals one fruit portion. Stick to freshly squeezed juices.
  • Instead of ice cream, freeze plain Greek yoghurt and add fresh fruit or use applesauce instead of sugar when baking.
  • If your child tends to have post sugar meltdowns, you can prevent them by tempering the amount he gets at any one time—controlling portion size, diluting fruit juices, choosing treats low in sugar—and by making sure he eats something heartier along with sweets. Protein (cheese, soy, beans, meat, nuts) and fibre (fruits, veggies, whole grains) help slow the rise and fall of blood-sugar levels.
  • While some moms discover that even a small piece of cake can trigger a meltdown in their child, many kids can indulge in occasional sweets without a problem. Desserts and candy can be once-in-a-while treats – Once a week is a good goal. The body only cares what you do to it most of the time.
  • Take it slow. Your kids might not take well to drastic changes in their diets, but if you can make it gradual, they’ll eventually come around. Mix low-sugar cereal with their favourite one until they get used to it or buy one less bag of cookies and replace it with blueberries.
  • At birthday parties try and limit the sugar content of party packs by making the following


Party Pack itemsImprovements
50g packet of gums33g packet of mini cheddars25g box smarties1 small Chomp2 Fizzers

1 flash pop


Total teaspoons of sugar = 20

Total teaspoons of fat = 4

A small fruit1 cup(250ml) Home-made popcorn15g box Smarties2 game biltong sticks1 mini Fizzer

A small toy / piece of stationary etc.


Total teaspoons of sugar = 5

Total teaspoons of fat = 1


When is sugar okay?

Like anything there is place for it in your diet IF you are healthy and happy with your weight, doing a race, cheat days (but notice how hungry you are the next day). Dark organic or dark raw chocolate is you best friend as dark chocolate is very high in fibre.

What’s more, in small amounts, sugar can even encourage nutritious eating. Some kids might love grapefruit if it had a little sugar on it. Similarly, a recent study found that adding about a teaspoon of sugar to a serving of whole-grain breakfast cereal—such as oatmeal, wheat bran or muesli—made a tremendous difference in whether kids liked it, but it had no significant effect on their blood-sugar levels. Always remember, moderation is the key.


It’s important that your kids love how healthy food tastes rather than forcing them to eat it. It’s not just about controlling their environment, it’s about teaching them healthier habits so they start engaging in them on their own. The earlier you start the easier it is later on.

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