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  • Denise Scott

Reasons to Minimize Sugar in Your Child’s Diet (and how to do so)

Most of us are pretty sweet on sugar, but research reveals a bittersweet reality!

The word sugar spelled out in a pile of sugar.

Sugar is in any food that contains carbohydrates. Some sugars occur naturally in food, such as fruit, grains, and dairy. Some carbohydrates convert to sugar: pasta, bread, and rice. Some foods contain added sugars - processed foods - cereals, snack foods, flavored yogurts, soft drinks, etc. These are the ones to decrease in your child’s diet, for improved health.

Consuming natural forms of sugar is healthy since these types of food (fruit, grains, vegetables, dairy) also contain fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. We consider these foods nutrient-dense. They can be anti-inflammatory and serve as energy sources. These foods are digested more slowly, helping to avoid sugar spikes in the blood. In fact, eating a diet rich in these natural, whole foods can prevent heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.

A picture of complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and fruit that are healthy, natural sugar sources.

The danger is consuming foods with added sugar, those sweetened beverages and processed foods manufactured with additional sugar. Sugar is added to increase the flavor or shelf-life of manufactured foods. The amount of added sugar is listed on the food label with total sugars. Added sugar is the one to pay attention to.

***When checking labels, be sure to check the number of servings per container since added sugars are listed per serving.***

The list is long and includes the following:

Cakes, candy, cereals, cookies, breads, jams, jellies, pastries, flavored yogurts, refined grains, and less obvious foods such as ketchup, salad dressings, cured meats, soups, and alcohol 

as well as ALL 

sugar-sweetened beverages, including: sodas, sweetened teas, sports drinks, energy drinks, flavored coffees, juices and fruit drinks.

A variety of simple carbohydrates and processed foods, all sources of dietary sugar. These include pastries, candies, white rice and pasta, jams, and ice cream.

When checking the nutrition label on a food item, sugars are listed under carbohydrates, and the amount is given in grams. Added sugars are listed under total sugars.

Example of a nutrition label that lists total sugars (1) below carbohydrates and added sugars (2) beneath total sugars. These are listed as the amount per serving.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association recommend that children and women not consume more than 6 teaspoons, or 25 grams, of added sugar daily. This equals about 100 calories.

***The AAP does not recommend any food or beverages with added sugar for children under two.***

A single 12-ounce can of regular soda, bottled sweetened tea, or a cup of juice easily exceeds the recommended daily sugar intake. Sugar-sweetened beverages are the primary source (almost half) of added sugar intake in the American diet. If you only do one thing for your child, eliminate or significantly reduce all sugar-sweetened beverages. 

This includes:

  • soda

  • fruit juices 

  • sports drinks 

  • energy drinks

  • dessert coffees 

  • sweetened teas

  • flavored waters with sugar

These added sugars have significantly contributed to the obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics. Excess sugar is literally killing our kids, making them more vulnerable to a host of future diseases.

Why is this important, and why does sugar matter so much?

I will outline numerous reasons why excess sugar consumption is a dangerous health risk. 

Cartoon depiction of the body and its organs. Too much sugar intake can lead to diseases in most areas of the body.

  1. Heart disease - the higher the intake of sugar, the greater the risk for heart disease. High amounts of added sugar increase the risk of  inflammation, obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and fatty liver disease, all which increase the risk for heart disease. Excess sugar is converted in the liver to fat, primarily triglycerides, leading to cardiovascular disease.

  2. Fatty liver disease - the liver metabolizes excess sugar (primarily fructose and high-fructose corn syrup) similarly to alcohol, converting it to fat. This can lead to fatty liver disease, eventually affecting liver function. Alarmingly, this is seen in children.

  3. Weight gain - too much sugar can lead to weight gain, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. Too much sugar leads to an increase in appetite and can be addictive.

  4. Dental health - too much sugar leads to cavities and tooth decay. 

  5. Mental health - excess sugar consumption can affect mental health and has been linked to an increased risk for anxiety and depression.

  6. Inflammation - high sugar intake is known to create inflammation in the body, which can affect the brain, heart, autoimmune disorders, and some cancers.

  7. Energy - while sugar intake may give you an energy burst due to a spike in blood sugar, this is followed by a quick drop or crash in blood sugar, leading to fluctuating energy levels and overall fatigue.

  8. Acne - frequently eating foods with a high sugar content can lead to higher androgen (male hormone) and oil production, increasing the risk of acne.

  9. Joints - excess sugar leads to inflammation, which can lead to joint pain and increased risk of arthritis.

  10. Cancer - obesity increases the risk for multiple cancers. Obesity is a risk factor for 13 different types of cancer. The inflammation created by excess sugar intake creates a better environment for cancer cell growth. Obesity, insulin resistance, and inflammation can all increase cancer risk.

Sugar has many names. The following is a list of ingredients on food labels that are not listed as sugar but are sources of added sugar:

Corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

Corn sweetener

Fruit juice concentrate



Maple sugar

Brown sugar

Malt sugar

Sugar molecule names that end in “-ose”: sucrose, glucose, maltose, dextrose, fructose

Check to see that these are not listed in the first few ingredients.

I will now outline how to decrease sugar intake.

First and foremost, decrease or eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages.

These account for almost half of the sugar consumption in this country.

Make simple swaps. Switch simple carbohydrates for complex carbohydrates, which increase fiber and maintain steady blood sugar levels.

  • Swap white bread for whole wheat or whole grain.

  • Swap white rice for brown. 

  • Swap regular pasta for whole wheat pasta or pasta made from vegetables.

  • Look for cereals with the fewest grams of added sugars (5 grams or fewer), or better yet, choose old-fashioned oatmeal or eggs (see post on The Problem with Breakfast, 12/7/22). 

  • Try a variety of grains such as oats, quinoa, farro, buckwheat, and more.

  • When baking, choose flour made from whole wheat or whole grains such as almond or oat flour.

Read labels:

  • Choose items that do not list sugars in the first 5 ingredients.

  • Look for those that have no or minimal added sugars.

Improve your choices:

  • Eat whole fruit for snacks and treats.

  • Use vegetables, such as avocados, sweet potatoes, and black beans, to make desserts. (See post Sweet Tooth, from 8/10/22).

  • Instead of granola bars or candy, make your own trail mix or granola.

  • Choose plain yogurt and sweeten it yourself with berries.

  • Make your own smoothies at home with milk, yogurt, and fresh or frozen fruit.

  • Choose sliced fruit on sandwiches rather than jelly or jam.

  • Look for zero-added-sugar items for nut butter, marinades, ketchup, and pasta sauces.

  • Choose fresh or frozen items rather than canned items.

These choices decrease calories and increase nutrient density by increasing vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants.

Finally, change your habits:

  • Prepare meals at home as much as possible to know what is in your food.

  • Involve your child in cooking to teach them healthy choices and improve their chances of trying new things.

Skull and crossbones made out of sugar cubes and a mug of sugar cubes symbolizing the toxicity of too much sugar.

To summarize - there are NO health benefits from added sugar. Reducing sugar consumption goes a long way in reducing your child’s future health risks. The ultimate goal is preserving health by how we feed our children now to prevent disease later. It works!

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