Kids and Sugary Diets: More Than a Sweet Tooth

Kids and Sugary Diets: More Than a Sweet Tooth

Your children are likely getting much more sugar than you realize. Get the facts on hidden sugar, label reading and sugar's effect on health.

By Jane Schwartz Harrison, RD, Staff Nutritionist, myOptumHealth

Does your child love sweets? Most kids do. But with sugar hiding in foods from yogurt and bread to cereals, drinks and salad dressings, they could be eating excess sugar before they even touch a cookie or bowl of ice cream.

But where is all this sugar coming from?

Natural versus added sugar
There are actually two forms of sugar in the food we eat.

Naturally occurring sugars - fructose and lactose - are found in fruits, veggies and dairy products.

Added sugars are found in many processed foods, from the obvious soda, candy, cakes and cookies to the not-so-obvious breakfast cereals, salad dressings, yogurts and breads.

For kids as well as grown-ups, sugar in a healthy diet should be mostly natural sugars, with only small amounts of added sugars for taste. But today's food labels don't let you know what kind of sugar is in the food. For example:

  • A cup of skim milk or plain yogurt contains 12 grams of sugar per serving. This is from lactose, a natural sugar in milk. Pick up a fruited yogurt and the amount of sugar jumps to 30 or 40 grams. This is the total for natural and added sugars combined. But the label makes no distinction.
  • A container of fresh blueberries lists the sugar as 7 grams per half cup; a cup of carrot strips has 5.5 grams of sugar. These are from fructose and/or sucrose, natural sugars found in whole fruits and vegetables. These should not be counted as added sugars.

Label reading 101
As careful as you may be, you are likely feeding more sugar to your child than you think. If you read food labels, you may be surprised at exactly how much sugar some foods contain.

You can find sugar content on the nutrition facts panel, listed in grams under carbohydrates. Keep in mind that one teaspoon is equivalent to 4 grams of sugar. So a product with 16 grams of sugar will have 4 teaspoons per serving.

Studies show that soft drinks and sweetened beverages (lemonade, ice tea, juice drinks) are the number one culprit for "added" sugar in our diet. One can of soda or lemonade contains 8 teaspoons and almost 130 calories of added sugar.

See the table below for other obvious (and not so obvious) sources of added sugar:

Food

Grams

tsp

Cinnamon bun

48

12

Large vanilla shake (fast food)

48

12

Soda

30-40

8-10

Flavored Yogurt

24-40

6-10

Frozen desserts

16-40

4-10

Bakery muffin

24-36

6-9

Juices, iced tea, etc.

24-36

6-9

Frosted or sugared cereal

8-16

2-4

Canned fruit

8-16

2-4

Instant sweetened oatmeal

13

3

Donut

13

3

Granola bar

12

3

Bread

4-8

1-2

Crackers

4-8

1-2

Jellies and jams

4-8

1-2

Salad dressings

4-8

1-2

Soups

4-8

1-2

One more place to look on the label for sugar information is the ingredients list. Look for words such as dextrose, cane sugar, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, barley malt, brown rice syrup, turbinado sugar, honey, maltose or glucose. These are all just different forms of sugar. And when you see them on the ingredients list, you'll know they've been added to the food inside the package.

Health at risk
Why should you be concerned about your child's sugar intake? Research has shown that diets high in sugar have effects that go way beyond a cavity or two. Excess sugar has been linked to numerous health issues, including obesity, increased risks for high blood pressure, diabetes and other risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

And children are not immune. More and more, these chronic diseases are emerging in childhood.

What's more, sugary foods and drinks tend to replace healthier foods. Kids are drinking a sugary juice instead of eating fruit or having a glass of milk. A pastry in the morning may seem like a quick replacement for a wholesome bowl of oatmeal. But this can leave nutritional gaps that may leave your child lacking important nutrients like calcium, B vitamins and fiber.

A study conducted by the American Heart Association (AHA) found:

  • Children as young as 1 to 3 years typically eat around 12 teaspoons of added sugar a day.
  • Children between 4 and 8 years of age practically double their sugar intake, eating 21 teaspoons a day.
  • Teens 14 to 18 years old take in the most sugar on a daily basis, averaging about 34 teaspoons.

How much sugar is too much?
According to AHA guidelines, the amount of added sugar that a child should consume on a daily basis depends on the child's age and caloric intake:

  • Preschoolers averaging 1,200 to 1,400 calories per day should limit added sugar to about 4 teaspoons (16 grams) per day.
  • Children ages 4 to 8 who average 1,600 calories per day should limit added sugar to about 3 teaspoons (12 grams) a day. To fit in all the nutritional requirements for this age group, there are fewer calories available for added sugar.
  • Pre-teen and teens averaging 1,800 to 2,000 calories per day should not have more than 5 to 8 teaspoons (20 to 32 grams) of added sugar per day.

Finally, be sure to pay attention to serving size. Portion control of sugar-laden foods is a critical step in keeping the amount of added sugar your family consumes to a minimum. For instance, if 3/4 cup of cereal (one serving) has 3 teaspoons of sugar and your daughter is eating 1 1/2 cups, she is really taking in 6 teaspoons.

Sources:

  • Dubois L, Farmer A, Girard M, Peterson K. Regular sugar-sweetened beverage consumption between meals increases risk of overweight among preschool-aged children. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2007;107(6):924-934.
  • American Heart Association. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association.Circulation. 2009;120(11):1011-1020.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture. Report of the DGAC on the dietary guidelines for Americans, 2010.

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