Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sugar and Kids

Most of us know too much sugar isn’t a good thing for our children.  The reasons why may be less obvious.  Sugar itself isn’t necessarily bad.  In fact, sugar occurs naturally in many foods we consider to be healthy, including milk and fruit. 

The real danger of sugar is when it is added to foods or occurs in highly concentrated amounts.  Foods high in added sugars are bad for children when they replace healthy foods in their diet.  It’s not uncommon for kids to enter the lunch room at school, lunch box in hand packed with honey buns instead of an apple or soda instead of milk.  These highly processed, sugar packed treats are robbing children of the vitamins, minerals, and fiber found in fruits, vegetables, milk, and whole grains and replacing them with over processed foods containing a list of additives a mile long. 

Foods high in sugar also tend to shift our taste preferences.  Exposing ourselves and our children to foods that are increasingly sweet increases our tolerance for sugar.  Eventually cake isn’t good enough without icing, our cereal isn’t edible without a tablespoon or two of sugar sprinkled on top, and strawberries aren’t appealing without a chocolate dip.  Increasing our sugar tolerance decreases our ability to appreciate the taste of natural whole foods, like unprocessed almonds or walnuts, both of which have a slightly sweet flavor.  We want our children to desire healthier foods like fruits and vegetables, but allowing them too much access to high sugar foods can produce the opposite effect.

Sweets aren’t the only sugar laden culprits.  Fruit juice can be just as bad as soda.  Many fruit juices are packed with added sugars, usually in the form of high fructose corn syrup.  Even 100% natural fruit juice is highly concentrated in natural sugars.  One cup of orange juice delivers the sugar of 13 oranges, but doesn’t make us feel nearly as full, nor does it contain near the amount of vitamins and minerals, and it completely lacks fiber.  This high concentration of sugar is not good for your child’s dental health.  Sugary drinks, including fruit juice, are one of the major causes of tooth decay among children.  Really, fruit juice should be considered a treat, not a regular beverage at meals, and should be limited to 4oz or 1/2 cup per day.

How then do we handle sugar in our childrens’ diets?  Do we eliminated it completely?  Even if you could, that would not be in the best interest of your child.  Sugary foods are a great opportunity for you to teach moderation to your children.  Someday they will be adults and will have to make their own choices regarding food.  In a world where sugary foods are in every convenience store and checkout line, children need to know how to eat in moderation and say no when appropriate. 

Emphasizing that sweets are a treat and should not be eaten everyday is one good place to start.  Next, try to assess how many added sugars you and your family are allowing into your diet.  You can find this by looking at the food label under carbohydrates.  In foods with sugars, you’ll notice a line labeled “sugar.”  Set your goals to be in line with the current recommendations for added sugar limitations: 36g for men, 20g for women, and 12g for children.  If these are a giant leap down from what you’re accustomed to, it’s okay to use a more gradual method to step yourselves down to these appropriate levels.  It’s also essential to involve the whole family.  Children  are excellent observers and tend to model the behavior of their parents.  Finally, don’t use sweets as a reward for good behavior or as motivation for eating other their vegetables.  This teaches an unhealthy perception of food and places undue value on foods with less nutrition and benefit to offer. 

Improving the way your family handles sugary foods will help to construct positive food behaviors in your children, which is a lesson that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.  

This guest blog is brought to you by Sarah Sturgill.  Sarah is a member of the Healthy Kids Inc. team. She is a Registered Dietitian with both her Bachelor's and Master's in Dietetics.  She is also a certified specialist in child and adolescent weight management. Sarah is author of the blog Slicing the Apple-

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