There are several ways that sugar can affect children, and many health experts believe that there is a connection between the amount of sugar in children’s diets and their overall health. In modest amounts, research shows that sugar can have a healthy place in children’s diets, but that consuming large amounts – especially of refined sugars – can be connected to health problems.
Everyone loves sweet treats – and there’s no reason to eliminate sugar entirely. But it’s still good to understand the short- and long-term effects of sugar on children. In the short term, sugar overload can contribute to mood swings and a temporary decrease in immune system functioning. Long term, it can increase the risk of developing health problems like diabetes and obesity. Here’s more on how sugar affects the body, how to choose less harmful sugars – and how to help children learn healthy sugar habits for life.
All sugar is not created equal
There is a big difference between the nutritional value of foods with refined sugars vs whole foods with natural sugars. Unrefined, whole foods like fruit and dairy products, and complex carbohydrates like whole-grain bread, cereals, pasta, and brown rice typically contain higher amounts of nutrients, more fiber, and cause less severe rises in blood sugar.
Foods that are high in refined sugar include baked goods like cookies and cakes, and simple carbohydrates like white pasta, white rice. Packaged foods such as fruit juice and soda also usually contain high amounts of added refined sugars. These types of foods tend to be lower in nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages 2-18 consume 25 grams or less of added sugar, with children under two consuming no added sugars.
Refined sugar and the body
Refined foods cause blood sugar levels to spike, causing the body to release a large amount of insulin, a hormone to help absorb that sugar. For some people, blood sugar levels may in turn fall causing hypoglycemia, the dreaded “sugar crash”. Symptoms may include altered thinking and behavior, mood swings, headaches, shakiness and sweating, fatigue. And, children are more susceptible to these effects. This creates an addictive cycle of unstable sugar highs and lows and cravings.
To avoid this cycle, opt for whole, unrefined foods where possible. For younger babies, start these habits early by avoiding added sugars. For older children, slowly adjust offerings such as replacing sugar-sweetened snacks with fresh fruit and unsweetened yogurt.
Sugar and behavior
Sugar may have a powerful effect on children’s behavior. Children with higher intakes of sugar may be more likely to show ADHD symptoms, and a high intake of sweet foods has been associated with learning and behavioral problems. Some parents may also notice that the crash after consuming sugary foods may be associated with outbursts or tantrums. Breakfast may be particularly important to balance blood sugar levels in the morning. Avoiding high sugar cereals and focusing on complex carbohydrates and protein may be helpful.
Sugar and the immune system
Studies have shown that simple and refined sugars like glucose and fructose suppress the immune system and can cause a decrease in the ability of white blood cells to engulf bacteria and kill germs. This suppression of the immune system can last for up to five hours. Complex carbohydrates, in comparison, did not appear to negatively affect the immune system.
Set up healthy sugar habits for life
Over time, frequent sugar overloads can lead to a preference for sweet foods, so that children are less likely to try a variety of other healthy foods. While the occasional treat is fine, try to limit added to sugars on an everyday basis.
Reduce added sugars by checking the ingredients in packaged foods and avoid products that have sugar or other sweeteners high on the ingredient list. Sugars are often listed under different names and may be hidden in unsuspecting foods like pre-packaged oatmeal and cereals. Better yet, make as much of your food as possible from simple, homemade recipes. Another tip is to limit dessert portion sizes at home by using smaller dishes.
Above all, teach your child healthy habits by being a good role model. Remember that children observe their parents’ habits and will adopt them, leading to a healthier lifestyle throughout childhood and into adulthood.
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