Sugar in your Child's Diet-How Much is too Much?

The 2015 documentary “Sugar Rush” brought the issue of excess sugar consumption, particularly in children, to the forefront of public attention and it’s hard to see it as a coincidence that the “sugar tax” on sugar-sweetened fizzy drinks was announced only a year later.  Since then, the media has regularly featured articles on the dangers of high-sugar diets and how children are particularly at risk.

Diet, obesity, diabetes and children
Sugar is sweet and many children like sweet foods.  Younger children do not necessarily grasp the connection between sugar and obesity, let alone the connection between obesity and diabetes.  Older children may understand the theory, but not necessarily see it as a problem for them.

In principle, adults should be able to control what younger children eat and influence what older children buy for themselves.  In practice, as many parents will either know or learn, the reality can be rather more complicated. 

Younger children can have very definite opinions about what they do and do not wish to eat.  Older children are not necessarily inclined to follow rules set by the adults in their lives.  In fact, the teenage years are pretty much synonymous with rebellion as the boundaries of childhood are pushed further and further back until little children finally transition into fully-fledged young adults.
This means that in the real world, parenting generally involves accommodating at least some of what younger children want, but in as healthy a way as possible, while educating them on nutrition so that they can make informed choices later in life.  For this, parents have to understand health-related issues themselves, otherwise there’s a serious risk that they’ll just swap out one problem for another.

Too much “healthy” food can be bad for you
There’s a reason we put “healthy” in quotation marks.  These days many food manufacturers have grasped the idea that a lot of people genuinely want to lead healthier lifestyles and they certainly want what’s best for their children.  Because of this, the food industry has responded by creating foods which are marketed as being “healthy options”.  Some of them actually are, a lot of them are actually nowhere near as healthy as consumers are (mis)led to believe and a decent sprinkling of them may have some health benefits for some people but could actually be harmful to others. 
For example, many of the products which are advertised as “low fat” compensate for the lack of fat by adding sugar and/or chemical sweeteners.  Likewise, products advertised as low in sugar may have increased fat levels to provide extra taste or they may also use chemical sweeteners (or both). 

Some people may find these foods and appropriate choice for certain situations, but they not necessarily suitable for most adults let alone most children.  Children need fat and sugar to fuel their growth and development.  Having too little of either, let alone both, can actual hurt them.

How much sugar is too little and how much sugar is too much?
This is where life gets interesting.  The only answer which applies to all situations is “it depends”, but that’s obviously not a lot of help to concerned parents, so let’s look at the issue in more detail.

In the real world “sugar” means “refined sugar”
For practical purposes, when we talk about “sugar” what we really mean is “refined sugar” also sometimes known as “free sugar”.  This basically means all forms of processed sugar (granulated, icing, white, brown, etc.) and syrups (e.g. golden syrup) along with highly-concentrated naturally-occurring sugars such as honey, maple syrup and unsweetened fruit and vegetable juices.

We suspect that for most people the only item on that list which will possible have come as a surprise is that unsweetened fruit and vegetable juices also count as refined sugars.  This is because the act of juicing a fruit or vegetable refines its content.  It removes some of its nutritional benefits, such as the fibre content and thereby increases the effective level of sugar.

For the record, chemical sweeteners aren’t classed as sugar, hence the fact that soft drinks manufacturers can offer “diet” or “light” versions of their products which have a similar level of sweetness with fewer calories.  Having said that, changing out sugar for chemical sweeteners is not necessarily an overall health benefit.
At current time, the sugars found in fruit and vegetables (eaten whole) and dairy products are ignored for the purposes of calculating sugar consumption.
The amount of sugar you need depends on various factors

NHS guidelines
Interestingly there are no NHS guidelines on how much sugar is too little.  When it comes to how much sugar is too much, NHS guidelines are as follows:
Children aged 4-6 should have a maximum of 19g of refined sugars per day
Children aged 7 to 10 should have a maximum of 24g of refined sugars per day
Adults should have a maximum of 30g of free sugars per day.
The NHS recommendation for children under 4 is that they should not be given sweetened drinks or food with sugar added to it.

The real wold
Guidelines are all very well, but in reality, they’re really just a formal term for useful generalizations or educated guesses.  Children go through a process of growth and development, they do not suddenly jump from one set of needs to another they moment they hit a specific birthday.  Some 6 year olds are bigger than some 7 year olds, some 7 year olds are more active than others and hence need more fuel.  Because of this, it’s probably more useful to think of how sugar fits into your child’s overall diet.

The building blocks of a balanced diet
In practical terms, there are three key food groups, which should form the foundation of all our food intake.  These are:
Complex carbohydrates (potatoes, wholegrain cereals and products made from them, rice…)
Fruit and vegetables (raw fruit and vegetables tend to have most nutritional value)
Proteins (meat and/or dairy and or vegan alternatives such as legumes).

If you aim to feed your child a diet which includes each of these food groups in equal parts (i.e. about a third of each), then they will also get the fat and sugar they need in a healthy way.  For example, you could give your child a glass of milk for protein, but in so doing, you will also be giving them some fat and some sugar.  Ideally, most of your child’s diet should be make up of home-cooked foods (and, if appropriate, home-prepared snacks).

The dangers of processed foods
We appreciate that many people lead very busy lives and the convenience foods can be very appealing.  In some cases, they can also be very useful, for example, if you hate chopping onions, then buying pre-chopped, frozen onions can be an astute move.  Similarly canned fruit and vegetables can be helpful store-cupboard staples, just check the labels to ensure that they’ve been canned in their own juice rather than in syrup.

The problem is that the more processing is done by a food manufacturer, the less obvious it can be what has actually gone into the food.  Some food manufacturers go to great lengths to market their products as “healthy” and to disguise the more questionable ingredients.

One example of how manufacturers do this is by stating the carbohydrate content and only breaking out the actual sugar content if it suits their purposes.  Even if they do show the sugar content, this can still be misleading since “total sugar” can include both unrefined sugars and refined sugars and sometime packaging uses clever imagery and wording to imply that it’s the former, whereas actually, it’s very much the latter.
For example, terms such as fructose, glucose, corn syrup and fruit juice concentrate may all sound natural and innocent, but are actually usually just terms to describe refined sugars.  Likewise, sweetening a product with fruit purée is nowhere near as healthy as it may sound, since fruit purée is only one step short of fruit juice and hence is also looked upon as refined sugar.

Refined sugar is sweet but so is fruit
Most of us can understand the craving for something sweet, particularly at stressful moments.  If we’re honest, we can also understand the attraction of sweet treats in general.  The simple fact of the matter is that anything with a lot of refined sugar in it is probably going to be very tasty even to adults.  The key point, however, is to be aware of this and to keep such foods as very occasional treats to be enjoyed on very special occasions.For the most part, use genuinely healthy options such as fresh, whole, fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Set the example you want your children to follow

While much of the media coverage of sugar consumption has focused on its effect on children’s health, the reality is that children, even rebellious teenagers, are influenced by what they see those around them doing.  That being so, parents can hardly issue their offspring with dire warnings about sugary foods if they continue to eat such foods themselves.  Ideally, parents should be encouraging healthy-eating  habits right from a child’s earliest days, but it’s never to late to start and parents may well find that not only do they help their children to be healthier, they improve their own health as well.

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