Too Much Sugar Can Cause Health Problems in Kids

Boy with candy jar, counting candies
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As a parent, it can be tempting to offer kids candy or other sugary treats as a reward or incentive. However, there are better ways to encourage good behavior. Fostering a healthy relationship with food includes separating emotions and environmental influences from eating decisions. Here's how you can help children learn to listen to their internal hunger cues and enjoy balanced meals.

Avoiding Hidden Sugar

Foods that are marketed to children are often high in sugar. Some added sugar sources are obvious, like sodas, candy, sweetened cereals, and fruit punch. Sugar can also be hidden in seemingly nutritious granola bars, flavored yogurts, "healthy" cereals, pasta sauces, ketchup, and even applesauce.

Learning to read food labels can help you spot added sugar in different products. Simple swaps like choosing unsweetened applesauce over sweetened products and picking fruit cups in juice or water rather than those packed in syrup can help cut out unnecessary sugar.

Check the ingredients list for terms like evaporated cane juice, corn syrup, dextrose, brown rice syrup, raw sugar, and crystal solids. All of these are other words for sugar. Getting kids into the habit of drinking water and plain milk, rather than juice and flavored milk, is another good way to keep sugar intake down.

Ensuring Adequate Nutrition

Adults are advised to limit added sugar to less than 10% of their daily calorie needs (which is about 12 teaspoons or 48 grams). Because children eat less food in general, their equivalent limits would be more like 7 to 8 teaspoons or 30 to 35 g per day. Instead of filling up on empty calories from sugar, kids need enough space in their tummies for nutritious foods that are required for growth and development.

It's easy to overlook malnutrition in kids who aren't underweight. However, research shows that eating too much sugar can lead to nutrient deficiencies. Not only do sugary foods displace essential food groups, like protein, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and whole grains, they also deplete vitamins from the body during digestion, such as B-vitamins involved in glucose metabolism.

Growing children need protein for muscle development, and healthy fats to support their brain and nervous system. A child who drinks soda or juice rather than plain milk is missing out on the calcium required for strong teeth and bones. Encouraging kids to develop a taste for natural, unsweetened foods sets them up for healthier eating habits and the prevention of chronic diseases in adulthood.

Pediatric Dental Care

Beyond the long-term prevention of diabetes and heart disease, avoiding added sugars can keep kids from having to undergo painful and expensive dental treatment. Tooth decay is exacerbated by the regular consumption of sugary foods and beverages. If untreated, dental problems can lead to more serious health concerns (even when they're just baby teeth).

Along with the avoidance of sugary snacks and drinks, teaching your kids to brush at a young age removes plaque-causing sugar and helps maintain strong, healthy teeth. Regular toothbrushing (without toothpaste to start) gets kids used to good dental habits.

Appetite Regulation in Kids

When placed in a healthy food environment, most kids regulate their consumption based on internal hunger signals. Instead of offering treats as a reward (or withholding them as punishment), caregivers should encourage children to pay attention to how their bodies feel. Eating slowly, stopping when full, and not calling foods "good" or "bad" are useful ways to develop a positive relationship with food.

The easiest way to make sure your child is eating right is to avoid keeping too many sugary snacks in the house. Kids should have choices about what to eat, but when all the options are healthy, you won't have to worry about power struggles related to food.

Overly restrictive parenting related to food can backfire and cause kids to rebel. Remember, it's OK for kids to indulge in treats once in a while as long as they are getting the nutrition they need from other foods throughout the day.

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