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 teach children to listen to their internal hunger cues and enjoy balanced meals (including the occasional treat).

Avoiding Future Health Concerns

Excess sugar consumption at a young age has been associated with a higher body mass index (BMI) later in life. Although eating sweets from time to time is unlikely to cause major problems in the short term, it's important to encourage healthy eating habits starting in early childhood.

There is a fine balance between being overly restrictive about what your child eats and neglecting to raise healthy future teenagers and adults. High sugar intake raises the risk of obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, especially as we get older. Additionally, joint pain, gout, and fatty liver disease are possible complications of excess weight.

Establishing nutritious eating habits early on will guide your child toward a healthier lifestyle in the future. Focus on the benefits of nutritious foods, rather than the negative consequences of sugar, to help children develop a positive attitude about eating well.

Ensuring Adequate Nutrition

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.

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.

According to the CDC:

"In 2005–2008, the average percent of total daily calories from added sugars was 16% (average intake of 362 calories) for boys and 16% (average intake of 282 calories) for girls aged 2 to 19 years."

It's easy to overlook the signs of 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.

Protecting Your Kids' Teeth

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 serious infections (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.

Identifying Hidden Sugars

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

Learning to read food labels will help you spot the added sugar. Simple swaps like unsweetened applesauce instead of sweetened, or fruit cups with juice or water rather than those packed in syrup can help cut out excess sugar that was under your radar.

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.

Promoting a Healthy Balance

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.

Model healthy eating habits by sitting down for meals as a family and letting kids help out in the kitchen. Avoid using food as a punishment or a reward. Instead, teach children how certain foods build our muscles or give us energy. Non-food rewards include stickers or putting marbles in a jar to "save up" for a fun day out at the zoo or playground.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, "...when foods, such as sweets, are used as a reward, children may assume that these foods are better or more valuable than other foods. For example, telling children that they will get dessert if they eat all of their vegetables sends the wrong message about vegetables."

One of the easiest ways 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.

Explain to children that some foods are everyday foods, while others are "once in a while" foods. This avoids placing a moral judgment on food, but still drives home the message that we shouldn't have sweets all the time. If your child goes to a birthday party or has dessert at their grandparents' house, don't make a big deal about it. Move forward and focus on their overall eating habits at home.

A Word From Verywell

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 and learning to appreciate the benefits of healthy eating.

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