Refined sugar is the new addictive drug for kids?

The average U.S. child consumes around 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day, and the average U.S teen consumes nearly 34 teaspoons.  Yes….34 teaspoons!  I had to measure this out and take a picture of it so you could see how shocking this visual can be (see left).

Hopefully, you liked my inclusion of the Lego mini-figure to give you a sense of scale. (Or is it too scary? That poor guy would drown in a day’s worth of sugar!).

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been visiting schools for nutrition education lessons and have interacted with hundreds of kids.  In some schools, I have read the book, Give It a Go, Eat a Rainbow, which teaches kids about the importance of eating fresh fruits and veggies.

There were a bunch of really squirmy kids in some of the classes, and I heard later from the teachers that these were kids that were potentially addicted to sugar.  They teased me with the idea that they would get their rainbow from Skittles, Lucky Charms, and Starbursts! So then I read Where Does a Rainbow Grow, which specifically teaches that a healthy rainbow (that builds young bodies and minds) comes from Mother Earth.  The new character Sammy the Bunny takes kids to a farm where they learn about plant identification and how food is connected to our healthy planet.

In some of the classes, we had the time to explore the following questions, and I wanted to share the answers with you:

-Can too much of a good thing be bad?
-What are the different types of sugar?
-What are foods that have sugar—and how much?
-What strategies can we use to moderate our sugar intake?

Can too much of a good thing be bad? 

Unfortunately, when it comes to added sugars (found in candy, cookies, cake, and sugary drinks), the answer is YES.  Children that consume large amounts of added sugar are at risk for conditions such as:
Tooth decay* throughout their lives
Obesity and complications associated with it such as heart disease
Type 2 diabetes and complications associated with it such as vision and blood circulation problems
A Suppressed immune system can mean more colds and flu
Poor growth due to too little vitamin and mineral intake.

What are the different types of sugar?

There are 3 basic types of sugar (there are actually many, many types, but to keep it simple as if giving a lesson to a child):

Sucrose = Table sugar

Lactose = Milk sugar

Fructose = Fruit and Vegetable Sugar

As you can see, not all sugar is unhealthy!   For kids, I think the most important message about types of sugars is that they start thinking about the difference between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar.  It is the added sugar that we really want to limit.

And we do this by reading labels. Let’s look at the Nutrition Facts for a Snickers Bar:

You can see that there are 29 grams of sugar in this candy bar.  What does this mean to a child?  I like to get kids thinking in terms of teaspoons of sugar, which they can relate to.  Sugar cubes are also quite helpful for visual examples since they are easily portable for demonstrations.  One teaspoon of sugar is equal to 4 grams of sugar, which is typically equal to 1 cube of sugar:

Now we know that a snickers bar has over 7 teaspoons of sugar!  (7 X 4= 28, the closest number to 29).

But how do we know if this is added sugar or naturally occurring sugar?

Well, this is where Nutrition Label reading gets tricky… food manufacturers don’t tell you if the sugars are added or naturally occurring.

For example, let’s now take a look at the sugar in orange juice (100% juice).

There are over 5 teaspoons of sugar in this orange juice—almost as much as a snickers bar!  So you might look at a product and think that it is nearly the “same” sugar-wise as a snickers bar.

The reality is that while this orange juice does contain a whole lot of sugar, it is not exactly the same “sugar wise” as the Snickers Bar.

The difference is that the sugar in the orange juice is naturally occurring fructose, while most of the sugar in the snickers bar is added.

Again, we want to be on the lookout for added sugars, and these can be sought out on the ingredients list by looking for words such as corn syrup, sugar cane, high fructose corn syrup,  and cane juice in addition to the word “sugar”.

A note on juice:  Following the advice of my Biochemist father, I never offered my kids juice due to the high sugar content.  I am thankful to him to this day for this advice, as my kids have avoided a lot of sugar intake by not drinking juice. My kids, now teenagers, really enjoy “Wuice” which is just plain water with slices of fruits and/or herbs.

What are other foods that have sugar—and how much? 

When I teach the lesson on sugar to kids, there are always a few big surprises as we look at foods and try to guess how much sugar is in each of them. Visuals are key.  This is a GREAT website that should win a Nobel Prize for their efforts to educate through visuals. By far, kids are most appalled by the amount of sugar that is contained in soft drinks.  Kids can drink in so much sugar if they are not aware!

What strategies can we use to moderate our sugar intake?

You as a parent have control over the types of foods that your children can access in the home.  So one of the best things you can do is to simply buy more healthy, fresh food and buy less “junk” food.

When you offer your kids a higher sugar treat, make sure to pair it with a protein or high fiber item that will help to regulate blood sugar levels.

Beware of drinking in too much sugar:  avoid sugary drinks and eat whole fruit instead of juice.

You can help to train your kids’ taste buds by gradually reducing sugar in recipes for baked goods and other home-made items when you can control what goes in.

You can also act as a great role model for your kids as you select healthy meals and snacks for yourself and display enjoyment at eating a bowl of fresh fruit for dessert instead of a high added-sugar alternative.

Taking kids through the aisles of grocery stores with you to read labels and compare sugar amounts in various items can also empower your kids with the knowledge to make great choices.

This page has a 30-day calendar of recipes and activities to engage your kids in healthy nutrition habits.

Finally, you can demonstrate moderation by enjoying your food—and sweet treats– but not overdoing it.  I read once that after the third bite of a high sugar, high fat dessert (like a multi-layered cake or cream pie), your enjoyment starts to fade from its peak.  So do we really want that fourth and tenth and twentieth bite?  Maybe not.

I hope you enjoyed the exploration of these questions about sugar as much as I did.  As I said earlier, I’m not the anti-sugar police, and you can surely find me enjoying some sweet treats in moderation.

Thanks for reading, Kathryn

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