Children & Sugar: The Not So Sweet Side

It’s no news flash that sugar is bad for your children. However, what may come as a surprise to you is just how unhealthy it really is. Also, you may be surprised at how much of it your children are actually consuming. We are going to walk you through where sugar is disguised in the foods you are feeding your children. Our goal is to show you why sugar is toxic and detrimental to their health and wellness. Plus, we’ll guide you to some sweet snack makeovers they are sure to love!

Chances are, you wouldn’t pack your child’s lunch with four Twinkies. What you may not realize is that their peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread, a cup of applesauce, and a fruit punch rounds out at 76 grams and 16 teaspoons of sugar! Unfortunately, this is even more sugar than those four Twinkies. We don’t want to confuse you, though. From a nutritional standpoint, the packed lunch is obviously much healthier than the sugar laden snack. However, let us walk you through a little bit about sugar so you can better understand why it has become such a problem in our nation and why you could unintentionally be causing long term harm for your children’s health.

Just the Facts:

Sugar has been making headlines everywhere with many experts even referring to it as toxic. Let’s break down some of the facts!

  • Refined sugar (ie. table sugar, white sugar) is a carbohydrate known as sucrose that is made up of two smaller carbohydrates: fructose and glucose.
  • Examples of added sugar include white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, high fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, maple syrup, pancake syrup, fructose sweetener, liquid fructose, honey, molasses, anhydrous dextrose, crystal dextrose and dextrin.
  • Added sugar is empty calories.

  • Brown sugar is white sugar with brown coloring added either in the form of burnt sugar or molasses
  • Fruit sugar, also called fructose, is a nutrient that is a naturally occurring in fruits and some vegetables.
  • Most carbohydrates are broken down into glucose – the sugar your body uses to form energy. It either becomes stored energy in your muscles and liver, or your body uses it immediately.
  • Sugar is addictive. When it is consumed it releases an opiate-like substance that our brain perceives as a reward, encouraging our body to want more.
  • Eating too much sugar will put your child at a higher risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. These are the three main contributors of heart disease.
  • 4 grams of carbs is equal to 1 teaspoon of sugar.
  • The average American consumes 130 pounds of sugar a year.
  • Sugar overload may obstruct your children’s taste buds from maturing thus making accepting bitter greens etc. much more difficult.

  • Sugar promotes cravings. Therefore, the more sugar your children eat the more sugar they will crave. Consuming sugar raises the blood glucose level, triggering the outpouring of insulin. The excess insulin lingers in the system, triggering a craving for more sugar.
  • Refined white sugar aides in depleting the body of B vitamins and disrupts calcium and metabolism and has a harmful effect on the nervous system
  • Foods that are touted as “Low-Fat” and “Gluten Free” often use sugar to enhance their flavor

Sugar Spotting Tip

  • Check ingredient labels for anything ending in ‘ose’ (glucose, sucrose, fructose, lactose, maltose) as these are all forms of sugar, along with honey, agave, molasses and syrups like corn and rice syrup. The higher up the ingredients list, the more sugar the product contains.
  • When checking the label it is important to consider carbs and sugar as the same thing since ALL carbs become blood glucose when processed by the body. View the carbohydrates on the nutrition panel as sugar. If you want to get an idea how the carbs translate you can divide the number of carbs you’re eating by 4, and that’s the number of teaspoons of sugar those carbs will metabolize into. 4 grams of carbs OR 4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon of sugar.
  • Remember to look out for sugar substitutes such as xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol. These occur naturally in small amounts in plants and fruits but are often used in low-calorie products to provide sweetness but with fewer calories.

All “Sugar” is NOT Created Equal

Have you ever heard anyone say that the amount of sugar in a snickers bar is similar to that of a banana? Based on the “number” amount of sugar this is true, but, it is important to look at exactly what your body does with each type of sugar in order to make a judgment about what sugars you should or should not be consuming.

Refined sugar has a very fast rate of metabolism. It has a lack of any healthy nutrients and does not make you feel full. All of these reasons contribute to sugar causing obesity and chronic diseases. Sugar comes from sugar cane, however extreme refinement has eliminated all of the fiber and plant nutrients. Refined sugar is quickly broken down by your body into glucose and fructose. This rapid increase in glucose spikes insulin and blood sugar levels providing your body with a quick surge of energy. If this energy is not used immediately your body may store it into fat. Fructose is metabolized in your liver and is absorbed instantly. This increases fat cell production and the workload of your liver. Quick digestion of refined sugar prevents you from feeling full and leaves you hungry and craving more sugar.

In comparison to refined sugar, fruit contains many benefits. It is rich in antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. Also, fruit is an excellent source of fiber. This presence of fiber in fruit is a key factor in understanding what happens to fruit sugars in your body and how quickly they are broken down in your gastrointestinal tract. The fiber in fruit expands in your gut, providing you the satisfied feeling of being full. Fiber is the biggest and most important reason explaining why fruit sugars are not as dangerous as refined sugar.

Keep the Fiber

When you stew, cook or juice fruit the health benefits decline. It will no longer contain as much fiber. For instance, drinking a glass of orange juice, though still containing nutrients, is more concentrated in sugar and not able to provide you the fiber benefits of a whole orange. Similarly, an apple with skin contains more fiber then a peeled apple. Try to incorporate uncooked, unpeeled and whole pieces of fruit as your main source of sugar! Keeping the fruit intact for more fiber will lend you to more nutritional benefits.


The Problem with Juice

If given the choice children would most likely choose juice over water. However, children do not need to include any sweet drinks or fruit juices to have a healthy diet. These drinks can actually reduce the quality of your child’s diet. It increases their chances of weight gain as well as poor oral health. Also, it sets a bad habit of drinking sweet drinks instead of water.

Well it is true that fruit and vegetable juices contain sugars that are found naturally in fresh fruits and vegetables, they become very concentrated when made into juice. For comparison it takes anywhere between 3-5 apples to make up just one cup of apple juice. Your child may chug this cup within 5 minutes. Instead encourage your children to eat the whole fruit or vegetable, and drink water rather than juice. The sooner this becomes habit the easier it will be.

Try to reserve juice (yes even the “all natural” and “no sugar added” varieties) as an occasional treat. These juices are still made up primarily of sugar. The fiber has been removed and what you are left with is just a high dose of fructose. Don’t fall for their clever marketing tricks. Though the labels show pictures of real fruit and state that they “provide one full serving of fruit” this should be taken lightly. This one full serving of fruit does not contain the same nutritional benefits as eating fruit alone.

Shopping Tip

Always check the nutrition label and ingredient list! Ingredients are listed by decreasing weight. If you find that sugar by any name near the top of list, reconsider. Turn to a fruit or vegetable as a better option. Question whether you could you make this item yourself and eliminate or reduce the amount of sugar? As hard as it may be, remember the potential long-term impact on your family’s health.

Sweet Snack Makeovers

Instead Of:

Flavored Yogurt


Plain yogurt flavored with fresh fruit or raisins, cinnamon and a small amount of honey

Instead Of:

Pre-packaged Fruit Cups


Make your own fruit cups at the beginning of the week and store them in the fridge for easy access

Instead Of:

Pre-made Trail Mix


Make your own with whole grain unsweetened cereal, dried fruits and nuts and some shredded coconut

Navigating the world of nutrition and your children can be difficult. There always seems to be new reports and conflicting information! Remember that your best bet is always to stick with real whole foods in their most original state for the most health benefits! Also, remember not to stress about your child having an occasional treat for special occasions such as birthday parties. As long at they eat a diet full of whole grains, whole fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats on a regular basis it’s okay that they indulge every once in awhile!

For more tips on raising healthy eaters check out “5 Tips For Encouraging Healthy Eating Habits Early”

Photo Credit: Fruit by SweetOnVeg, Fruit Loops by Vox EFX,Juiceboxes by Steve Depolo, Its A Logical Life

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Jessica is a holistic health counselor and work from home mom living in the middle of nowhere USA with her sweet little boy! She suffers from a serious case of compulsive globe-trotting and is always counting the days until her next move or adventure. You can often find her trying to get in her exercise in by lunging through the park while chasing after her very energetic little boy! She is constantly fueled and energized by her love for healthy eating and occasionally copious amounts of caffeine.

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