Don’t Sugarcoat It: Kids Are Eating Way Too Much Sugar

sugar and candy

One out of six children in the United States are obese by the age of five, and the rates just keep going up with age. While there are many factors that can contribute to weight gain, a lot probably has to do with the fact that 99 percent of toddlers consume more added sugar per day than is considered acceptable for adults. 

That startling report was issued after 2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This study looked at added sugars, rather than sugars that occur naturally such as in fruit and milk. Excessive sugar can be a problem regardless of the source, as it is simply added calories with little nutritional value. 

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that adult women limit their sugar intake to six teaspoons per day, while men should keep it below nine teaspoons. Meanwhile, most of America’s toddlers (one to two years old) consume an average of over seven teaspoons of added sugar per day. 

Everyone, regardless of age, should restrict his or her sugar intake to less than 10 percent of all calories consumed daily. For young children, that would mean no more than about 45 grams of sugar a day. Of course, few young children are responsible for their own diets or can be expected to monitor their sugar consumption. That oversight usually falls to a parent.

The Dangers of Excessive Sugar Consumption

Sugar can affect our health at multiple stages in our development. Too much sugar during pregnancy adversely impacts the child’s cognition, while excess sugar intake during adolescence has been associated with weight gain and cardiac risks, which include an increased risk of obesity and elevated blood pressure. 

At any age, excessive sugar can lead to tooth decay and weakened enamel. Recent studies have also shown that excess sugar depresses the body’s immunity, making kids more vulnerable to diseases and infections.

But the earlier sugar intake begins, the harder it becomes to kick the habit later in life. A promising strategy for reducing kids’ sugar intake is to get them used to healthy eating before they turn two. Kids two and under should avoid consuming any added sugar, since they need nutrient-rich diets and are developing taste preferences.  

All Juiced Up

A significant portion of all this sugar is delivered in liquid form. Recent guidelines (composed by a panel of experts from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Heart Association) recommend that kids should be drinking little to no juice and drinking water instead. This advice is great for parents, too; don’t drink your calories!

Here’s how their recommendations break down.

0–6 months: Breast milk or infant formula only; no fruit juice or other liquids of any kind.

6–12 months: Breast milk or infant formula; small amounts of plain drinking water okay once solid foods are introduced; no fruit juice.

12–24 months: Whole milk and plain drinking water; very limited 100 percent fruit juice on occasion.

2–5 years: Skim or low-fat milk and plain drinking water; very limited 100 percent fruit juice on occasion.

Other Tips for Young Children from Dr. White

As far as tooth decay is concerned, when it comes to sugary treats and beverages, it’s how often, not how much. Prolonged exposure to sugar is the big problem. Repeated candy grazing or regularly drinking juice or soda increases the risk of tooth decay. Stick to indulging only at designated meal and snack times!

Don’t put babies to bed with a bottle. Many new parents don’t know about “Baby Bottle Tooth Decay,” now known as Early Childhood Caries. Milk contains sugar, which means that their young teeth are being attacked by mouth acids from that sugar all night (see the above paragraph). Give water rather than juice or milk as a thirst quencher for your baby.

Wean children off of their pacifiers by age three. Pacifiers can potentially transfer cavity-causing bacteria from the parent to the baby. Prolonged use of a pacifier (and thumb sucking) can also interfere with the normal development of the jaws and the positioning of teeth.

Get dental sealants for kids to protect them from tooth decay. Dental sealants are special coatings placed on the chewing surface of the back teeth to protect them from decay. Bacteria and plaque can easily build up in these areas, so without protection many children will develop cavities in their back teeth. Dental sealants have been shown to reduce the occurrence of cavities by as much as 80 percent. Children with sealants are three times less likely to develop cavities in their first molars than their non-sealed peers, so it’s a very inexpensive investment with a big return.

~Dr. Marea White