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Kids vs. Sugar: The Truth About Sweets

Written by James Kicinski-McCoy

Photography by Photographed by Aubrey McCoy

For years, the occasional lollipop or ice cream cone has been a regular treat that parents give their kids, but nowadays, moms are ditching anything containing sugar in fear that it’s doing more harm than good and causing them to bounce-off-the-walls or aid in those ruthless tantrums after consumption. So, what’s the scoop on sugar? We tapped child nutritionist and all-around food expert Jill Castle MS, RDN, CDN to get the lowdown on this controversial question.

How does sugar affect little bodies?
“Added sugar can raise blood sugar quickly, and in the absence of other nutrients like protein, fiber or fat, the blood sugar can drop quickly after eating sugary foods, resulting in behavioral changes. Also, added sugar can crowd out other important nutrients for growth, especially in young children under two, so therefore, I don’t recommend regular sugary foods in young toddlers.”

Is there any truth to the link of sugar and hyperactivity? ADHD? Autism? Diabetes?
“There is little evidence that sugar itself causes hyperactivity. The changes in behavior are mostly related to a quick drop in blood sugar after eating sugary foods. Some children diagnosed with ADHD have been shown to be more sensitive to sugar, but this is a small number. If children demonstrate sensitivity, parents should work to limit sources of added sugar in their children’s diets.”

Are natural sugars found in fruit and juices okay, or should we limit those, too? What about all-natural candy or desserts?
“Natural sugars such as lactose (found in milk) and fructose (found in fruit) are ‘healthy’ sugars, mostly because they live alongside other important nutrients. There is no need to limit lactose unless there is an intolerance; fructose is more concentrated in fruit juice and the recommendation is to limit consumption to 4-6 ounces for children under 8 years of age. All natural candy and desserts are still candy and desserts, and should be limited in a child’s diet.”

Can you explain the difference between raw sugar, white refined sugar, and alternatives like high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners? Are any of these worrisome or better for you?
“Refined sugar is 100% sucrose. Raw sugar is sucrose plus molasses. Both get processed similarly in the body—elevating blood sugar, triggering an insulin response, which initiates sugar getting used for energy, with any excesses stored as fat. HFCS is a more concentrated form of sugar and is used in many products, particularly sweetened beverages. A little bit has a powerful sweetening effect. Again, sugar is sugar and should be limited in a child’s diet—no matter the source. I don’t recommend artificial sweeteners for kids with the exception of using it as a short term transitional step to helping kids get away from routine consumption of sugary beverages. Parents should have a system in place for sugar in their kids’ diets—how much per day, how frequently per week, which types, etc.”

How many grams of sugar per day is okay per age group?
“I wrote about maximum teaspoons per day, per age group, right here.”

How can we successfully cut down on our children’s intake without cutting it out completely?
“I listed out some starter suggestions, right here.”

Any personal favorite healthy swaps?
“I like the weaning approach—mix sweet yogurt with plain in a 50:50 concoction; mix sugary cereal with plain rice or corn chex or bran flakes in a 50:50 concoction; dilute juices with sparkling water; opt for low sugar granola bars, pasta sauces, oatmeals, etc. Start reading labels and watch out for first ingredients indicating sugar (any word ending with –ose). Keep a mental checklist of sugary foods that are eaten through out the day and stay within a target of 1-2 small portions on average.”

Does not eating sugar really make us stop craving it?
“The jury is still out on that, and mostly what I hear is personal opinions that yes, it does reduce cravings. I do think you can retrain your tastebuds to desire fewer sweets. For kids, though, parents need to be careful not to be too restrictive with sweets because that can drive desire for more sweets, and that can look like sweet seeking behaviors such as pigging out on sweets at the neighbor’s house. My experience has been that the best approach for families is to have a plan/strategy for how they will fit sweet treats and desserts into the daily/weekly diet…and stick to it!”

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