Since having children I have been astounded at how frequently unhealthy sweets are offered to my kids, and children in general. Have you noticed this too?
It comes from multiple sources – extended family members, kids programs, parties, random Grannys out and about, and even in the doctors office (just to name a few)!
On the very rare occasion, a person will have the decency to whisper or ask “in code” (aka: spelling) for permission first. But most times, the tantalizing treat is dangled before their innocent little eyes and shoved into their ever-ready hands, leaving mummy to be the “bad guy” yet again. Grrrrrr!
Most of us eat some form of added sugar every day. It may be from junk food or from foods you expect to be healthy, such as juices, breakfast cereals, and factory-made meals and food products labelled as “healthy”1.
“The American Heart Association recommends that children aged 4-8 eat no more than 3 teaspoons [of added sugar] a day. But the scary truth is that they are consuming seven times that!”.1 Recent surveys in Australia show that more than half of young Aussies are consuming too much sugar.2,3 Both in the US and Australia, research has found that intake of added sugar increased as children became adolescents – reaching an average daily intake of 22 teaspoons for boys in Australia and 24 teaspoons for boys and girls in the US.4,5,6
But is sugar really that bad, I hear you ask? Let’s take a look at this question in relation to children.
Sugar has negative consequences on health and overall wellbeing
Added refined sugar (not sugar naturally found in fruit and veg), is a factory-processed food product that increases risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, tooth decay, mood swings and poor self-image and depression (as a result of weight gain), just to name a few of the major negative health effects. It is important to note that sugar is certainly not the sole reason for these negative effects (for instance, sugary foods are also accompanied by large amounts of fat, salt, etc.); but sugar is a big part of the problem and needs addressing.5,7,8
In Australia, “recent surveys have found that 21–25% of children and adolescents are overweight or obese (with 5–8% classified as obese). The prevalence of overweight and obesity in children has increased significantly over the past two decades. Although the rate of increase appears to be slowing, the high prevalence remains of concern”.2
Sugar is very addictive!7,8
The reality is that when kids are given a choice between unhealthy sweets and fruits and vegetables, most will automatically choose the unhealthy sweets. You don’t need a science degree to know that this is a fact for kids and most adults too. So what is it about our human make-up that seems to be driving us towards sugar?
The truth is that our bodies find sugar addictive because we were not designed for such unnaturally high levels of processed sugar. Sugar also makes us “feel good” temporarily. So when we eat it, our brains register the message: “Oh yeah! That made me feel awesome. Bring it on; I’ll have more of that thanks!!!” And the result is that our bodies then crave even more sugar.
Hence, as parents and caregivers, we need to pay close attention to how we are training our children’s taste buds. Sure, the occasional unhealthy treat isn’t going to kill them right there and then, but it is slowly conditioning their taste buds to prefer and crave highly processed sugary foods.
Sugar is empty calories7,8,9,10
Sugar is nutrient-poor and provides “empty” calories. This makes it difficult for our brains to register when we have had enough and need to stop; unlike fruit and vegetables which are packed-full of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
And if children are consuming more of the highly processed, sugary foods and drinks, chances are they’re consuming less of the healthy foods like fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grain foods, which their growing bodies need in order to thrive. Which is not a good thing for their growth and overall health and wellbeing.
Long-term impact of sugar2,5
Most children start having added sugar from a very young age. For some children the effects of excess added sugar (and the fat, cholesterol, salt, etc that go with sugary foods) becomes evident fairly early on. Whereas for others it takes many years before the effects of sugar are fully realized…and the long-term effects are huge!
“Childhood obesity has been identified as one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. In the United States it has been predicted that, due to premature mortality associated with obesity developing at a younger age, the current generation of children will be the first in that country’s history to have a life expectancy lower than that of their parents. Obesity is an important determinant of a range of health disorders – unless the increasing prevalence of overweight and obesity is arrested, the burden of chronic disease in future generations will be pandemic and cause a crisis in health and economic systems across the world”2.
So what can we do about sugar?1,2,6,8
5 Ways to Help Your Kids Eat Less Sugar
- Keep talking as a family about how to be healthy and reasons why this is important. As part of these conversations, explain the importance of limiting added refined sugars found in sweets, junk-foods, beverages, high sugar cereals, yogurts, etc.
- Be a good example. Children are sponges, and they will imitate your actions and attitudes towards food. Therefore make sure that what you are telling them is consistent with what they see in your own lifestyle choices when it comes to sweets and healthy eating.
- Limit, or eliminate, children’s exposure to unhealthy sugary foods and beverages. Instead give them whole fruits and vegetables, and incorporate these in cooking guilt-free sweet treats. For instance, many fruits and sweet vegetables (eg. sweet potato, carrot and pumpkin) are great alternatives for refined sugar and your family won’t even notice the difference, honestly! (If you don’t believe me, try out my No-Bake Berry Crumble Recipe, coming your way in the next post–your kids will love it!
- Be aware of added sugars in the foods you buy. Start by familiarizing yourself with the different names sugar goes by on food labels (see here for more info). Check the ingredients list on anything that comes in a package. Ingredients are listed by decreasing weight. If you see sugar by any name near the top of the list, reconsider! The same goes for dessert recipes you choose to make yourself. Carefully look at the sugar, salt, egg and dairy content. Think, is there a better option? Could I make this by reducing or eliminating some of these?
- Be flexible. Certainly, there will be the occasional times when our little darlings will consume some junk food. But let it remain just that – a rare treat that you control – not a regular thing each day or every few days.
We need to shift our focus away from how much sugar and junk food is “ok” to consume before it starts having an adverse affect on our family’s health. Start focusing instead on how much our family will gain by eating a healthy and well-balanced diet, as a way of life! – Marilyn Östring
If you only remember one thing from this post, I hope it is this: We need to be asking ourselves what is going to be of maximum benefit to our children’s health, and give them those options instead of unhealthy sweets, as often as possible.
There is a myriad of amazing healthier alternatives to the more traditional unhealthy recipes or store-bought sweet treats, that are equally satisfying, and without the guilt and negative side-effects of the traditional versions.
Lets be brave and start exploring more healthful options for our families, starting today!
Check out my mouth-watering sugar-free recipe your family is guaranteed to love (coming your way in the next post) to get you started on this journey.
Images courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net by marin and nenetus.