How bad is sugar really? It is such the trend today, similar to gluten, to carefully avoid sugar in our diets. But in growing children, when the greatest concern is sustained positive growth, even in the picky years, I’ve always felt that some sugar is better than no protein. The zero calorie alternative sweeteners raise their own concerns, and even a product like stevia, which is derived from a plant may not be a perfect alternative to pure cane sugar, agave nectar or honey. Several studies have hypothesized that stevia may have mutagenic (or cancer-causing) effects. Furthermore, the FDA rejected stevia in the 1990s because of a study with stevia-fed mice that became infertile post-consumption. It is important to note that research on artificial sweeteners typically uses levels much greater than that which we would consume, and a lot of the negative data on stevia refers to the consumption of the unaltered, or crude, leaf. The highly purified form is what is available today, but in this case purified does equal processed. This illustrates one of the greatest truths of modern medicine, ‘derived from a plant’ doesn’t inherently mean safe.
The ill effects of sugar consumption are delineated in multiple studies – common themes include the negative impact of high blood sugar levels on immune system function; the resultant hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention associated with sugar loading; as well as cardiovascular health implications and obesity.
Specifically, high levels of blood sugar reduce the white blood cells (disease fighting agents) ability to engulf and destroy bacteria, thus leaving the child more at risk of infection. The white blood cell’s inability to effectively fight disease is reduced for several hours after sugar ingestion, and thus is not just a transient effect.
‘Foods with a high sugar content stimulate the production of LPL (lipoprotein lipase), the enzymes that encourage the body to store food in fat cells. Thus, a low-fat diet that is rich in carbohydrates with a high glycemic index can actually cause weight gain’ – This explains the craze of low-carb or no-carb diets. Complex carbohydrates, however, are a very necessary component to a healthy and diverse pediatric diet, and contribute to sustained positive growth.
In some children with ADHD, blood sugar levels following a transient high dip to levels consistent with hypoglycemia, thus further potentiating abnormal behavior. Other kids are just more “sensitive” to sugar ingestion, albeit all kids are likely to experience a transient lack of inattention and hyperactivity following sugar ingestion, as we have all witnessed!
My greatest concern with copious ingestion of sugar containing foods, or simple carbohydrates, is that filling up on these foods will displace the consumption of healthy proteins, veggies and fruits. This is in fact true, but unfortunately, consuming lots of healthy foods, as well as lots of sugar-rich foods still sets kids up for a higher blood triglyceride level and a greater risk of poor cardiovascular health.
Sugar is definitively associated with ill effects, but it is my opinion, that completely avoiding sugar in our children’s diet is impractical. Similar to the ineffectiveness of trying to force our kids to eat, denying them any single food will only make that food more desirable.
- “Preschoolers with a daily caloric intake of 1,200 to 1,400 calories shouldn’t consume any more than 170 calories, or about 4 teaspoons, of added sugar a day.
- Children ages 4-8 with a daily caloric intake of 1,600 calories should consume no more than 130 calories, or about 3 teaspoons a day. (In order to accommodate all the nutritional requirements for this age group, there are fewer calories available for discretionary allowances like sugar.)
- As your child grows into his pre-teen and teen years, and the caloric range increases to 1,800 to 2,000 a day, the maximum amount of added sugar included in his/her daily diet should be 5 to 8 teaspoons.”
It makes sense to really look at labels and more importantly to minimize consumption of processed and pre-packaged foods. Sugar is not avoided entirely, but incorporated in sensible amounts into a diet that is diverse and nutrient-rich.