Sugar and Children's Diet, Part 2

by Mark Moore, MD

In the second of a two part column, we will review the effects of sugar on your child's body and make suggestions to reduce daily sugar intake.

All foods are a balance of three types of substances: Protein, fat and carbohydrate. Sugar is the simplest carbohydrate. There are many forms of sugar. Sucrose is table sugar and fructose is fruit sugar, to name a few common ones. But there are many others to look for on labels:

  • glucose/dextrose (the simplest sugar molecule)
  • corn syrup
  • maltose (two glucose combined)
  • lactose or milk sugar
  • molasses
  • brown sugar
  • sugar syrup
  • raw sugar
  • honey

Nutrition labels list carbohydrates (in grams) and then sugars (in grams) next to it. A gram is a unit of weight and measure; there are about 5 grams to a spoonful. Check the ingredient list and look for sugar (the order of listing is the relative amounts contained). If sugar is one of the first three ingredients, it likely is a high sugar product.

The food we eat is broken down into simpler molecules of sugar. This is used by the body immediately or stored in the liver as glycogen or in the tissues as fat. The process of breakdown is important. Complex carbohydrates take more time to be digested and thus supply a steady stream of nutrient energy for the body. Simple sugars, like those contained in soft-drinks, candy or fruit juice give a spike in blood sugar levels, then drop off equally as fast.

What are some of the systems affected by a sugar-filled diet? Lets review a few of the most important. Activity and aggression levels in children increase. Everyone recognizes when children "get wild." Simple sugars cause a burst of activity, even in already "hyperactive" children. This might be a good reason to limit sugar intake on rainy days indoors. Although there is mixed studies on the direct correlation between diets and ADD (attention deficit disorder), it makes sense that diet can influence the level of hyperactivity and distraction.

"Sugar High" refers to the feeling of well being the comes after the intake of a heavy sugar/carbohydrate load. This is short-lived as your body releases insulin to lower blood sugar levels, which drop to lower than their original baseline. A diet high in simple carbohydrates and sugars can be a cause of mood swings in both children and adults. High insulin levels caused by high sugar diets causes increased fat deposition (and eventually obesity). One of the ways insulin clears the blood of sugar is to convert it into fat. High doses of sugar are implicated in temporary lowered immunity and resistance to infection and may also increase the risk for diabetes as adult. Of course, eating sugar and simple carbohydrates makes you want to eat more sugar and carbohydrates.

Some of the biggest offenders include sugared drinks like soda pop, juice drinks, real fruit juice (yes, the vitamins don't offset the fact that it is a high sugar drink), sugared breakfast cereals, candy, confections and cakes. A single 16 oz drink might have 200 calories (all sugar). It will take your child 2 miles of jogging to burn off the calories in one bottle. I have known people to drink six to eight bottles per day! Sugared potato chips? Almost. These types of snacks are simple carbohydrates that begin to digest in your mouth, before you even swallow. Then they convert into...you guessed it: sugar.

There is good news! More companies are taking responsibility for the products they produce. Stores are reconsidering the products they stock. A recent Florida Governor's task force is recommending that soft drinks, potato chips, and other "junk food" be banned from all school vending machines.

The revised nutritional pyramid emphasizes more vegetables and less carbohydrates. There is a 75-100 calorie sweets allowance, which I would encourage you to simply ignore. It is not a "free pass" to eat junk food. The caloric content of one candy bar could be a weeks worth sweet calories. It also creates unhealthy habits -- junk food snacking.

What to do: Encourage healthful snacks. Watch what you bring into the house. Limit junk food to "treats" instead of making meals of them. Develop healthy habits -- drink more water and eat more vegetables and fruits. Exercise and being active makes you less likely to act and eat like a couch potato.