Have you ever noticed how your (or any) children go crazy for candy and other sweets? Sugar can impact our brain and body health – but all of these effects are amplified for children. With childhood type 2 diabetes on the rise, we must look into the diets of children in the US to understand why this is happening. Keep reading to find out why sugar is so unhealthy for kids and what you can do about it!
We should all be consuming sugar in moderation; however, this is especially important for kids (children between the ages of 2 and 18). The American Heart Association (AHA) recently updated their recommendations for children's sugar consumption – kids should eat no more than 25g/6 tsp of sugar each day (1) To put it in perspective, we looked up some of the most common children's snacks and determined how many servings is about 25g of sugar…
Research shows that the average child in the United States (US) eats about 32 tsp of sugar a day, which is over 5X the recommended amount (5)! In fact, a study done by the American Dietetic Association found that the top three energy (calorie) sources for children are pizza, grain desserts, and sugary drinks (6). This information is shocking, considering that the same study we mentioned by the AHA states that kids should be limited to only 8 oz of sugary drinks per week.
For children below the age of 2, it is advised to avoid any sugar in the diet whatsoever – yet roughly 75% do (7). These recommendations are made because the first two years of a child are more developmentally sensitive than the rest of their childhood and adult life. The infant’s diet alters their taste preferences, affecting what their diet is like later in life (8).
This is because, at this young age, the brain is considered plastic – meaning life experiences easily shape it. Interestingly, an infant is born with all of the neurons (brain cells) that it will have in its entire life, and as the baby matures, these cells connect. These connections help them learn, form memories, and respond better to their surroundings. An infant’s experiences cause strengthening between these connections at a much higher rate than an older child or adult - this is what plasticity is (9). If children consume sugar at this early stage of life, their brains are at a much higher risk of sugar addiction due to their high neuroplasticity (10).
Another thing to keep in mind is the blood sugar of a pregnant woman. Because the majority of the initial brain development occurs as a fetus, expectant mothers should aim to keep their blood sugar low for similar reasons. In fact, pregnant women with higher-than-recommended blood sugar levels have a 5-26% higher risk of birthing a child that has health concerns related to diet (11). Additionally, another study found that pregnant mothers with high-sugar diets gave birth to kids that were roughly 30% heavier in weight compared to other children.
Since so many children eat higher-than-recommended amounts of sugar in their diets, it helps to know how this impacts them health-wise. Various systems in a child’s body are negatively affected by excessive sugar.
As we mentioned above, the brain of a child is especially sensitive to sugar compared to adults. A study done by the University of Southern California found that sugar has an especially significant effect on the memory of children, and a diet high in sugar was associated with an impaired memory (12). What’s more, a different study from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), was done on lab rats and found that a sugary diet caused the brain's activity to slow significantly (13). Eating excessive sugar, as we mentioned before, can also cause sugar addiction (especially for children), because sugar causes a release of dopamine (14). This is the same neurotransmitter the brain releases when drugs, such as cocaine, are consumed. Dopamine causes feelings of relaxation and happiness and is one of the most addictive physical responses known to impact humans.
Type II diabetes is a condition where the body stops producing a hormone called insulin or the cells in the body stop recognizing it when it is circulating in the blood. Insulin is released when blood sugar levels rise in the body – insulin acts like a key that opens the body's cells, and the cells then take the blood sugar in and use it for energy. When this happens, the blood sugar either remains high for a long time or the body stores the sugar as fat. Childhood diabetes is linked to further health concerns such as chronic fatigue, blurred vision, and even constant thirst (15).
Mental health is a vital component to a person’s wellbeing, and it is associated with many systems in the body. A high-sugar diet in a child’s early years can impact their mental health. First, sugar in a kid’s diet is associated with childhood anxiety (16). This is because sugar causes chemical changes in the body, and when a child eats sugar regularly, their brains begin to anticipate these chemical changes – this is called addiction. Then, when sugar is absent in the diet following addiction, it causes withdrawals. These withdrawals come in the form of anxiety, especially in children. Additionally, this addiction causes the brain to slow the production of endorphins, which are a “feel good” hormone; therefore, lowered endorphin output results in additional anxiety and even childhood depression.
A child’s immune system is already less effective than an adult’s, putting children at a higher risk of infections and disease. Sugar causes inflammation in the body, and chronic inflammation lowers the immune systems ability to function optimally (17). This phenomenon is referred to as “meta inflammation,” It is linked to diabetes, liver disease, and other health issues. The immune system is weakened by sugar because it causes the white blood cells to become less active – white blood cells are the “guardians” of the body and attack foreign invaders like bacteria and fungi. A study found that humans’ white blood cell activity slowed significantly for the few hours following the consumption of a high amount of sugar (18).
It may seem difficult to avoid a high-sugar diet in today’s world; however, there are steps that you can take to get your child eating less sugar, which will protect their health. First, you should try to increase the number of fruits and vegetables in your kid’s diet. The USDA recommends that kids eat around 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day (depending on their age) – however, research shows that the average child only eats half of that (19). Eating fruits and veggies is a great way to cut back on sugar and provides a child with essential vitamins, minerals, and plant fibers that aid in their overall development. The sugar that comes from fruit is much healthier than added sugars used in manufactured goods because it is embedded in the fruit fiber. Fiber helps slow digestion, which lowers the amount of sugar that becomes stored as fat (20).
Feeding your child a diet high in fruits and vegetables, especially in their earlier years, will also help them with their adult food preferences. As discussed before, the foods that a child eats in their first few years of life establish their adult life’s food preferences. At an early age, your child relies on you to provide food for them, so do them a favor and make choices for them that will benefit them their entire life!
There are other measures that you can take to create a healthy relationship between your child and sugar. A study found that there are various ways to psychologically reinforce a healthy diet for children (21). For example, ensuring that your child eats a highly nutritious and low-sugar diet when they are at school helps promote healthier eating habits. Another great way to reinforce these habits is by having regular meals as a family to see their caretakers eating healthy foods and learning from them. It is also helpful to provide your child with unlimited access to healthy foods, rather than keeping unhealthy food around and telling them that they can’t eat it. Children are highly curious and are easily trapped by the “lure of forbidden food” (22). By allowing your kid to have unlimited access to food, you teach them how to eat intuitively. Intuitive eating is eating based on hunger and satiety cues rather than cravings.
It may also serve you to find healthy swaps for the sugary foods that your child loves. Instead of soda, you can offer your child fruit-infused carbonated water instead. This provides them a similar experience without all of the junk. Our healthy candy, FAVES, is another excellent option to replace typical sugary candies. A single roll of our candy offers 2 full servings of fruits and veggies, and it is sweetened with monk fruit (an all-natural, zero-calorie sweetener). We hear from parents that love being able to provide their kids with candy that they can eat all the time!