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Interestingly, sugar originally was considered a spice rather than a sweetener, and it was used for centuries in conjunction with other herbs for medicinal purposes.
Around the 19th century, sugar became more readily affordable and thus a more common commodity in the food industry. Today, sugar can be found in a variety of foods and is listed on nutrition labels under a variety of names.
In large quantities, sugar can be quite detrimental to a person’s overall health, especially when it comes to children’s health.
Importance of Proper Nutrition During Childhood
Childhood is when the majority of growth and development take place. (1) For proper growth and development to occur, the body requires certain macro- and micronutrients (2) that must be obtained from high-quality food sources. (3)
Children need to consume a healthy, well-balanced diet that meets all their nutritional requirements to ensure proper skeletal, muscular, cognitive, behavioral, and neurological development.
Children are also learning, in addition to growing, during this period, and thus it is important for them to be taught about nutrition. (4) Children’s taste preferences and palates develop based on the foods that are available to them and the foods they are offered.
Helping children to establish healthy eating habits in childhood is key to helping them grow into successful, healthy adults. Conversely, feeding them diets high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and proteins will increase their risk of developing various chronic diseases later in life, such as obesity, heart disease, tooth decay, and type 2 diabetes, among others. (5)(6)(7)
ALSO READ: Healthiest Foods for Growing Children
How Important Is Sugar in the Diet of a Child?
Sugar is sweet and has a pleasing taste. However, it likely would be best kept under the category of “spice” rather than “food.” While it is mostly harmless in small quantities, larger amounts can be quite detrimental.
Sugar can provide the body with energy, but it does not provide any essential vitamins or minerals, which the body requires for growth, development, and survival. Because sugar provides “empty” calories, it should not be considered an important part of any diet. Rather, it should be kept as a treat or occasional diet add-in.
Recommended Sugar Intake for a Child
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), children aged 2 and older should consume no more than 25 grams or 6 teaspoons of “added” sugars daily. Children less than 2 years of age should not have any added sugars in their diet. (8)
Reasons Why Children Crave Sugar
Children may start to crave sugar for the following reasons:
1. Evolutionary cravings for sugary foods
From an evolutionary standpoint, humans evolved to like sweet foods. They are an excellent energy source, especially when other energy sources are scarce, and they have a pleasant taste.
Foods that were more bitter or sour, ancestrally speaking, oftentimes signified that the food was unripe, rotten, or poisonous, all of which could result in sickness. Hence, it is thought that to maximize survival, the human brain developed to enjoy eating sweet foods.
When sweet foods are consumed, the brain’s reward system is triggered, and humans learn to want to repeat this behavior. (9) Consequently, this may result in the brain setting the initial intention to eat one cookie, but then the entire plateful disappears.
2. Inadequate intake of protein, fiber, or fat
Inadequate intake of protein, fiber, or fat can also trigger sugar cravings. Protein, fats, and carbohydrates are all broken down into glucose so the body can use them as energy.
The supply of glucose in the blood is called blood sugar, and the amount of sugar in the blood is tracked innately by the body to measure when it needs to eat again. When glucose levels in the bloodstream run out, the brain receives the message that the body is hungry. Carbohydrates are readily broken down and enter and leave the bloodstream quickly.
Protein and fats are a bit more complex, and the body breaks them down at a slower rate. This maintains blood sugar levels for a longer time frame and keeps hunger pangs at bay.
Whole fruits and vegetables that provide sufficient fiber also support a slower release of glucose into the bloodstream and, in effect, also prevent drastic rising and falling of blood sugar levels.
3. Inadequate sleep
Another reason for sugar cravings in children may be due to inadequate sleep. (10) Sleep is important for providing the body with the necessary rest and rejuvenation. In children, sleep is also especially important for supporting growth.
When the body doesn’t get enough sleep, appetite-regulating hormones become out of balance, typically upregulating the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin. The brain also gets confused with the low energy stores.
This perfect storm causes the brain to seek out foods that are high in calories and quick to boost energy. Sugary foods meet these criteria, and thus sweet cravings ensue. (11)
4. Inadequate water intake
Inadequate water intake can also elicit sugary cravings. All the cells in the body require water and hydration to function properly. Unfortunately, when water intake is low, the body can get confused as to what it is that it needs, mistaking the discomfort of dehydration with that of hunger.
5. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can also exacerbate sugar-seeking behavior in children. (12)
Harmful Effects of Excessive Sugar Intake in Children
A number of harmful effects can result when children eat too much sugar. Inhibited growth, tooth decay, (13)(14) and increased risk of developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, are all potential negative side effects of excessive sugar intake.
Ways to Get Rid of Sugar Addiction in Children
To help children decrease their sugar intake, parents and caregivers can do the following:
1. Set a good example
Children are always watching, learning, and mimicking behavior from their environment. Hence, if their role models are choosing healthy foods such as whole fruits for snacks and consuming vegetables with their meals, children will be exposed to this behavior and be more likely to follow suit.
Setting a good example also means making healthy foods available in the house and unhealthy alternatives out of reach.
2. Find lower-sugar food swaps
If your child is already on the sugar train, chances are it will be a little bit harder to wean him/her off, but it is not impossible. It will just take time.
Finding food swaps will help support changing their taste buds and their food cravings. Making small changes at first and gradually taking larger steps for change can be quite beneficial. Here are a few examples.
- Instead of fruit juice, soda, or energy drinks, encourage water, grass-fed organic milk, or alternative nut milks for beverages.
- As a means of making juices less sweet, dilute them with water.
- Instead of breakfast cereals, offer homemade oatmeal or smoothies made with whole fruit and plain yogurt.
- When it comes to meals, a good rule of thumb is to include a high-quality protein source and/or a healthy fat source alongside any carbohydrates offered.
3. Plan snacks ahead
Keeping healthy snacks on hand is important for preventing children from mindlessly snacking on other unhealthy quick alternatives.
Crackers, chips, and granola bars are easy to grab but are definitely not the healthiest options. Cut up fresh veggies such as cucumbers, celery, carrots, and bell peppers, and keep them in Tupperware containers or individual snack-size containers in the fridge.
Have low-sugar dips such as hummus or unsweetened nut butter on hand for pairing with fruit and vegetables. Some healthy snack ideas to have ready include:
- Whole apple or apple slices with cheese or nut butter
- Grapes and cheese cubes
- Hummus and spinach wrap
- Turkey wrap
- Whole olives
- Veggies with dip
- Homemade trail mix with nuts, seeds, and dried fruit
- Homemade nut/date protein bites
4. Read food labels
Whole-food options are the best starting points, but with anything bought in a package, read the ingredient list and the label to see how many grams of “added sugars” are included.
Make it a rule to only buy foods that have only small amounts of added sugars, if any at all.
5. Have positive conversations regarding food and food choices
Rather than telling children that they can’t have things, reinforce the foods that they can have and discuss the positive attributes they contain.
For example, “having plain yogurt with fresh fruit will help your bones grow strong” or “the veggies with hummus you’re having for a snack will help your brain to think and will give you the energy to jump and play.”
How Does Eating Too Much Sugar Stunt Growth in Children?
Consuming too much sugar can definitely inhibit growth in children. This goes hand in hand with the fact that sugar is merely an additive ingredient that contains no other vital nutrients to sustain growth.
If children are filling up on sugar, they are not consuming other foods that do contain essential vitamins and minerals that their bodies need to support growth. It is important that children consume the foods that will help them to grow and thrive in abundance and that they learn to consume sweet foods in moderation as occasional treats.
The Negative Effect of Excessive Sugar Intake on a Child’s Behavior
Animal studies demonstrate that sugar can dictate behavior. However, the research is inconclusive when it comes to humans and the behavior of children in association with their sugar consumption. (15)
From a purely observational standpoint, it can be said that when people get hungry, their behavior can be affected. The term “hangry” is often used to describe those that are hungry and start to get grumpy because they haven’t been able to eat anything yet.
If children are eating too much sugar and not getting enough protein and fat to keep them satisfied for longer time periods, they may become rowdy, aggressive, or agitated. In this scenario, it may not just be total sugar intake that results in the behavior changes, but rather the quick rising and falling of blood sugar levels in the body.
There is a time and place for everything, and that goes for every real food that thrives on this planet. Sugar is definitely something that can be incorporated into a healthy diet, but it should not be the staple of any diet and definitely not in any child’s diet. Children need the macro- and micronutrients from whole foods to support growth and development.
Teaching children how to enjoy eating whole foods and helping them to develop healthy eating patterns while they are young are key for setting them up to enjoy a long and healthy life devoid of chronic illness in the future.