Excessive sugar in the diet during childhood may have lasting effects, say experts.
Children are biologically programmed from birth to prefer sweet tastes over other flavours.
Nature has predisposed children to sweet flavours to ensure that they get enough calories for their bodies to grow and mature. This strong preference for sugar will only decline after their growth peaks in the post-puberty years.
Another reason for craving sugar is because it induces the release of the “feel good” brain hormone dopamine, giving your child pleasurable feelings.
Unchecked sugar consumption in the early years can lead to sugar addiction in later years.
Sugar in foods may be present naturally or can be added on. Naturally-occurring sugar is found in foods such as fruits (fructose) and milk (lactose).
Fructose and lactose are purely carbohydrate, but the food sources in which they are found have a lot of other important nutrients, like protein, vitamin D, calcium and fibre.
Hence, consuming in moderation foods that contain natural sugar, such as milk, fruits and vegetables, is not harmful.
The white powdery substance that we commonly use at home as table sugar is refined sugar, which is extracted from sugar cane and sugar beet.
Added sugar is also found in partially-refined products such as corn syrup, molasses, honey, brown sugar, caramel and gula Melaka. In addition, other forms of sugar are also added to soft drinks, fruit drinks, cordials, beverages and processed foods.
These added sugars will appear on food labels as sucrose, fructose, galactose, lactose, maltose, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane juice, evaporated fruit juice, barley malt, honey, maple syrup and so on.
Added sugar is used as a flavour enhancer, sweetener or preservative. It can also alter the texture and colour of food.
It is the added sugars that are the main cause of concern in your child’s diet.
Nutritionally speaking, your child does not need any added sugar and can get enough natural sugars from foods that contain carbohydrates, such as rice, breads, cereals, tubers, milk, legumes and fruits.
The World Health Organisation (2003) recommends that sugar consumption should not exceed 10% of total daily energy. Hence, maximum daily intake of added sugars in your child’s diet should be not more than five teaspoons a day for one to three-year-olds and not more than seven teaspoons a day for four to six-year-olds.
As a general guide, calories from sugar should not be more than 160 calories, which is approximately eight teaspoons of sugar per day.
Note that it is better to go lower than the maximum recommended intake per day. This maximum recommendation is easily exceeded if care is not taken to limit foods and drinks with added sugars.
Excess sugar intake has been associated with diseases such as obesity, diabetes and dental cavities.
Obesity – When your child consumes too much sugar, there is excess energy (calorie) intake. When your child does not burn up these excess calories with physical activity, the extra calories that are not used up are converted to fat and stored in the body, resulting in overweight and obesity.
Research has shown that the percentage of overweight and obese children in Malaysia has gone up alarmingly. The prevalence of overweight children below five years of age in Malaysia is 6.4%. Obesity is also a risk factor for developing non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, and even, cancer.
Diabetes – Though sugar by itself does not cause diabetes, it can lead to excess glucose in the bloodstream. The body produces insulin to remove the excess glucose, but if not enough insulin is produced to control the levels of glucose, this can lead to type 2 diabetes.
Dental cavities – Bacteria in the mouth uses sugar to produce a substance called glucan. Glucan helps bacteria stick to your child’s teeth and produce acids that will erode the protective enamel of his teeth.
Sugar-rich foods are full of empty calories and often displace nutritious foods that children need. Experts say that eating high sugar foods in their early years makes children crave sugar more in later years.
So, start training your child early to reduce their craving for sweet things.
Here are some tips:
– Keep the sweets, honey and sweetened beverages out of sight while keeping in view healthy snacks such as fruits and nuts.
– Limit your child’s intake of sugary and cordial drinks to the occasional parties and outings, and stick to 100% fruit juices, milk and water at home.
– Instead of store-bought processed treats, make healthy homemade sweets. Try to cut down the sugar in your recipe by one-third to one-half. Often, you won’t notice the difference.
– Instead of adding sugar in recipes, use extracts like almond, vanilla or lemon.
– Allow your child sweet treats once a week and stick strictly to this timetable. Your child will begin to accept this as a routine practice in your home, and soon, it will become a habit.
– Don’t use sweets to reward your kids.
– Make shopping a learning experience by teaching your children to read food labels to pick out unhealthy ingredients. If sugar is listed at the top of the ingredients list, that is an indication it contains mostly sugar as one of the main ingredients.
– Your child is watching what you eat. Be a role model to your child by choosing healthy alternatives to sugary treats and limiting your intake of sugar.
Prof Dr Norimah A Karim is a nutritionist and honorary secretary of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia. This article is courtesy of Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting programme in collaboration with expert partners. The opinion expressed in the article is the view of the author. For further information, please visit www.mypositiveparenting.org.