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How to stop sugar from sneaking into your child's diet

Kermit Williams Jr. | 11/2/2016, 2:35 p.m. | Updated on 11/2/2016, 2:35 p.m.
A lollipop after a morning doctor visit. A cupcake for a classmate's birthday with lunch. A bag of cookies, gummies ...

A lollipop after a morning doctor visit. A cupcake for a classmate's birthday with lunch. A bag of cookies, gummies or a few little doughuts before after-school activities begin.

And dessert is still a few hours away.

Even the word "snack" -- once thought of as a healthy, energizing source of calories for children -- can seem like a euphemism for an IV sugar solution these days.

US dietary guidelines recommend consuming less than 10% of daily calories from added sugars. On a 1,500-calorie diet, a level appropriate for moderately active 4- to 8-year-olds, just less than 10% would be about 33 grams of added sugars per day.

In August, the American Heart Association issued stricter sugar recommendations designed to keep kids healthy, stating that children should consume less than 6 teaspoons -- or 24 grams -- of added sugars per day. It also recommended that children and teens should limit their intake of sugar-sweetened drinks to no more than 8 ounces per week.

Research suggests that babies are naturally inclined to crave sugar as soon as they exit the womb. It's not a preference at this very early stage but rather a biological reality. To complicate matters, consuming sugar causes kids to crave even more of the sweet stuff.

"Sugar, packed in items like sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks, consumed consistently over many years can promote excess weight gain -- especially through the overproduction of insulin, which clears the blood of sugar (storing the calories as fat), and this leaves a child wanting more and more sugar," said Kathy Isoldi, a registered dietitian nutritionist and associate professor of nutrition at Long Island University, Post, who conducts research aimed at reducing childhood obesity prevalence.

It's no wonder it can seem nearly impossible to curb our kids' intake when you take into account not only cake and soda but such foods as sweetened yogurt and breakfast cereal.

The health effects of sugar

The negative health effects of consuming too much sugar can appear well before adulthood and are not just limited to weight gain and obesity. In fact, you probably wouldn't serve your child beer or wine, but according to one researcher, too much sugar could have some similar effects.

"Sugar (specifically fructose) is metabolized in the liver just like alcohol," said Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. "This is why children are getting the diseases of alcohol, like type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease, without the alcohol. These are diseases that were unheard-of in children prior to 1980."

According to the CDC's 2014 diabetes report card (PDF), more than 5,000 new cases of type 2 diabetes are estimated to be diagnosed among Americans younger than age 20 each year.

There's also been an increased prevalence of metabolic syndrome in adolescents; that's a cluster of conditions, including increased blood pressure and excess fat around the waist, that can increase diabetes and heart disease risk. Lustig's recent research, published in the Public Health Nutrition journal, found that it wasn't the fault of the pounds that sugar packs on to young people; it was another result of excess sugar.