Kids And Sugar: A Recipe For Disaster?

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When it comes to how sugar affects children, there's a lot of misinformation and confusion. People tend to associate sugar-laden treats with hyperactivity.

But is eating sugar the trigger for off-the-wall behavior? Or is this type of hyperactivity an unfortunate coincidence? Most important, do you really want to turn into the food police with your school-aged children?

Sugar And Kids: Your Questions Answered

Sugar consumption, whether by kids or adults, is surrounded by controversy. Some people swear sugar is the enemy. Others claim it's an acceptable way to placate irritable kids or reward a job well done. The truth, in my opinion, falls somewhere in the middle.

Here, I offer answers to the most frequently asked sugar-related questions I get from parents.

Q: Does sugar cause kids to be hyperactive?

A: Many parents insist that eating sugar changes their child's behavior. As it turns out, the suspected link is largely a myth. Several studies have explored the issue, but none of them support the theory that sugar causes hyperactivity. That said, I do think some kids are sugar sensitive. Your best bet: Pay attention to your child. If her behavior seems to change after eating sugar, it may be best to limit or avoid it. Foods that contain sugar also tend to have artificial colors, preservatives and other potentially triggering ingredients. But more often than not, hyperactive behavior is related to environmental factors and sleep deprivation.

Q: How does sugar affect a growing child?

A: When your child fills up on sugar-sweetened foods, they may have little room left for the nutritious options that growing bodies need, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein. Plus, too much sugar can also lead to weight gain and increase the risk of your child developing cavities.

Q: Does sugar intake during the formative years affect a child's risk of developing chronic health problems?

A: It could. As with anything, too much sugar during childhood may lead to unhealthy cravings as kids grow older. In excess, sugar can lead to obesity, which puts a child at risk for developing high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels and type 2 diabetes (where the body’s response to insulin is not regulated). Rapid increases and decreases in blood sugar can lead to mood changes and even depression. Overweight and obesity are also associated with bone and joint problems and some forms of cancer.

Q: What are your thoughts about nixing sugar from a child's diet?

A: I don't think parents should eliminate sugar completely, but the goal should be to reduce sugar consumption. In fact, sweet treats can serve as an opportunity to educate kids about moderation. Instead of restricting the sweet stuff entirely, you can role model healthy eating by offering sugary foods strategically. Sprinkle granola on top of low-fat plain yogurt or top berries with a half scoop of ice cream. That way, your child gets something sweet with a side of nutrition, too.

Q: What are your thoughts about offering sweets as a behavioral incentive?

A: As a parent, it's important to remember that you are child's advocate. If teachers, administrators, coaches or childcare providers are bribing your kiddo with sugary treats, it may be time to ask them to rein it in. Maybe they can offer stickers, pencils or inexpensive playthings instead.

Become Sugar Savvy

In addition to candies, cookies and sweet treats, sugar tends to lurk in unexpected places. Even seemingly healthy foods, such as fruit juice, yogurt, granola and trail mix, can contain 25 grams (or more!) of sugar per serving. Health authorities suggest limiting kids' daily intake of sugar to 25 grams or less.

How can you ensure your child consumes a low-sugar diet? Pay attention to nutrition labels. Choosing a cereal? Select the box with the fewest grams of added sugar. Looking for a mid-afternoon snack? Choose fruits and vegetables over packaged products.

If you present healthy options to your children when they are young, they'll be more likely to eat healthy foods as they grow older. A few low-sugar snack options kids love:

  • Apple slices with peanut butter
  • Mandarin oranges
  • Cheese and whole grain crackers
  • Popcorn
  • Hummus and whole grain pita chips


To find a doctor or registered dietitian at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936). Want more advice from our wellness experts? Subscribe today to receive weekly emails of our latest tips.

Stacy Leatherwood Cannon, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician and the physician champion for childhood wellness for Henry Ford LiveWell. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Centers in midtown Detroit and Sterling Heights. Learn more about Dr. Leatherwood Cannon.

Categories: ParentWell