Sure, sugar tastes good and kids love it, but limiting young children's sugar intake and helping them make a habit of moderation when it comes to sugar consumption can help stave off a lifetime of health problems.
A Dose of Reality about Sugar
First, a few words on what, exactly, is "bad" about sugar. "Sugar causes cavities. It does not cause other disorders—behavioral or otherwise—that we know of," says Andy Spooner, director, Division of General Pediatrics, Department of Pediatrics, University of Tennessee College of Medicine.
Contrary to a common assumption, sugar does not cause diabetes. Diabetes is a disorder in which the body basically does not know what to do with sugar, so sugar can build up in the blood of diabetics and cause organ damage. However, one of the most common causes of diabetes today is obesity. "Being overweight is caused by eating too many calories, regardless of the source of the calories. You can, for example, become overweight by eating a lot of meat (protein and fat) and no sugar at all. It all boils down to calories," Dr. Spooner says.
While refined sugars, such as table sugar, are not necessarily "bad" for kids, too much of any one thing can certainly have negative impacts on a child's health. "If, for example, a child is eating sugary snacks instead of nutritious food, that's a bad thing," Dr. Spooner explains. "Since refined sugar is so tasty, kids have a hard time limiting their intake when left to make their own choices. In that case, refined sugar may be 'bad' in that it compromises your ability to give your children a wide variety of nutritious food."
Dr. Spooner notes that while sugar substitutes, such as Splenda and NutraSweet, are considered safe, parents need to look carefully at why their child is consuming them. "Diet sodas can be a great option for people trying to wean themselves off sugar-containing soft drinks, but the ultimate objective should be to get in the habit of drinking more water," he says. "It might be better to have a small amount of "real" sugar as a special treat than to find numerous opportunities to introduce artificial sweeteners into your child's diet."
Beware of Beverages
Studies show that high consumption of sweetened drinks leads to obesity, according to Rachel Johnson, registered dietitian and Dean of the University of Vermont College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She notes that the largest source of sugar in kids' diets is soft drinks, followed by other sweetened beverages, and then candy, cakes, cookies, pies, and similar "sweets."
"Some studies show that children do not compensate well for the calories that they consume in beverages," Johnson says. "In other words, a child who drinks a lot of calories may not feel as full as he would if he had eaten those calories in solid food, so he might tend to overeat."
Choose Nutrient-Dense Foods
In their studies, Johnson and her colleagues found that eating sweetened dairy products, like milk and yogurt, actually improves the quality of children's diets. "Eating sweetened dairy products increases children's calcium intake. These foods also increase the child's intake of protein, riboflavin, and other important nutrients," she says. "If your child is going to consume yogurt because she likes its sweetness, that's a better choice than gummy bears!" Johnson continues, "When you include sugar-sweetened foods in a child's diet include them in the most nutrient-dense package possible. For example, flavored milk is a much better sweet-beverage option than soft drinks."
Johnson's research showed that children who drank flavored milk had no higher added sugar intake because they were drinking fewer sweetened drinks, such as soda and juice. She also found that sugar-sweetened cereals added nutrients, including folate and iron, to children's diets because many cereals are fortified with those nutrients. Occasionally, she suggests, a sugar-sweetened cereal can be offered as a snack rather than Popsicle or lollipop.