Ice cream, birthday cake and cookies are typical treats in our kids’ diets, but did you know that 16 percent of children and teens’ daily calories come from added sugar?
It’s no surprise that too much sugar can cause tooth decay, hyperactivity and increase the risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes. Yet experts say parents have no idea that all that sugar can also cause other chronic— albeit avoidable —health problems.
Cold, cough and allergies
One of the most common effects sugar can have on children are cold-like symptoms, said Dr. Julie L. Wei, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando, Fla. Wei said many of her patients complain of chronic runny noses, excessive mucus, cough and symptoms of sinus infections.
Some kids are even diagnosed with allergies, without having any formal testing. They’re prescribed medication but their symptoms may actually be due to too much sugar.
“If we get rid of the symptoms, kids won’t need the medicine,” Wei said.
Croup and acid reflux
Some children even have recurrent episodes of what looks like croup. These children go to bed seemingly healthy, but wake up during the night with a barking cough and trouble breathing.
After she asked about their habits, Wei found that most of these children had a habit of drinking chocolate milk throughout the day. The combination of dairy and sugar takes longer to digest and is highly acidic. This means that food comes back up through the esophagus, touches the vocal cords and causes a laryngospasm.
“It’s like a charley horse of your voice box,” Wei said.
Often times, kids diagnosed with acid reflux are given over-the-counter medications that block the natural stomach secretion of acid and mask symptoms.
“We’re not having a whole generation of children who have some rare disease that they’re making more acid than before,” Wei said. “They are consuming 10 times more acid every single day than they used to.”
The body’s microbiome is made up of trillions of good bacteria that digest food, produce vitamins and protect it from germs and disease. But when kids consume too much sugar, it can alter the balance between good and bad bacteria and weaken their immune systems, Wei said. So although your children may still get frequent colds, their symptoms may be reduced if their sugar intake is reduced as well.
Children who snub fruits, vegetables and other healthy fare may not be picky eaters after all. They might just be loading up on too much sugar which can cause stomachaches and poor appetite.
How to cut down
Reducing the amount of sugar your child consumes is a good idea, whether he has symptoms or not. In March, the World Health Organization proposed new draft guidelines that recommend only 5 percent of the total daily calories in our diets come from sugar. Here are some simple changes you can make.
1. Swap sugar.
“We as parents need to look at smart substitutions because we know that our kids are going to be drawn towards what their peers are eating,” said Jessica Crandall, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
So instead of ice cream, freeze plain Greek yogurt and add fresh fruit or use applesauce instead of sugar when baking.
2. Nix the juice.
Even if the juice box says “100 percent juice,” “organic” or “no sugar added,” it doesn’t mean it’s healthy. In fact, a typical juice pouch has about 22 grams of sugar. Offer water or seltzer instead and add slices of cucumber, berries or orange to taste.
3. Cut down on other liquid sugar. too.
Soda is an obvious one, but sugar can also show up in orange juice, sports drinks and smoothies. Even if your child plays sports, water should be enough to rehydrate.
4. Read labels for sneaky sugars.
The FDA has proposed new food labels to include a line for added sugars, but in the meantime, take a good look at labels. Sugar can hide in unsuspecting foods like pasta sauce, pre-packaged oatmeal, salad dressing, processed foods, and cereal. In fact, a recent report by the Environmental Working Group shows kids’ cereals have 40 percent more sugar than adults’.
5. Be careful about healthy alternatives.
You might think honey and agave are better choices but just because it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s healthier. Get creative with vanilla extract, cinnamon or nutmeg. Instead of syrup, top pancakes with fresh fruit or almond butter.
“You’re adding flavor without just dumping sugar into it,” Crandall said.
6. Nix yogurt in the evening.
Offer yogurt during the day, not before bedtime. Scan labels to make sure sugar isn’t listed as one of the first few ingredients or offer plain yogurt and add your own fresh fruit instead.
7. Take it slow.
Your kids might not take well to drastic changes in their diets, but if you make it gradual, they’ll eventually come around. Mix a low-sugar cereal with their favorite one until they get used to it. Or buy one less bag of cookies and replace it with a pint of blueberries each week.
8. Teach healthy eating.
It’s important that your kids love how healthy food tastes rather than forcing them to eat it.
“It’s not just about controlling their environment, it’s about teaching them healthier habits so they start engaging in them on their own,” Crandall said.
9. Voice your opinion.
The new school standards for meal programs will help cut down on sugar and some schools even have “sugar-free” campuses. You can advocate for healthier options at your child’s school by supporting initiatives and advocating for healthier options in the cafeteria, vending machines and events.
Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women's issues. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.