Kids and Sugar. How Much Is Too Much?

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By Maureen Robb on September 12, 2017

Kids love candy and sugary treats. But how much can they enjoy before it affects their health?

According to the American Heart Association’s new guidelines, preschoolers shouldn’t eat more than 170 calories of added sugar a day. That comes to about 4 teaspoons when they’re on a 1,200-to-1,400-calorie diet.  (This doesn’t include naturally occurring sugars in foods like fruit.)

Kids who are 4 to 8 shouldn’t have more than 130 calories a day on a 1,600-calorie diet. That equals about 3 teaspoons a day.

The depressing truth is that children of 1 to 3 years are already eating three times the recommended amount, or about 12 teaspoons of sugar a day, according to a study by the Heart Association. Kids 4 to 8 are eating a whopping 21 teaspoons daily, or seven times the safe amount!

All this sugar is adding up to health problems.

“Too much sugar can cause many health issues in children, including obesity, diabetes and cavities,” said Ryan Fulton, D.O., a pediatrician with Carilion Children’s Pediatric Medicine in Daleville. “The biggest problem foods are sweets, candy, fruit juice and soda.”

Although many parents assume fruit juice is nutritious, it is often stripped of many original nutrients and has sugar added. The fiber that’s present in the whole fruit has also been eliminated.

“I recommend all families avoid fruit juice,” Dr. Fulton said. “It has no health benefits and has a lot of sugar.”

Instead, give your child pieces of whole fruit, as appropriate for their age.

Which other foods should parents watch out for? Dr. Fulton said there can be lots of hidden sugar in:

  • Canned fruits
  • Yogurts
  • Bread
  • Breakfast cereals

He also advised parents to try not to reward children with sweets or candy for good behavior.

"Instead reward them with fun activities or time with a favorite toy,” he said. “Starting young is key. It’s much harder to correct bad habits later on."

One persistent myth is that sugar makes kids “hyper.” But sugar hasn’t been shown to increase activity levels or make kids hyperactive, Dr. Fulton said.

“The post-ingestion drop in blood sugar is what causes mood changes,” he noted.

As with many behaviors, kids will take their cue from you. So you may have to start watching the sugar in your own diet. But if that lets you both avoid health issues like obesity or diabetes down the road, isn’t is worth the effort?

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