Four-year-old Joaquin Jimenez picks up a juice box at the store, turns it over and pretends to read the label. “Mommy, this has too much sugar, so we can’t have it,” he says, mimicking his mother, Celestina Jimenez. “He’s learning it’s not a free for all with his diet,” his mom tells an observer.
Not all sugar is bad, and it does serve a function. Sugar provides the body energy. However, just as Jimenez is teaching her son, medical professionals are urging adults and children to cut back on their sugar consumption – especially the “added sugars” abundant in such sweetened beverages as sodas, juices, and sports drinks and in processed foods, such as cereals and snacks. Even sugars added at home, both natural and artificial, should be pared.
Most of these sugary foods are considered nutrient deficient or “empty calories.” Yet, they are consumed in mass, contributing to sugar addiction and related health problems, says Suzanne Farrell, a registered dietician with Cherry Creek Nutrition.
How much is too much?
The American Heart Association recommends most adults limit their “added sugar” to no more than six to nine teaspoons a day. As of March, the World Health Organization even lowered its recommendation for most adults to just six teaspoons a day. No specific recommendation exists for children, but health professionals suggest a range from three teaspoons a day for a 4-year-old to five to eight teaspoons for teenagers.
The disturbing truth
Unfortunately, most Americans are not heeding those suggestions. The average adult consumes the equivalent of 22 teaspoons of added sugars per day, and the average 14- to 18-year-old eats a whopping 34 teaspoons per day, according to the AHA’s 2009 Scientific Statement in the Circulation journal. Those figures are disturbing, according to Dr. Reginald Washington, chief medical officer for Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children and a Denver pediatric heart specialist.
“Sugar is one of the many culprits in the incidence of obesity and its related side effects of diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure,” Washington says. He and other medical professionals are concerned, especially because of an increased incidence of Type 2 diabetes, once labeled “adult-onset diabetes,” in children and teens. Moreover, sugar has deleterious effects on dental health.
Taming the sweet tooth
“We are born with a sweet tooth,” Farrell says. “The more we eat sugar, the more we crave it. And, that goes for kids too. Kids need to develop their palate for a variety of flavors, but they won’t if they get used to everything being sweet.”
Dr. Sarah Humphreys, a pediatrician with Sapphire Pediatrics, agrees. This “hard wiring” dates back to our ancestors long ago when food was scarce. Since food and calories are easier to come by today, moderation is the key, she says.
Parents should focus on providing a balanced diet with more whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables – fresh and frozen. They are a better option, since they also supply essential nutrients and fiber, which helps a person feel full. These foods also contain natural sugars: fructose in fruit and vegetables, and lactose in milk.
Humphreys and Farrell do not generally advise parents to set strict limits on whole foods. They are more concerned with “added sugars” – including those in processed foods and the sweet stuff added at home, such as sugar, honey, agave, sugar substitutes, syrups, etc. Parents should read food labels for sugar content (four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon) and pay close attention to serving size. For example, a can of soda generally has about eight to 10 teaspoons of sugar and even ketchup, a child’s go-to condiment, has one teaspoon of sugar per tablespoon.
Parents should also avoid keeping sugary foods at home. Temptations such as sodas and a candy drawer make it difficult for everyone, from the little ones and teenagers who plead, and the parents who inevitably become the food police.
When children and parents do indulge in sweet treats, don’t go overboard. Keep portions reasonable. “The entire family should be involved in healthy eating,” says Humphreys. “Not just the kids. Parents are the model.”
Little Joaquin’s mother agrees. “I’m not draconian like some moms,” Jimenez says. “I allow us indulgences on occasion, but I try to keep it to small amounts.”
Washington, who has worked with the AHA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Institutes of Health, says most people don’t understand food labels and won’t do the math to compute how added sugars translate into their daily diets. He advocates three simple guidelines instead: 1) Do not drink calories; 2) Watch portion sizes, and use a small plate that contains many colorful foods; and 3) Eat whole fruits and vegetables. “If you follow these consistently, you will be more balanced and ahead of the problem,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle.”
A guide to less
• Eat whole fruit, fresh or frozen if possible, and unsweetened dried fruit. Minimize canned fruit in syrups.
• Limit juice to those with no added sugar and those made with 100-percent fruit juice or a mixture of 100 percent fruit and vegetables. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following daily serving sizes by age of 100-percent juices:
• 0-6 months — Avoid
• 1-6 years — Limit to 4-6 ounces a day
• 7-18 years – Limit to 8-12 ounces a day
• Homemade hot cereals with no added sugar, such as oatmeal, are preferable. Add fruit, nuts, cinnamon and a tiny amount of sweetener.
• Processed cereals should have fewer than 10 grams of sugar per serving (compare serving sizes).
• Plain yogurt (Greek or regular). Add fruit. Drizzle with a bit of honey/maple syrup.
• Flavored yogurt. Choose one with fewer than 20 grams of sugar. Watch serving size.
• Remember yogurt has some natural occurring sugar (lactose).
• Reduce the sugar in recipes by one-third to one-half.
• Substitute (in equal amounts) unsweetened applesauce for sugar in recipes for cookies and cakes.
Recipes for no- and low-added sugar treats
Date, Chocolate and Nut Globes – Makes 24
1/3 cup finely chopped dark chocolate
2 cups walnuts or almonds
1 cup dates (about 1 dozen) – medjool, deglect noor, etc., deseeded
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 – 2 tablespoon hot water
Optional: add ground flaxseed, unsweetened coconut, dried cherries
Chop nuts finely using a food processor. Set aside. Chop dates finely. Add nuts, chocolate and vanilla to dates and pulse into a soft paste, add enough water, one tablespoon at a time, to make pliable (like a soft cookie dough.) Pinch off pieces and roll into 1-inch balls. Refrigerate in a covered container. Enjoy.
Fruit and Yogurt Sorbet – Serves 4 to 6
1 pound frozen fruit such as berries, mangos or peaches
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1-3 tablespoons cold water, to thin
Optional: Sweeten to taste with 2- 3 tablespoons sugar, honey or agave or 1 banana
Pulse ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Add water to thin. Serve immediately or freeze for later, soften before serving. Also makes tasty popsicles.
1 (2.6 ounce) bag Skittles – 11.5 teaspoons
1 (12 ounce) can soda – 10 teaspoons
1 (8 ounce) bottle lemonade – 6.75 teaspoons
1 (6 ounce) strawberry yogurt – 6.75 teaspoons
1 tablespoon of ketchup – 1 teaspoon sugar
1 peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich – 4.5 teaspoons
2 Pop Tarts, frosted cherry – 8.5 teaspoons
8 ounce Juicy Juice, apple juice – 6.5 teaspoons
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