There are few joys in life as sweet as seeing our children smile. Thus, it is with the best of intentions that we cave to pleas for candy and tantrums over French fries in hopes of glimpsing those (rapidly decaying) pearly whites. After all, there are bigger threats to our children, right?
As it turns out, sugar isn't as harmless as we once thought, at least not in the volume we're consuming it.
A Natural Drive on Overdrive
Children have a natural penchant for sweets; it's part of our survival programming. But in this hyper-processed, convenience-obsessed age, that natural drive is now on overdrive. With about one-third of children overweight or obese, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
The American Heart Association recommends that children consume 3 to 8 teaspoons of added sugar per day, depending on their age and daily caloric intake. Yet children as young as 1 year already consume three to four times the daily recommendation. By 4 to 8 years old, children are consuming an average of 21 teaspoons of sugar daily, and the average teenager consumes about 34 teaspoons each day -- even more than the average adult.
Research has tied high sugar intake to a number of serious health problems, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and tooth decay. Once confined to adults, we're now seeing the early signs of these conditions in young children. In the early 1990s, Type 2 diabetes accounted for 3 percent of new cases of diabetes in children; by 2004, that number rose to 45 percent.
Moreover, sugar may be addictive. Like cocaine and other drugs, sugar activates the reward system in the brain. Rats hooked on sugar show classic symptoms of addiction, including tolerance, withdrawal and cravings, and have been known to bypass cocaine in favor of their primary drug of choice: sugar.
Rehabilitating Young Taste Buds
When young children routinely indulge on sugar-laden foods, their taste buds become conditioned to crave sugar, creating unhealthy habits that follow them into adulthood. Studies show that children who are overweight by age 2 are more likely to be overweight as adults, leading to a greater risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other health problems.
The food landscape in America is bleak, but the landscape in your home is of your own design. Here are a few ways to lay the groundwork for healthy habits:
Start Early. Food preferences start even before birth and continue to be shaped during infancy. Moms need nutritional support during pregnancy, and infants benefit from being introduced to a variety of fruits and vegetables, preferably homemade rather than processed and jarred, and whole grains rather than refined rice cereal.
Take the Pressure Off. It is the parents' job to provide a range of healthy foods; it is the child's responsibility to choose what to eat and how much. Using food as a reward or pressuring children to clean their plates interrupts their ability to recognize their body's cues and increases the risk of binge eating and other health problems.
Model Healthy Eating. Do you speak badly about your body or feel ashamed of your own eating habits? Do you have dessert every night, while explaining to your children that they can't do the same? Rather than trying to control your child's eating habits, model healthy ones by eating desserts and processed foods in moderation and filling up on fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein.
Enjoy Meals as a Family. Parents that share meals with their children have more opportunities to model healthy eating. Refrain from preparing a separate "child-friendly" meal for the kids. Studies have shown that children who eat the same foods as their parents tend to have healthier diets.
Focus on Health. When talking to children about food, focus on health rather than offering advice about diets and weight loss. In one study, children who were exposed to weight talk were more likely than those who heard health talk to engage in dieting and dangerous weight-control behaviors such as fasting or laxative use.
Investigate Labels. Read food labels so that you can monitor your child's sugar intake. When in doubt, avoid foods that have sugar or one of its cousins (e.g., honey, fruit juice concentrate, molasses, syrup, corn sweetener or products ending in "ose") in the first three ingredients.
Limit Sugary Drinks. Children's soda consumption has decreased in the past decade, but it remains unacceptably high. Soda should be an occasional treat, at best, and even fruit juice should be limited to no more than four to six ounces a day for children ages 1 to 6, and no more than eight to 12 ounces for older children, per the American Academy of Pediatrics. Cutting back on sugary drinks may dramatically reduce the risk of obesity and other health problems.
Push the Produce. With fewer sweets in the house, children may naturally gravitate toward the healthy sugars found in fruits and vegetables. It's a change that's sorely needed. Only 22 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds, 16 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds, and 11 percent of 12- to 18-year-olds meet government recommendations for vegetable consumption -- and these percentages include potato chips, French fries and fruit juice so the picture is likely much bleaker.
Sugar is enticing, but so are drugs and alcohol. We haven't given up the fight in educating children about the dangers of drugs, and we must be vigilant about sugar and processed junk food as well. Otherwise, we're working to prevent one harm while another rages on in our homes.
To see just how sugar has changed our waistlines over the last 50 years, check out this infographic on America's sugar addiction.
David Sack, M.D., is board-certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes Promises, The Ranch, Right Step, The Recovery Place, The Sexual Recovery Institute, Malibu Vista, and Spirit Lodge.
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