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Most parents think too much sugar is not good for their children, but no one really knows how much is too much. Despite popular opinion that sugar is generally bad for you, sugar itself isn’t a poison that should be banned from your household. Finding ways to moderate sweet treats within a balanced diet will leave the sweet tooth satisfied and healthy.
Your child can’t help being attracted to sweets—human beings are programmed to like the taste. Since our bodies require carbohydrates to metabolize into energy, and sugar is a simple carbohydrate, our early ancestors learned to find things that were high in sugars to eat. But sweet foods today pack more sugar per pound than the berries and fruits that occur in nature.
Melanie Dempster of Bridgeport is careful about the sugars she serves her 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, preferring maple syrup and honey as sweeteners.
“When my kids see other kids having sweet treats, they want them too,” Dempster says. “So rather than prohibit them, I bring along healthy alternatives like cupcakes and cookies that I make at home with organic and whole-food ingredients.” She also gives the kids organic lollipops as a special treat.
Sugar by another name?
Not everything that’s sweet is “sugar” anymore. Check the ingredient label on many packaged foods and you’ll find high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is near the top of the list.
Although it tastes just like ordinary white granulated table sugar (sucrose), HFCS is a highly processed sweetener that the body absorbs differently than sugar made from sugar beets or sugar cane. The manufacturing process for HFCS makes the fructose molecules easier for the body to absorb, unlike table sugar in which the sucrose molecules must go through an extra metabolic step before it can be used by the body. In other words, with sugar, your body has to work harder to use it and therefore it is not as easily absorbed.
A study done last year by a Princeton University research team found that rats who ate HFCS gained more weight than rats that ate table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same. Dempster does not give her children any foods containing HFCS and she believes that such highly processed ingredients lead to a whole host of health and behavioral issues in children.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rates of obesity in the United States have skyrocketed in the 40 years since the introduction of HFCS as a cheap sweetener in the American diet. We may not be eating sweeter foods, but our bodies are absorbing the chemically manipulated sweeteners more easily.
When Dempster bakes cookies or cakes, she reduces the sugar in the recipe by a quarter or half cup. Adding dried fruit, nuts or dark chocolate chips also extends flavor using natural ingredients.
“The kids can’t tell the difference,” she explains, and the substitutions help accustom her children’s taste buds to less-sweet foods. Compared chip to chip, chocolate chip cookies made at home and packaged ones are similar in nutritional value—about the same fat, sugars and calories. One big difference is that homemade cookies can be made with butter, which is a natural whole-food product, while hydrogenated fats in store-bought cookies contribute disproportionately to the risk of obesity and heart disease. Processed cookies also contain HFCS as the primary sweetener.
“I also don’t regularly offer my kids fruit juices,” Dempster says. “They have water or milk and only about one small glass of juice a day.” She dilutes juices 50/50 with water to further the hydration and limit the sugars.
Some nutritionists believe that sugar cravings indicate a lack of nutrients such as chromium, carbon, phosphorus, sulphur and tryptophan. Adding poultry, eggs, cranberries, cruciferous vegetables, raisins, sweet potato and spinach to the diet will help replace some of these essential nutrients.
Forbidding sugar will make the substance a must-have—and your child might try to sneak sugary snacks when he or she is away from you. Avoid this behavior by incorporating healthy sweet snacks as a special treat within a balanced diet at home.
Not sure how to tell how much sugar is in something? Check the ingredient list and remember this rule of thumb: There are approximately 4 grams of sugar in a level teaspoon. A chocolate chip cookie with 10 grams of sugar contains approximately 2 1/2 teaspoons of sugar.
What about sugar in cereal? If you eat a serving of General Mills’ Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, that’s the same as adding 2 1/2 teaspoons of sugar to your day’s allotment. Kellogg’s Apple Jacks contain 12 grams of sugar per serving—the equivalent of 3 teaspoons of sugar in each cup of dry cereal.
A few tips to raising a sweet child (who doesn’t crave sweets):
• Bring into the house only healthy, whole-food sweet snacks like dried fruit, whole-grain graham crackers, or antioxidant-packed dark chocolate.
• Make your own cookies, cakes and brownies and reduce the amount of sugar used.
• Read the labels to monitor the amount of sugar in less obvious sources like fruit juice, ketchup or spaghetti sauce.
• Teach your child about appropriate serving sizes, portion control and how to check a label for the sugar grams.
• Limit sweets in your child’s diet to special-occasion treats. An occasional indulgence in frozen yogurt with fresh fruit or fruit smoothies will satisfy any sweet tooth.
Some people resort to artificial sweeteners in their quest to reduce or eliminate sugar from their diets. However, artificial sweeteners, such as saccharin, acesulfame-K, aspartame or sorbitol bring a whole host of health risks and should not be served to children.
Generally speaking, real, whole and unprocessed versions of food and nutrients are always better than lab-created ones. Since artificial sweeteners, with trade names such as Splenda, Equal, NutraSweet or Sweet’N Low are created from a cocktail of chemicals to resemble the taste of sugar without the calories, the long-term health effects of these combinations are simply not known.
Another Purdue University study even showed that artificial sweeteners may actually disrupt the body’s natural ability to “count” calories based on a food’s sweetness, leading to overindulgence.
Sami Arseculeratne Martinez has a grown son and daughter. She and her husband recently moved from their Hamilton home to Connecticut.