Treats and Consequences
No mom in her right mind would pack her child's lunch box with nothing but four Twinkies. You probably stick with the classics: maybe peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread, a cup of applesauce, and fruit punch. Protein-rich peanut butter, fruit, fiber-filled bread -- it's perfect, right?
Maybe not. Sure, your child would get plenty of nutrients, but she'd also get a whopping 76 grams of sugar. That's 16 teaspoons of sugar -- even more than what's in those four Twinkies. Shocking, right?
While there are no specific sugar-consumption recommendations for kids, adults on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet shouldn't eat more than 40 grams of added sugar. Yet your child will eat twice that in this one meal. And you haven't factored in the syrup on her morning waffles, the soda she'll drink after school, and the graham crackers she'll munch on before bed.
"Most parents have no idea how much sugar their kids eat," says Parents advisor Jennifer Shu, MD. "So much is added to even healthy foods that your child could eat what looks like a pretty balanced diet that's still full of sugar."
It's not a news flash that sugar is bad for kids. What is eye-opening is just how unhealthy it is -- and how much of it children eat despite the health warnings. The average kid under 12 consumes 49 pounds of sugar per year, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. Even scarier is that a twenty- or thirtysomething adult's intake is actually lower (46 pounds). That means your child is gobbling up more sugar than you are, even though her body may be less than half the size of yours.
It's not hard to see why kids love sugar. After all, babies are born with a preference for it, though their tastes typically broaden as they grow. But because so many foods marketed to kids, from oatmeal to fruit rolls, are now supersweet, children may struggle to accept other flavors, such as the bitter taste of many green veggies. "Sugar overload may prevent their taste buds from maturing," says David Ludwig, MD, Parents advisor and director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children's Hospital Boston. "Kids won't develop the ability to appreciate, let alone eat, a variety of foods."
Of course, not all sugar is evil. Fruits, starchy veggies, and milk all contain naturally occurring sugars, along with vital nutrients. "Unfortunately, this isn't the type of sugar kids usually eat," says Dr. Shu. And the more supersweet, processed foods they consume, the less appealing "real," naturally sweet foods seem. For example, a child who gets used to watermelon-flavored candy will find the taste of an actual watermelon disappointing because it's not as sugary, says Dr. Shu.
The result? Sweet foods eventually edge out healthier fare from your child's diet. Pennsylvania State University researchers found that the more added sugar children had in their diets, the less likely they were to eat grains, vegetables, fruits, and dairy. For example, as children get older they tend to drink more soda and less milk, depriving growing bones of calcium. "It's basically a state of malnutrition," says Dr. Ludwig. "Kids eat too many calories but not enough nutrients."