Let’s start with the basics: Adults and children should approach sugar the same way. That is to say, all humans should strive to indulge in some sugar in moderation. However, a child’s willpower usually isn’t as strong as an adult’s, which is why recommendations regarding sugar consumption vary across age groups.
“From a physical point, there isn’t much of a difference between [sugar-eating] adults and children,” said Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “The main difference is awareness. It is important for adults to frame to children that sugar is something that should be consumed in moderate amounts. If we start the conversation while they are young, it’ll be built into their vernacular and they will understand what a good amount is for them to consume.”
According to the American Heart Association, men should consume no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams/150 calories) of added sugar per day while women are advised to eat less than 6 teaspoons (25 grams/100 calories) of it daily, regardless of size. Interestingly enough, when it comes to children 2-18 years old, the suggested intake by the AHA is the same as the one for women, on average.
And yet, the AHA reports that “American adults consume an average of 77 grams of sugar per day, more than three times the recommended amount for women.” Making sure that our children develop a healthy relationship with sugar as soon as they are introduced to it is one way to try to reduce these staggering numbers.
But let’s start from the beginning: What are the pros and cons of eating sugar, that sweet-tasting carbohydrate we can’t ever seem to get enough of? Is it truly all that bad? What other environmental factors contribute to the benefits and drawbacks of the stuff?
Yes, children and adults alike actually need some sugar
Our bodies actually need natural sugar to properly function. “Our bodies need sugar for energy,” Fisher explained. But unlike the sweets that we should try to stay away from (think table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup), the ones we need can be found in nature ― most fruits, vegetables, honey and molasses include naturally occurring sugars.
“It is much better to consume [sugar] during daytime hours because if a kid is going to have a rush and a crash, it can be really difficult for families to deal with that at bedtime.”
Christina Johns, a pediatrician at PM Pediatrics, echoes Fisher’s thoughts. “The breakdown of those carbohydrates can provide a quick energy source,” she said. “It is needed by our cells to survive and it is important for cellular metabolism to make sure our bodies work.”
When looking at kids specifically, the benefits of sugar consumption are apparent. “The [burst] of energy can be beneficial for a child that has low energy but must engage in an activity,” said nutritionist Lisa Richards. “For children that have difficulty eating and require supplemental nutrition through shakes, sugar is an added ingredient that will make the shake more enjoyable and therefore more likely to be consumed by the child.”
But do the cons outweigh the pros?
As essential to our bodily functions as sugar is, there are clearly drawbacks to consuming too much of it.
“Sugar provides a source of empty calories, which means it provides calories without any nutritional benefits,” Richards explained. As a result, kids who indulge in more than the suggested daily amount will be at a higher risk for nutrient deficiencies and weight gain.
But there is more. “Sugar acts as a source of food for bad bacteria, causing an imbalance in good versus bad gut bacteria,” Richards added. “This imbalance can cause a host of health issues even for children, like inflammation and negative gastrointestinal side effects.”
Even sugar’s ability to provide a burst of energy can lead to drawbacks, like crashes. “You get that energy rush, but there is also an associated crash that comes afterwards and can affect the child’s mood and behavior,” Fisher said. “We want kids to have a good energy level that is sustained during the day. We don’t want extreme highs and lows, because that’s not a natural thing.”
Most documented among the perils of sugar overconsumption is, of course, tooth decay. Sugar, in fact, eats at the enamel of the teeth ― the thin outer covering of the bone ― which can easily lead to cavities if not brushing regularly (which, let’s be honest, a whole lot of kids refuse to do). Interestingly enough, according to Richards, the likelihood of tooth decay, blood sugar spikes and weight gain in response to too much sugar can be seen mostly in infancy through childhood.
On the other hand, in adolescence, according to the expert, “sugar consumption will increase the likelihood of developing acne.” That is mainly caused by blood sugar spikes that lead to inflammation and increased levels of sebum, an oily secretion that also contributes to the formation of acne.
How can we mitigate sugar consumption?
There is no substance or food that counteracts the negative effects of sugar consumption. That being said, especially when it comes to kids, there are a few things adults can do to try to at least mitigate and minimize the cons associated with the food.
Richards mentions probiotics, which doctors even prescribe to newborn babies. “They replenish the gut’s good bacteria, which prevents gut dysbiosis (a disruption to the stomach) and many of the negative outcomes of sugar consumption,” she explained.
Finding alternatives to “bad” sugars can also prove to be a successful way to avoid its downfalls, especially during childhood. “For instance, instead of a cookie, have a piece of fruit which has natural over artificial sugars,” Fisher suggests. “There is also a difference between having one scoop of ice cream versus more than that.”
A total avoidance of sugars seems to be nearly impossible and, according to Johns, not necessarily even a requirement. “A lot of people believe not to give your children sugar because it makes them hyper, but the data is not definitive on that,” she said. “It’s a bit of a myth.”
Does time of day make a difference?
Yes. Having sugar at night, especially for kids, can result in sleep disturbances and, according to Richards, “can also cause the individual to be hungrier the next morning and potentially overeat due to the blood sugar spike and plummets that occur at night.”
Fisher agrees. “It is much better to consume it during daytime hours because if a kid is going to have a rush and a crash, it can be really difficult for families to deal with that at bedtime,” she said.
“Early introduction of sweets can shape the child’s taste preferences and ultimately lead to more difficulty with implementing a balanced diet.”
Although the body doesn’t react differently to foods based on the time of day they are consumed, it’s clear that, to manage the effects of certain substances ― for example, sugar ― folks should at the very least consider avoiding them during certain hours.
Does age make a difference?
Yes and no. Given the fact that a lot of recommendations regarding sugar consumption revolve around self-control, teaching a 10-year-old child not to eat too many cookies might prove easier than doing so with a toddler, but not as simple as having a conversation with an 18-year-old about it.
Alas, according to Richards, “early introduction of sweets can shape the child’s taste preferences and ultimately lead to more difficulty with implementing a balanced diet.” And so as hard as it might be to balance a toddler’s diet, parents should be sure to introduce healthy habits from an early age.
In terms of specific suggestions, Richards says toddlers should either avoid sugar completely or consume less than 10 grams of it per day. She recommends 5-to-10-year-olds to indulge in no more than 20-25 grams daily and 10-to-15-year-olds to try to eat less than 25-30 grams of sugar every 24 hours. Older kids, she says, can safely indulge in 30 grams of sugar per day.
According to Johns, though, it is “less about specific age and more about developmental growth phase.” Specifically, the expert says that when the body is “growing more rapidly,” it needs more sustenance ― from proteins to fats and sugars. That rapid growth rate is variable but, overall, it encompasses the first year of life, elementary-aged kids and, of course, children going through puberty. To put it simply: If your child who is going through puberty asks for a bit more carbs every so often, it’s OK to give in.