Food and Nutrition: The Dangers of Added Sugar

Chuck Nelson

Sipping a soda with lunch or guzzling a Gatorade after a ballgame is a habit many kids take for granted. But doctors and public health officials warn that excess consumption of added sugars, like the kind found in these drinks, can pose serious health risks.

Everyone knows that sugar makes foods and drinks more appealing, especially to children. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we’re consuming too much of these added sugars. And a recent major joint policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association says that “excess consumption of added sugars, especially from sugary drinks, contributes to the high prevalence of childhood and adolescent obesity, especially among children and adolescents who are socioeconomically vulnerable.”

The study cites increased risks of tooth decay, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and even fatty liver disease.

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Those are problems Dr. Nardia Ataman sees firsthand at Worthington Pediatrics. “Being obese and overweight is kind of an epidemic,” Ataman says. “Overweight and obese children become overweight and obese adults. The earlier that we address it, the better.”

“It’s alarming,” Erica Domrose, a clinical dietitian at Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition, says of the growing trend. “Drinks are probably the No. 1 thing,” she says. “You don’t realize how much sugar you’re consuming.”

The AAP-AHA statement agrees, saying that sugary drinks are the leading source of added sugars in U.S. diets. “Children and adolescents report consuming 17 percent of their calories from added sugar, nearly half of which are from sugary drinks,” the report says. That amount is well above government guidelines that suggest added sugar should make up less than 10 percent of total calories consumed.

Sports drinks play a big role in the issue, Domrose says. Designed for older athletes to replenish carbohydrates and electrolytes lost during training or competition, the beverages are increasingly popular with kids. But younger athletes don’t benefit as much from them, she says. “Water is best.”

Sodas are another problem. The American Heart Association recommends consumption of less than 25 grams of added sugars per day. That’s about 6 teaspoons. A regular soda has about 40 grams, or 8 teaspoons, of added sugar. One 12-ounce serving exceeds the AHA’s recommended limit on sugary drinks for children of 8 ounces per week.

“Those drinks add up so quickly,” Domrose says, noting that drinks with artificial sweeteners are a better alternative.

“Milk and water should be the base of their liquid diet,” Ataman says. As an alternative, she also leans toward drinks such as Crystal Light or diet sodas that don’t add extra calories from sugars.

Even chocolate milk can be an issue, notes Zorica Bjelovuk, a nurse at Worthington Pediatrics. While still a good source of protein, 1 cup can contain about double the naturally occurring sugars in milk.

Juice consumption also should be limited, doctors advise. Brands that contain 100 percent juice are best, but Domrose says eating whole fruit is better than drinking juice and also provides added fiber.

While sugary drinks are getting more attention, breakfast cereals have long been notorious for high levels of added sugar, though some companies have cut back on sweetness and added more whole grains. Reading nutrition labels is important, Domrose says. She recommends 6 grams or less of sugar and 3 grams or more of fiber per serving of cereal.

Education may be a key to reversing the trend. Ataman says that patients at her practice with elevated body mass index numbers are frequently referred to nutrition classes, and plans are in the works to bring a nutritionist into the office to help parents understand better food options.

“Kids are sweet enough as they are,” says Ataman. “They don’t need any extra sugar.”

Ideas for reducing added sugar intake: 

  • Read nutrition labels carefully: Many foods now list added sugar separately. You can also find added sugar by reading the ingredients. Look for “ose” words such as glucose, sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup, as well as things like honey, molasses and corn sweeteners. Aim for less than 25 grams (about 6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day for children 2 years of age and older.
  • Serve water and milk: Avoid soda, sports drinks, sweet tea, sweetened coffee and fruit drinks.
  • Limit fruit juice: It has more sugar per serving than whole fruit. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 4 ounces of 100 percent fruit juice a day for children ages 1-3; 4 to 6 ounces for ages 4-6; and 8 ounces for ages 7-14.
  • Go fresh and limit processed, prepackaged food and drinks: Sugar is often added to them while they are being made or at the table.
  • Satisfy your child’s sweet tooth with whole fruit.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics

Be Smart About Sugar