Sugar is vital for life – it is an essential fuel source for all of the cells of our body. As such, it occurs naturally in all carbohydrate-containing foods, including vegetables, fruits, grains and dairy products. Consumption of sugar in these forms, as part of a healthy, balanced diet, is not problematic for most people. The sugar in these foods is released slowly, providing a steady supply of energy to cells. They contain a multitude of other nutrients, including fibre, protein, fats, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that all contribute to maintaining good health.
What is problematic, however, is the steep rise, at least in the typical western diet, in the consumption of highly-processed convenience foods that contain significant quantities of chemically manufactured, refined sugars that are added to increase palatability and/or shelf life.
There is no denying that pre-packaged foods have made our lives easier. For busy families, easy snacks and meals can be a huge time-saver, but when these foods become the norm rather than the exception in the diet, we start to see negative health outcomes.
The global increase in the consumption of refined sugar and highly processed foods more generally correlates with a significant increase in the prevalence of serious health conditions, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and some cancers. The link between sugar consumption and these diseases is well-established in the scientific literature.
The diet’s primary sources of added sugar are soft drinks, fruit drinks, flavoured yoghurts, breakfast cereals, sweets and baked goods. But added sugar is also present in products that do not necessarily taste sweet, such as soups, bread, tinned baked beans, cured meats, sauces like ketchup, and salad dressings. If we try to reduce children’s sugar intake, we must also limit their intake of these foods.
Sugar is a major chronic inflammation driver, triggering or accelerating disease development. Evidence from animal studies suggests that high sugar intake can also negatively impact the gut microbiome, reducing bacterial diversity and promoting body fat accumulation. A high-sugar diet can also drive intestinal and systemic overgrowth of pathogenic yeasts, including candida. This can fuel sugar cravings and lead to downstream symptoms, including digestive issues, urinary tract infections, fungal infections and behavioural changes.
Refined sugar, which when consumed, is rapidly released into the bloodstream, dysregulating the body’s blood sugar balance. This disrupts appetite regulation and fuels aggression and mood swings, low energy, poor concentration, fatigue, and ultimately, triggers cravings to consume more sugar.
High sugar intake and blood sugar imbalance stimulate the release of cortisol, a stress hormone, which can in turn, drive anxiety and disrupt sleep. In an unfortunate catch-22 situation, stress can lead to poor blood sugar regulation. Hormones produced by the adrenal glands under stress conditions trigger the release of sugar into the bloodstream, leading to a vicious cycle of stress and blood sugar imbalance.
Anxiety and depression often occur together in children and teens as well as adults. Research has also shown a strong correlation between higher sugar consumption and the increased incidence of depression.
During the refining process, all of the vitamins and minerals present in naturally-occurring sugars are stripped away. If the proportion of refined sugar in the diet is high relative to whole foods, this may lead to functional depletions of B vitamins and minerals including magnesium, zinc and manganese, all of which are crucial in supporting healthy neurological function and mental health.
According to NHS guidelines, children aged four-six years should have no more than the equivalent of five teaspoons of free sugars per day. For children aged seven-10, the recommendation is no more than six teaspoons per day. This includes sugars in processed foods, including breakfast cereals and baked goods. It does not include naturally occurring sugars in whole fruits and vegetables.
Total sugar intake can be hard to measure, but following the suggestions below, you will be helping your child stay within healthy limits.
Start small: Sugar is addictive, and cutting it out completely can be overwhelming. Try reducing the amount of sugar in your child’s diet gradually. For example, if they love jam on toast, try spreading it a little thinner or alternating with a savoury spread such as peanut or almond butter. Dilute fruit juices, or swap out one sweet treat/day for a healthier alternative.
Find substitutes: There are plenty of healthier alternatives to refined sugar, such as honey, maple syrup and fruit purees that can all be used to sweeten home bakes, pancakes, yoghurt, porridge etc. While still sugars, these natural alternatives are a much healthier option than refined, chemically processed sugars that have no nutritional value. Experiment with different options to find what works best for your child.
Read labels: Sugar can be hidden in unexpected places, so it’s important to read labels carefully. Look for words like “syrup,” “malt,” and “concentrate” as these may indicate the presence of sugar. Be particularly mindful of breakfast cereals, flavoured yoghurts and baked goods. Even the seemingly low-sugar options often contain surprisingly large amounts of sugar or sugar derivatives.
Get creative with recipes: There are plenty of delicious recipes out there that are naturally low in sugar or that use healthier sweeteners. I love the recipe book Love Bake Nourish by Amber Rose. Or check out some of the recipes on our website. Even in conventional cake and biscuit recipes, I find that I can usually reduce the amount of sugar suggested by around 20% with minimal impact on taste. Get your child involved in the cooking process to make it more fun and to help them learn about healthier eating.
Slow the release: Include a source of healthy fat and protein with each meal, and ideally with each snack as well, to slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream after eating. This will help your child to maintain stable blood sugar levels, reducing the damaging impact of sugar highs and lows. It will also help regulate their mood and appetite.
Use wholegrain carbohydrates: Refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white flour and pasta, white rice and couscous are only one step away from simple sugars. Much of their nutritional value has been stripped away with the removal of grain husks. They are broken down and absorbed rapidly by the body, causing blood sugar dysregulation in the same way that simple sugars do.
Don’t forget about drinks: Sugary drinks can be a major source of added sugars in a child’s diet. Try swapping out fizzy drinks and fruit juice for water or unsweetened milk.
It may take some effort, but cutting back on sugar can have significant benefits for your child’s health.
Finally, be wary of products branded as low-sugar, ‘healthier’ alternatives. These products often contain artificial sweeteners in place of sugars. Artificial sweeteners are also problematic as they can be neuro-inflammatory and neuro-excitatory. Wherever possible, choose natural, minimally-processed foods.
Sen T, Cawthon CR, Ihde BT, Hajnal A, DiLorenzo PM, de La Serre CB, Czaja K. Diet-driven microbiota dysbiosis is associated with vagal remodeling and obesity. Physiol Behav. 2017 May 1;173:305-317. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2017.02.027. Epub 2017
Trudi Scott – The Anti-Anxiety Food Solution (2011)
Westover, Arthur & Marangell, Lauren. (2002). A cross-national relationship between sugar consumption and major depression? Depression and Anxiety. 16. 118-20. 10.1002/da.10054.