How Cutting Sugar Can Improve Children’s Health

How Cutting Sugar Can Improve Children’s Health

January 2, 2023

Now parents have yet another reason to wean their kids off the sweet stuff.

We all know that sugar-packed junk food can contribute to weight gain and cause kids to avoid healthful foods. A new study led by Robert Lustig, a famed pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California-San Francisco and best-selling author, confirms his controversial argument that not all calories are equal and that sugar is especially pernicious.

The study, published Oct. 26 in the journal Obesity, bolsters Lustig’s thesis that added sugar is disproportionately driving the global obesity epidemic. His most recent research confirms that sugar, not foods with the same number of calories, may cause risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels that increase a child’s risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.

For this study, Lustig and his research team replaced added sugars with starchy foods in the diets of 43 overweight kids between the ages of nine and 18. The kids ate the same number of calories, but the amount of extra sugar they consumed dropped dramatically, from 27 percent of their total daily calorie intake to 10 percent. The kids ate baked potato chips in place of pastries and hot dogs instead of chicken teriyaki with a sweetened sauce.

By day 10 of the study, the children’s average level of unhealthy LDL cholesterol had dropped by 10 percent; their average diastolic blood pressure by five points and their triglycerides level by an average of 33 point. Their blood sugar and insulin levels had improved.

The Lustig team’s study underscores what most of us know intuitively – that Americans eat too much sugar. The average American takes in 16 percent of daily calories in the form of added sugars, according to the most recent Dietary Guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. About a third of those sugar calories come from soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks.

The World Health Organization recommends that people consume no more than 10 percent of their daily calories in the form of added sugars. It recommends even less – no more than six teaspoons – for overall health. That’s roughly half of a 12-ounce soft drink.

Children generally consume fewer calories than adults. The quality of each calorie matters more for developing bodies than for mature individuals.

Yet the food industry aggressively targets children with appealing, sugary treats such as soda, candy, sugar-coated cereal and fruit juice with added sweetener. People who live in neighborhoods where healthy foods are hard to find are vulnerable to pitches for sugar-packed snacks and drinks.

Some scientists find flaws in Lustig’s approach. The children self-reported their diets. And some lost weight. But even Lustig’s critics agree that cutting back on added sugar is the right thing to do for a healthy life, particularly for kids.

How can you as a parent reduce your kids’ consumption?

Do the best you can. Nutrition Facts food labels aren’t adequate, so it’s almost impossible to know just how much added sugar your kids are eating.

At home, serve and encourage a healthy balanced diet. Don’t serve soda and sugary cereals, and reach for more sources of natural sugar like whole fruits, which offer nutritional value.

You can learn more about your family’s favorite foods in EWG’s Food Scores. Search this database of more than 80,000 foods for important details about added sugar.