Sunrise Children's Hospital October 23, 2017

Kids love sugar, and it’s not just the excitement of trick-or-treating on Halloween. If it’s a sugary, delicious treat, chances are your child will devour it immediately. While none of this comes as a surprise to parents, what you may not know is that children are biologically designed to love sugar.

It’s theorized to be an evolutionary safeguard: infants must like sweet tastes to ensure they’ll want their mother’s milk. And children’s affinity for sugar lasts well into adolescence, likely because their growing bodies are naturally attracted to quick sources of metabolic energy.

“The preference for sweet tastes is heightened throughout childhood, attracting children to calorie sources such as fruits rich in carbohydrates,” said Ellen Fitzpatrick, MD, MEDNAX-affiliated pediatric hospitalist at Sunrise Children’s Hospital. While this predisposition is biologically intentional — milk and fruit offer important nutrients for children — it can pose a problem in today’s world of added sugars and processed foods.

Children may be overwhelmed by their desire for sugar, but it’s important that they learn which sources will serve them well, and which will harm them.

The risks of a high-sugar diet

The health consequences of a high-sugar diet during childhood are numerous, including obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, high blood pressure and cholesterol. These conditions developed during childhood are likely to continue to plague children well into adulthood.

“When your insulin levels are constantly elevated, you are at risk for chronic diseases such as certain cancers, heart disease, polycystic ovary syndrome and myopia,” Fitzpatrick said.

Further, a 2017 study in the Journal of Clinical Research in Pediatric Endocrinology estimated that 75-80 percent of overweight adolescents would become obese adults. All in all, a high-sugar diet during childhood can cause a lifetime of health woes.

Managing blood sugar levels

When the body digests food, it turns carbohydrates/sugar into glucose, which is released into the bloodstream to provide the body with energy. While maintaining healthy blood glucose levels is necessary for survival, different sources of glucose affect the body in different ways. High-sugar, nutritionally deficient foods flood the bloodstream with glucose immediately, whereas other foods release glucose more slowly, supplying a steady flow to the bloodstream. This also means a steady source of ongoing energy.

For instance, let’s say one serving of fruit and one candy bar have the same amount of sugar and carbohydrates. Because the fruit has fiber, it takes the body longer to digest, which means sugar is released into the bloodstream more slowly. The candy bar, which lacks substantial fiber, will get digested quickly and release a high level of sugar into the bloodstream. This can overwhelm insulin production and cause imbalances in blood sugar levels.

When dealing with children, it’s important that they’re consistently eating a nutritious diet to help regulate blood glucose levels. Fitzpatrick recommends healthy snacks, such as fruit, cheese, hummus, yogurt, whole grains and other fiber-rich foods.

Eating a candy bar on any empty stomach, or eating only high-carbohydrate, low-fiber foods (i.e. empty calories) can wreak havoc in the body. You can usually see this instability in the child’s behavior: They get jittery for 15-20 minutes after eating the candy bar, then crash and become sluggish until they eat again.

What should you do when your child wants a treat?

Limit frequency and portion size of high-sugar treats

Kids don’t need a daily candy bar, nor do they need a full-size (or worse, king-size) candy bar. Heed the serving-size suggestions on the label and remember that you may need to scale it further to suit your child. Those serving-size recommendations are based on a standard adult diet of 2,000 calories daily. Most children don’t need that many calories. If your child eats about 1,000 calories daily, cut the serving size of candy in half as well.

Be sure they’ve eaten well prior to having a treat

Dessert comes after meals for a reason. Encourage kids to finish their entire meal — rich with vitamins, minerals, fiber and healthy fats — before they have that ice cream or cake.

Be sure they’re getting frequent exercise

Exercise does wonders for the body, including encouraging insulin production and stabilizing energy levels.

Tips for Halloween

“Desserts and candy can be a once-in-a-while treat, and once a week is a good goal,” Fitzpatrick said. Instead of letting kids eat all their trick-or-treating candy at once, portion it out over the next few months. You can even encourage them to bring back as much as possible, as long as they realize that doing so means they will have more candy over the long haul, not all at once.

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