Bitter sweetness for your sweetheart

child obesity associated with sugar

Sugar – child enemy no 1?

Child obesity

With a 13.5% prevalence of obesity in children aged 6 – 14 years, child obesity in South Africa is a serious and growing public health concern.

If the campaigns against tobacco and alcohol were the great health issues of the past few decades, sugar appears to be next on the agenda. As a leading contributor to obesity in children and the association between sugar consumption and the risk for heart disease in adulthood, parents need to be educated of the dangers associated with a high sugar intake and the fact that health problems can show up as early as adolescence.

A recent study found that South Africa has the highest overweight and obesity rate in sub-Saharan Africa, with 70% of women and 40% of men that have significantly more body fat than what is deemed healthy. On average, 61% of the South African population is overweight, making South Africa the “the third-fattest nation in the world”. This is double the global rate of nearly 30%.

Although there isn’t a single cause for the dismal obesity statistics in our country, one of the most common reasons cited is our increasing Westernisation and urbanisation over the past few decades, as well as people living less active lifestyles and consuming more fast food, which is particularly high in salt, fat and… sugar.

More than just white granules

Sugars come in many different forms. Refined and processed sugars are sugars that don’t occur in nature like the sugar from fruits. It doesn’t only refer to white sugar, but also several types of other added sugars, which may make sugars on food labels difficult to identify.

The food industry uses high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or sucrose derived from cane sugar (there are many more similar ingredients) to sweeten processed foods. HFCS is a cheap additive and is usually made from genetically modified corn. This is added to fizzy drinks, breakfast cereals, cereal bars, ice cream, yoghurts, jam, biscuits, pizza, muffins, cupcakes, fizzy drinks, bread, chocolates, pastries and tomato sauce, to name but a few.

With the amount of sugar that is added to even “health” foods such as breakfast cereals, fruit rolls, fruit juice, yoghurts (and the list goes on) that may appear pretty balanced and nutritious, your sweetheart’s diet may still be too high in sugar.

The wide variety of super sweet foods available today may cause children to struggle to accept other flavours of healthy, natural and unprocessed foods. Researchers found that the more added sugar children have in their diets, the less likely they are to eat grains, vegetables, fruit and dairy.

Fizzy today, “fatty” tomorrow

In particular, sweet fizzy drinks are linked with obesity and diabetes and have alarming consumption rates among young people. It is estimated that some 15% of young children consume fizzy drinks on a daily basis. Certain experts reckon that one to two sugary drinks per day may increase the risk for type 2 diabetes by as much as 25%. Sugar-sweetened beverages are absorbed quickly in the bloodstream, causing a spike in blood sugar levels. Where the energy provided by high blood sugar is not used right away, it is stored as fat for later use.

A tin of Coca Cola (330 ml) contains 7 teaspoons of sugar and a tin of Fanta Grape (330 ml) contains 9 teaspoons of sugar! This is a mini-mountain of sugar!

Why the big fuss?

High sugar consumption by children has a multiple of adverse health effects on their bodies. This is what the experts say:

  • Added sugar is high in kilojoules (“empty kilojoules”) and contains no nutrients such as proteins, essential fats, vitamins or minerals.
  • It causes tooth decay by providing easily digestible energy for bacterial growth.
  • Excessive sugar consumption can contribute to the aggravation of the symptoms of attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as well as other difficulties in concentrating, aggression, mood swings and destructive behavior.
  • Sugar can easily overload a child’s liver, especially if they are inactive, resulting in the overproduction of insulin, blood-sugar crashes, cravings for more and eventually insulin resistance and diabetes.
  • Some children may suffer from chronic runny noses, excessive mucus, cough and symptoms of sinus infections.
  • Sugar releases large amounts of the hormone dopamine in the brain, which may lead to addiction. Sugar addiction is even categorised by some experts as having the same reaction in the brain as heroin, impacting both the physical and mental health of suffers.
  • Too much sugar may weaken the immune system. The body’s microbiome is made up of trillions of good bacteria that digest food, produce vitamins and protect it from germs and disease, but excessive sugar consumption can alter the balance between good and bad bacteria and ultimately weaken the immune system.

What can you do?

There isn’t a single silver bullet to change your child’s preference for sugar-rich foods, nor is there to tackle obesity in children. The way to give our children a healthy relationship with food is not necessarily what we’ve been taught by the media. It’s intuitive. It’s called motherly instinct. It’s about how we connect our children’s hearts with good nutrition and about the example we set as parents. They will follow us.

  • Include more naturally occurring sugars such as fruits, baked fruits, starchy veggies, milk, almonds or unflavoured popcorn in your child’s diet.
  • Pack their lunch boxes with delicious high fibre treats, such as whole-grain breads, fruit or “veggie fingers” such as carrot, cucumber or celery sticks. Mini-skewers made with cheese cubes and cocktail tomatoes, or oven-baked sweet potato chips are also good options.
  • Limit their intake and portion sizes of cookies, sweets and baked goods. Instead, try fruit-based desserts.
  • Avoid flavoured yoghurts and opt for plain yoghurt and add some frozen berries, fruit or honey. Alternatively, make them smoothies with low sugar fruit such as berries and coconut milk or cream.
  • Instead of serving colourful breakfast cereal of poor nutritional quality and loaded with refined sugar, try preparing good old porridge such as oatmeal or maize meal. For extra flavour, add honey, nuts, fruit or cinnamon; even an egg yolk for extra proteins to fire their brains. Certain studies support the idea that breakfast with a lower sugar load may improve short-term memory and attention span at school.
  • Stick to water and unflavoured milk and limit the intake of juices and sports or other flavoured drinks.
  • Even if fruit juice packaging says “100% juice” or “organic” or “no sugar added”, it may still contain hidden sugars. Rather offer them water and add slices of cucumber, berries or oranges.
  • Be careful of “healthy alternatives”. Always read labels. Ingredients are listed by decreasing weight; so any sugar listed near the top of the list must be avoided.
  • And probably the easiest, when you do shopping, don’t buy any treats for them. If there is nothing tempting in the kitchen cupboards, eating the healthy options that are available, become easier.

Changing your child’s eating habits is no easy task. Take it slow and don’t introduce drastic changes. Instead, make it gradual and introduce new changes each week.   Make the healthy alternatives interesting and attractive to them – remember, we eat with our eyes.

Teach them the importance of healthy eating instead of forcing it upon them and empower them to control their own eating habits.


SA’s the fattest sub-Saharan African nation – study


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