One in four children in Australia aged 5-17 years is overweight or obese and the culprit of the moment is sugar. Is a ‘sugar free diet’ the answer or is this an overly simplistic solution to a complex problem?

What is sugar?

Sugar is a carbohydrate called sucrose. Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for your brain and muscles. Whether it’s in a piece of fruit, soft drink or pastry, sugar or sucrose is made up of two smaller carbohydrates, fructose and glucose.

Where are sugars found?

They may be naturally occurring or added to food. Sugars that are naturally occurring include those found in milk, fruit, vegetables and legumes. Sugar can be refined from plants such as sugar cane and then added to food or drink such as cakes, biscuits and soft drinks.

Are children eating too much sugar?

Yes they are. Findings from the last Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey report indicate that compared with the Australian Dietary Guideline recommendations, Australian children are eating more than the recommended amounts of sugar.

But that’s not the whole story.

The report also shows children are eating more than the recommended amount of saturated fat and considerably less vegetable serves than they should be. Plus they are spending too much time watching TV, playing computer games or using computers for non educational purposes. In fact, it is believed two thirds of Australian children aged 9-16 years are exceeding the maximum recommended limit of 120 minutes of ‘screen time’ a day.

Does sugar have a place in a healthy diet?

A wide variety of nutritious foods such as fruit, vegetables, milk and yoghurt contain naturally occurring sugars. These are foods which children should be eating plenty of.

What about added sugars?

Diets containing a moderate amount of sugar have been found to include higher levels of micronutrients than low sugar diets. A drizzle of honey on porridge or a thin spread of jam on wholegrain bread can make healthy low glycemic index, high fibre, foods taste good. The sugar we consciously add to our diet only makes up around 25% of our sugar intake. It’s not these added sugars you need to worry about.

So what should I worry about?

The latest Australian Dietary Guidelines (2013) for children recommend limiting foods containing added sugars such as confectionary, sugar sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks. These are the largest source of sugars in the Australian diet. There is increasing evidence that consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks is related to excess weight gain because they don’t fill you up and pump a load of kilojoules into the body without any other nutrients.

Sugar is not the only problem!

The Australian Dietary Guidelines also recommend limiting children’s intake of discretionary foods or ‘sometimes’ foods which are often high in added sugar. Examples include doughnuts, cakes, muffins, chocolate, ice creams, biscuits and desserts. But its not just added sugar that these foods have in common, they are also nutrient poor and high in kilojoules, saturated fat, refined carbohydrate and salt. Other ‘sometimes’ foods include processed meats, sausages, meat pies, commercial burgers, hot chips, fried foods, crisps and salty snacks. These foods have little added sugar but that doesn’t mean they have a place in a healthy diet.

Putting it all together!

Sugar is not poison, the poison is in the dose. A little sugar can make healthy food taste good while an excess is harmful to our health. Simply targeting sugar as the enemy diverts attention away from other important health messages such as increasing physical activity and vegetable consumption, eating breakfast regularly, restricting sedentary activities and reducing the amount of processed food in our children’s diets.

We don’t need to ban the sweet stuff to reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes in our children.  Instead we can encourage healthy habits for life by ensuring our children are provided with a wide variety of nutritious foods from the core five food groups, limiting the ‘sometimes’ foods high in saturated fat, added sugars and encouraging regular physical activity.

For expert nutrition and dietary advice including advice on the role of sugars in a healthy diet, make an appointment with an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

Author

Emily is an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) who believes improving food and nutrition in children is the key to a healthy future. Emily is mum to one toddler and understands the nutritional challenges faced by busy parents today. Emily helps families make better food choices by interpreting nutrition research and guidelines into practical advice.

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