Employee & Community Health

Healthy eating for kids: Myth #2 - sugar in moderation

7/16/2018 by Dr. Natalie Gentile and Kristine Penza, APRN, CNP

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With so many competing messages about the "best" way to eat, navigating the grocery aisles can be confusing. We all have the same goal: to provide our families with healthy meals and snacks. So it's important to be equipped with the evidence supporting a well-balanced diet when you head to the supermarket.

Starting healthy habits in childhood leads to healthy habits in adulthood. When it comes to healthy eating, the focus is "the more whole foods, the better". This includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes like dried peas, beans and soybeans.

In this series, we're addressing several nutrition myths to help make healthy food choices less confusing. 

Myth #2: Sugar is OK in moderation

For decades, the low-fat craze has led food manufacturers to make their products more enticing with another ingredient: sugar. Sugar in some form — think high fructose corn syrup, honey, maple syrup — is now in almost every processed food.  

The latest research is showing that sugar is highly addictive and a promoter of chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease, to name a few. That’s why it’s so important to cut back on them. The American Heart Association and World Health Organization recommend kids ages two to 18 should have less than 25 grams (six teaspoons) of added sugar per day. For adult women, that amount is 25 grams and for adult men, 36 grams. One 12-ounce soda contains almost twice as much!

Unfortunately, diet beverages may not be the solution, either. Be cautious with artificial sweeteners. In April 2018, researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin linked artificial sweeteners to obesity and diabetes in rodents. The journal, Nature, reported that artificial sweeteners can promote insulin resistance, leading to diabetes, and may have a negative impact on the gut microbiome, which is the three pounds of helpful bacteria that lives in our gut. 

Much like cigarettes, sugar is addictive, and it’s difficult to stop consuming it cold turkey. Fortunately, as you and your kids decrease your sugar intake, it will take less sugar for foods to taste sweet. Also, those intense cravings will diminish the longer you avoid sugar. But start eating it again, and they’ll come right back!

If you can’t stop cold turkey, here’s one simple place to start: try diluting your child’s juice with sparkling water. Start small, just add an ounce or two to their glass, then slowly add more as everyone gets used to it.

Satisfy sugar cravings with sweet fruits, such as watermelon and cherries. And be on the lookout for the sneaky places that sugar hides, such as in bread, yogurt, salad dressings and other condiments, like ketchup. Nutrition labels on packaged foods say how many grams of sugar are in a serving. And deli counters at your supermarket can provide nutrition information, including sugar, for sliced meats, salads, etc., if you ask. Treat your sugar search as a scavenger hunt! For more detailed information on nutrition recommendations, check out The Nutrition Source website from the Harvard School of Public Health and NutritionFacts.org.

If you or your child’s health care provider is concerned about your child’s weight, consider KidShape offered by ExercisAbilities, Inc., in Rochester. It’s a program delivered by a registered dietitian and youth exercise specialist for children ages six to 12 and includes six interactive sessions that focus on nutrition, family cooking, cognitive behavior modification, self-esteem, parenting support and more. For more information, visit ExercisAbilities’ website and select “KidShape” under the Nutrition Wellness tab.

If you’re covered by Medical Assistance or Minnesotacare, you’re eligible for Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT), which provides certain services by a registered dietician or nutrition professional.

Watch for Myth #3, which will address soy, next month!

Dr. Natalie Gentile is a provider in Employee and Community Health’s (ECH) Department of Family Medicine. Her key areas of interest are nutrition, obesity and preventive and lifestyle medicine. She is also a certified Power Vinyasa yoga instructor and group fitness instructor.

Kristine Penza, APRN, CNP, is a Family Medicine nurse practitioner at Mayo Clinic Express Care. Her interests include nutrition and functional medicine.