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Are kids eating too much sugar?

Halloween candy
graphic The skinny on trendy sweets: Candy crazes for Halloween 1999
October 22, 1999
Web posted at: 2:35 p.m. EDT (1835 GMT)

In this story:

Sugar blues

Is every day Halloween?

What can you do?


By Elizabeth Somer, R.D.

(WebMD) - -It's almost Halloween. Let's face it: Dressing up is fun, but kids are in it for the haul. The sweeter, the gooey-er, the better. Should parents worry about their kids' annual sugar bender at this, the sweetest time of the year?

Perhaps not. If children limited their sugar intake to a few days a year, they would be fine. Unfortunately, they don't. As a nation, consumption of candy has increased by 50 percent between 1980 and 1995, and in the past 25 years, soft drink consumption has doubled, according to a study published this year in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Many children get on average 20 percent of their daily calories from sugar, according to a study published last year in the same journal. In real terms, that means children average 29 teaspoons of added refined sugar per day. And, every year, teenagers eat an average of 93 pounds of added refined sugar.

U.S. Dietary Guidelines, issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, generally recommend that no more than 10 percent of calories come from sugar, says Keith Ayoob, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. And while this percentage translates into different amounts depending on the individual, Ayoob says that children are simply consuming too much sugar.

"Halloween is one day out of 365 days," he says. "I'm much more concerned with what they're eating the other 364 days of the year: too much sugar, too much fat, too much soda."

Sugar blues

Tooth decay is the only proven link between excessive sugar intake and health. A few studies suggest that sugar intake might be linked to other diseases, but there really isn't enough evidence to make those accusations stick.

The belief that sugar causes hyperactivity hasn't been proven in scientific studies, either. The bouncing-off-the-wall effect parents and teachers often see around this time of year could stem from caffeine, similar ingredients or other unidentified substances in colas and chocolate.

The problem lies in the emptiness of the calories and the missed opportunities for nutrition. If children are filling up on sugar (and fat, since many sweet foods are loaded with fat) they're missing the chance to eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nonfat milk and other nutritious foods, says Ayoob, who adds that this could impact health later in life.

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, report that only one in five children consumes the recommended minimum of five fruits and vegetables a day, while the top 10 sources of carbohydrates in children's diets include sugary soft drinks, cakes, cookies, jam and fruit drinks. Another study from Tulane University reported that children who eat lots of sugar consume significantly lower amounts of protein, vitamin E, the B vitamins, iron and zinc.

Is every day Halloween?

Sugar appears on store shelves all year under the guise of glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, turbinado and, yes, honey and brown sugar. Little evidence exists showing that these forms are any better than plain, white sugar. When sugar is listed as an ingredient on a food label, suspect that the product has too much of it. Many seemingly nutritious, pre-packaged foods offer the equivalent of Halloween candy.

For example:

  • Two fruit roll-ups have two and one-half teaspoons of sugar -- the equivalent of a Halloween-sized pouch of Jolly Ranchers candy.
  • A fruit-on-the-bottom, low-fat, apple-cinnamon yogurt has nine and one-half teaspoons of sugar -- the equivalent of three and one-half mini Three Musketeers candy bars.
  • A small serving of nonfat vanilla yogurt has 13 teaspoons of sugar -- the equivalent of four mini-packets of M&Ms.
  • A fruit snack, with its three and one-half teaspoons of sugar, has the equivalent of a packet of Skittles.
  • What can you do?

    Children's tummies are small, but their nutrient needs are high. That means every bite counts.

  • Avoid sticky, sweet foods, such as processed fruit bars, candy and caramel. They are the worst offenders when it comes to tooth decay.
  • Limit soft drinks. They are the biggest contributors of sugar in the diet.
  • Cut back on sweets, such as doughnuts, pies, cakes, cookies and ice cream. These foods are doubly harmful because of their high sugar and high fat content.
  • Read labels. Manufacturers are not required to list the percentage of sugar calories, so review the ingredient list.
  • Use more spices in lieu of sugar. Cinnamon, vanilla, spearmint and anise provide a sweet taste to food without adding sugar or calories.
  • Elizabeth Somer, R.D., is the author of several books, including "Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy," "Food & Mood," "Nutrition for Women: The Complete Guide" and "The Essential Guide to Vitamins and Minerals." She is editor-in-chief of "Nutrition Alert!" a newsletter that abstracts current nutrition research from more than 6,000 journals.Copyright 1999 webmed, Inc. All rights reserved.

    Tooth care
    Fruits and vegetables: Eating your way to five a day

    American Dietetic Association
    U.S. Department of Agriculture Kids Food Pyramid
    American Academy of Pediatrics -- Halloween Safety Tips
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