Gemma, a nutritionist from The Food Doctor, shares her top tips on how to stamp out excess sugar in your child's diet while helping them learn about nutrition in a fun way.
Diabetes is an increasing health problem in the UK with 3.2 million people diagnosed with the condition and 850,000 estimated to be undiagnosed. A recent report from the BBC stated that the rise in type 2 diabetes in children is ‘disturbing’, with more than 600 children and teenagers in the UK currently being treated for the disease.
Type 2 diabetes is a disease which develops when the insulin-producing cells in the body (which control the uptake of glucose) are unable to produce enough insulin, or when the insulin that is produced does not work properly, known as insulin resistance. It is often associated with obesity and tends to appear in people over the age of 40, but has recently become more common in children and teenagers. If left untreated, diabetes can cause long-term damage to the body and can seriously impact someone’s life.
Many things can lead to the development of diabetes including genetic and environmental factors. It mostly occurs in people who are obese and has been linked to a high sugar diet.
Sugar comes in many different forms, but in the body, it reacts in a very similar way. It doesn’t matter whether the sugar is natural or refined: we all need to limit our intake. Children aged 4-6 should consume no more than 19g (5 teaspoons) of free sugars a day, children 7-10 no more than 24g (6 teaspoons) and adults no more than 30g (7 teaspoons). Free sugars are any sugars added to food or drinks, including sugars in honey, syrups and fruit juices. Remember sugar has many different names (i.e. sucrose, dextrose, molasses, maltose) and the nearer the beginning of the ingredient list the sugar is, the more sugar the product contains. Sugar also causes tooth decay in children, which is the largest cause of hospital visits for children.
Luckily, there are some effective ways to help reduce your child’s sugar intake. We’ve put together our top 7 tips that you can start implementing today.
1. Limit sugary drinks
Sugary drinks like fizzy drinks, sports drinks and fruit juices add a considerable amount of sugar to your child’s diet. One drink can contain more sugar than we are recommended to consume for the whole day.
We refer to these drinks as ‘empty calories’, which means they provide calories but little or no nutrition. Children don’t feel full after drinking sugary drinks because they’re digested very quickly due to the lack of fibre and protein, causing their blood sugar levels to spike.
Instead of sugary drinks, offer your child milk or water flavoured with fresh fruit pieces.
2. Limit sugary breakfast cereals
Breakfast cereals often seem like the easy option in the morning, but they’re often heavily processed, meaning they’re high in sugar and low in fibre.
Choose wholegrain cereals that are not coated in sugar or honey and add some fresh fruit. Wholegrains are a good source of fibre, protein, B vitamins and vitamin E. Try malted wheat, wholewheat biscuits, bran flakes, or oat-based cereals such as porridge or muesli.
3. Limit sugary desserts or offer an alternative
Desserts such as cakes, cookies, biscuits, sweets and chocolate are very high in sugar. When children are at school, they are regularly allowed a slice of cake for dessert, and when they arrive home, you might find them raiding the biscuit tin. Sugar intake can therefore easily add up. We don’t want our children to expect a sweet treat after every meal especially when it is full of sugar.
You can limit specific days of the week or a meal time where they are allowed a dessert, or offer them a healthier alternative such as fresh fruit or a yoghurt.
4. Get the kids involved with cooking
Cooking at home allows you to have more control over what you eat. By getting the children involved, you can teach them about the food they eat and what exactly goes into it.
You could cook sweet treats using wholesome ingredients such as flapjacks made with oats, apple, seeds and nuts. By cooking desserts at home, you can show the children how much sugar goes into making cakes and biscuits.
You can also get them involved in writing the shopping list and bring them to the supermarket with you.
5. Balance is for the adults and the kids
We know everyone is partial to a sweet treat now and again and we are firm believers that a balanced diet is key. However, as the BBC report concludes, diabetes amongst children (and adults) is rising, so it’s important we also think about our own sugar intake and ensure we lead by example.
If the kids see you snacking on a biscuit or slice of cake, it might be hard for them to understand why they’re not allowed a sweet treat too. By reducing your sugar intake, it’s much more likely the kids will too as there’s less temptation in the home.
6. Snack prep
We often end up reaching for an unhealthy snack when we are least prepared. Whether you’re at home or out for the day, it’s great to have some healthy snacks at hand. You could keep slices of fruit and veggies that you know your children enjoy in containers in the fridge, as well as houmous to dip the veggies in.
You could also keep trail mixes and low sugar fruit and nut bars in the cupboard. But be careful: many bars that are marketed as being healthy are actually very high in sugar.
7. Teach them about food labels
Teach your children about nutrition labels and ingredients lists, and you may find they may take more of an interest in the food they eat.
Take them around the supermarket with you and get them to read the labels and choose the lower sugar option. Foods that contain more than 22.5g (5 teaspoons) of total sugars per 100g are considered high in sugar and foods below 5g (1 teaspoon) are considered low in sugar. Break it down to make it easier for your children to understand; for example, look at sugar in teaspoons rather than grams.
If you think your child is at risk or has type 2 diabetes, please book an appointment with your GP.