It’s no secret that children today are eating more sugar, but to what extent is that a problem? That’s what University of Guelph researchers set out to find.
They found that 80 per cent of children eat more than the recommended amount every single day, especially in baked goods.
David Ma, co-author of the research paper recently published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal Open describes it as a substantial problem because it is affecting eight out of 10 children.
“If it were, say, three or four or one or two kind of a thing, then it'd be less of a concern,”said Ma.
He gives the analogy of mutual funds to highlight how early changes in the long term can have a meaningful impact.
“A little bit saved every day by the time you retire is quite a substantial amount of savings. So, using that same analogy on the flip side, a little bit of extra sugar in children starting at such a young age cumulatively can then increase one's potential child's chance of becoming overweight and obese, which we know leads to other health issues related to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc,” said Ma.
The World Health Organization, Health Canada and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada recommend that kids get only five to 10 per cent of their daily energy needs from free sugar. The U of G study found eight out of 10 kids ate more free sugar each day than the five-per-cent limit, and one in three children ate more than the 10-per-cent recommendation.
Ma explains two different cut offs of free sugar with five per cent related to dental health and 10 per cent related to obesity. Ma explains that doesn’t mean that a child consuming that amount at that age will become obese, rather they will increase their risk of becoming overweight or obese later in life.
He said having increased awareness about sugar intake is an important thing to take away, because then we can keep an eye on it.
“If we know it's a potential problem, then it's something we can potentially address, if we kind of think it is a problem but don't really have any concrete evidence to say otherwise. We might be less inclined to do something about it,” said Ma.
The study was funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and U of G’s Health for Life Initiative.
For this study, researchers looked at 109 children from families that belong to the Guelph Family Health Study. The children were all between the ages of 18 months to five years.
That long-term study began in 2014 looked at nearly 350 families and required parents to complete daily food and drink records. The researchers then analyzed sugar intakes by looking at added sugar and free sugar, a wider category that includes those added-sugar foods plus sugars in 100 per cent fruit juices and concentrates.
High sugar foods ranged from bakery products to cereals to grain products and beverages.
The research team measured participants’ waist circumference, height and weight.
Ma said the health of young children is very under researched. He said while it was already understood that over consumption of sugar is a problem, the study provides context of the problem.
“They've been helping us to better understand what contributes to health, what are also issues that are challenges for families that they face in trying to have a healthy lifestyle," said Ma.
“So today we're reporting on sugar intake but we also look at this activity, sleep sedentary behaviour, genetic parenting practices and screen time and a whole host of other things as well. So we're looking at family health from a holistic perspective,” said Ma.
Ma offered some tips for reducing sugar intake in children such as consuming more water in instead of sugary beverages and promoting consumption of healthy sugar as opposed to processed sugar,
“And then lastly, because we've identified sugar as an issue. We also looked into the types of categories of foods that are high in sugar. And so we've seen that bakery products sugars and sweets, cereals, and green products in beverages are the top sources or top categories of sugar,” said Ma.
Study limitations included the fact that most participants in the study were Caucasian and had a relatively high household income which suggests that results may not readily apply to diverse ethnic or low socio-economic groups. Ma also added that Canada does not require added and naturally-occurring sugars to be included on food nutrition labels, making it difficult to differentiate between free and added sugars in some products.
“This information is very useful in informing health professionals and government policymakers of this issue we have in preschool aged children so that we can help formulate policies and recommendations to address it,” said Ma.