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Sugar and Kids: How Much is Too Much?

Otoniel Santiago, Clinical Dietitian, shares how much sugar is too much for kids and ways to control sugar intake as a family.
Sugar and Kids: How Much is Too Much?
Featured Speaker:
Otoniel Santiago
Otoniel Santiago is a Registered Dietitian at Children’s Health. He currently oversees the Get Up and Go Type 2 Diabetes Prevention Program and is the creator of the first Get Up and Go program for children of developmental differences. Otoniel has over 10 years of experience in the health and wellness field and graduated magna cum laude from Texas Women’s University in Denton, TX with a science degree in nutrition with an emphasis in dietetics. He completed his dietetic internship at Baylor University Medical Center.
Sugar and Kids: How Much is Too Much?

Caitlin Whyte: Welcome. You're listening to Children's Health Checkup. I'm your host, Caitlin Whyte. Today, we are discussing sugar and kids, artificial sweeteners, reducing intake, and just how much is too much. Otoniel Santiago will be helping us with some of those tips. He is a Clinical Dietician with the Get Up and Go Program at Children's Health Otto, there's no denying that kids love anything sweet while parents realize that too much sugar is bad. It's hard to know just how much is too much. Can you share the recommended daily sugar intake for kids?

Otoniel Santiago: Yes. So the Academy, the American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends that children have at least three to six teaspoons of sugar per day, which is about 12 to 24 grams. If you look at a can of soda or juice, right? You can see that sometimes sugars is listed as grams, but just six teaspoons. Now, the biggest thing is that the average American is eating about 22 teaspoons per day. And kids are eating about 16 per day. So that alone, we know that it is the excess of sugar that is causing our kids to have problems with obesity and other health conditions that we see on the daily basis. He says like type two diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, those conditions that we see in adults, not we see those creeping into our children due to the excess amounts of sugar that they're consuming.

Host: Can you explain just why sugar is a health concern?

Otoniel Santiago: Yes. One of the reasons sugar can be a health concern. It is a health concern, and it's because, as I said, it's the excess of the consumption of sugar. Sugar in itself, it's a great source of energy. If you eat a fruit, if you eat a piece of bread, if you eat, all these items have natural sugars, but it's the added sugars that go along with that product. And the added fact that they also are included. So it becomes a health concern because what happens is as your child or yourself, are you over consuming sugar, it can become very toxic for the body. So sugar can become very toxic for the body and can lead to what we call insulin resistance, which is when your body is not able to react the right way to insulin, which is a hormone that helps store sugar in our cells. So that can lead to type two diabetes. And that's where it becomes a health concern.

The other problem that we see also with high consumption of sugars is that children are now developing what we call nonalcoholic fatty liver. And that's something that we used to see on adults that were alcoholics. We will see a fatty liver developed due to the high consumption of alcohol. But now we see this coming up in our children and we know that it's due to the high consumption of juices, which I will provide some of the recommendations for juice. Like for example, a child from the ages of one to three are only allowed to drink four ounces per day. Sometimes kids drink more than four ounces per day, a dad age kids four through six. If you look at it as almost the ounces that they recommend is based the age group as well, four to six ounces for kids to ages four to six, and then kids seven through 18, right?

Once they become an 18, they're more, they're an adult, but nonetheless, the age group is at least eight ounces or one cup of juice per day. So we know that a lot of our kids, high consumption of sugar is usually something's not good is actually through drinks. They get excess calories, excess sugar through drinks. And this leads to also the development of cavities. Which, you know, some of our kids have problems, you know, cavities to lead to other issues pay attention to the recommendations. Obviously we recommend zero sugary drinks. There are options. You know, there are sparking waters. There are brands that you can find in the store that are zero calories, zero sugar that are still, more of that sparkling water type product. Those are things that you can replace for sodas. You can also infuse water with fruits, which it's just chopping up certain fruits, letting them know, sit for a day or a couple of minutes. And then you can drink that water that will have the flavor of the fruit. So those are ways that parents can also reduce the amount of sugar that their kids are consuming through drinks, which is one of the main sources of our kiddos developing the nonalcoholic fatty liver, cavities, and the other conditions that we just discussed.

Host: Now, when it comes to alternatives, are artificial sweeteners any better than sugar?

Otoniel Santiago: Well, that's a very good question because the, as far as we know, there are no caloric sweets, right? So that's one other reason they became so popular. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not have a notice saying that never use them or use it. But what they're saying is that the research is very limited. So we don't know how these affect individuals long-term. There are some pediatricians that have discussed that this may affect the gut flora in the children or adults, but then again, it depends how the individual responds to these sugars. However, artificial sweeteners. One of the things that I try to explain to my patients and the kids that I see and the families that I teach, is that artificial sweeteners are like, I like to use this analogy. It's like someone knocking on your door, right. And then hiding in the bushes. And then when you open the door, no one is there. So artificial sweeteners have no calorie. So they don't provide no energy.

So that's when they enter the intestine, they just pass through can cause a little bit of stomach distress. That's why some people have distress and you know, stomach problems when they consume it. And that's why the American Academy of Pediatrician is very conservative to saying, just be cautious with what you're consuming, because we don't know the long-term effects of it. However, we know that, like I said, because of the way it reacts, it's like the trigger of smell, right? When you smell food, you start getting hungry. Whenever you taste food or you start chewing food, your body starts responding. And that's exactly what artificial sweeteners do. They activate your taste buds to send a signal to release hormones in the body that are in charge of reducing blood sugar in the body. But because there is no energy and no energy as being stored, then that can lead maybe to overeating because there's no energy. So that's the only thing that I would be concerned with artificial sweetener. Overall, I think they're safe to use, just keep an eye on your child. How is your child responding to them? And I think it should be a good substitute for regular sugar, although I would not discard completely your regular sugar.

Host: Now you shared a bunch of alternative to juices earlier, but can you share some other tips on how to reduce sugar intake as a family?

Otoniel Santiago: Well, yes. So as a family, the biggest thing that I tell parents is as a family, if you know that there are food items that you know that you're going to eat, and you're not going to stop eating them as a family, then just buy them on the occasion that you know, you're going to enjoy that food item. Otherwise do not have them in the house because you know, when they're there, you're going to be, you know, you're going to gravitate to grabbing the product and you're going to overeat it, which is going to lead to an excess amount of sugar, calories. And then you have the weight creeping up on your children and yourself and other health problems that come along with that, another way to reduce sugar. And this is something that I, a quick recipe, if you buy plain yogurt, Greek, preferably, because it's higher in protein, I would recommend that. You can replace, for example, peanut butter.

So peanut butter in most cases, depending on which brand you purchase, they're a little bit higher in sugar. So one way to substitute that one is buying powder peanut butter, this less calories. Yes. So replacing powder and with the regular peanut butter, you get less calories, less sugar and less fat overall. As a matter of fact, two tablespoons of powdered peanut butter only provides 50 calories. So you can add that to your yogurt. You can add an artificial sweetener, if you like. That way you could keep the calories low, you still get a high dense food, and you can add any nut that you like or fruit. You can add fruits, which is a best way to get some, a good source of sugar in the body is through fruit. You have the fiber that mitigates a little bit of the reaction from the fruits and its natural source. So you can add those to the yogurt and have a quick snack, or that can be actual a meal for you if you decide to.

Host: Great Otto, is there anything else you'd like to add about reducing sugar intake for families?

Otoniel Santiago: Yes. The biggest thing, focus on reading food labels. If you do not know how to read food labels, I highly suggest, you know, there's a lot of information online, but I highly suggest you join us in our programs. We have sections, you know, through our 10 weeks that we discuss how to read food labels so you can make better decisions there again, remembering what we discussed about the 5210, something that I alluded to a previous conversation that I had is that, you know, 5210 is at least eating five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, and spend two hours or less in front of a screen, one hour or more physical activity. And obviously zero sugary drinks. Starting the day. Right. That's huge. And what I mean by that is instead of starting the morning with cereal, right? A lot of parents are obviously during a rush and they feed their children cereal.

And a lot of these zero products are high in sugar. Even if you buy a low in sugar, you still have to be cautious because still turns into sugar in the body. So I will highly suggest starting the day with a high protein meal, maybe eggs, maybe Turkey sausage, cheese roll up, something like that, that it's more satisfying and will keep the child less hungry throughout the day. Usually when kids eat cereal in the morning, they get this big spike of energy and then they crash and they're hungry maybe, or an hour or two later because some of these cereals are highly processed. They don't have enough fiber, they don't have enough nutrients. So the child stays hungry. So the kid is when they get home, they come and they eat whatever they find. So that's also a best way to start today. It's shown that people that eat a healthy breakfast in the morning tend to eat less throughout the day. That's very important.

And then lastly, I will say, involving your child and meal planning and preparing foods. When you go to the stores, let your child pick a different fruit or a different food item, something that they would like to try, and you guys can try it as a family, again, taking those small steps, right? Letting your kid, if you're cooking, invite your child, to learn how to put these foods together. Kids that learn how to cook early in life, tend to eat less processed foods because they know how to make their meals at home. So I would say those are the things I think parents and, you know, our kiddos that are listening too, to start going with as a family and go from there and just taking those small steps and start, you know, just start. I'm going to end up with that just start.

Host: Well, thank you for your time. And for this sweet information Otto. That was Otoniel Santiago, clinical dietician with the Get Up and Go Program at Children's Health. Find more information on sugar and sweeteners online at This has been Children's Health Checkup. I'm Caitlin Whyte. Thank you for listening.