One-in-five children aged between four and five is clinically overweight or obese (and one-in-three 10 to 11 year olds), so it’s a fact that British kids are getting fatter. This obesity ‘epidemic’ as it’s come to be known as, was thought to be down to a diet of too much saturated fat, but now scientists are saying the main cause is children eating too much sugar.
‘The average consumption of added sugar far exceeds the current recommendation of no more than 10% food energy for all age groups,’ says Kawther Hashem, nutritionist at Action on Sugar (www.actiononsugar.org).
‘Children aged four to 10 have an average intake of sugar that provides 14.7% (253 cals) of food energy. From age 11 up to 18 years, the average intake increases to 15.6% (297 cals) food energy, just from sugar.’
So, how much should children be consuming? In March 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) slashed the 10% recommendation, and suggested that no more than 5% of total energy intake should come from free sugars (those added by manufacturers, plus those naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices. It does not include sugar naturally present in milk or whole fruit and vegetables). This equates to 99 cals from free sugars in 10 year old girls and 102 cals for 10 year old boys (about 6tsp of sugar). Given that 1tbsp of tomato ketchup has 1tsp of sugar in it and one slice of factory-made bread has ½tsp, there’s no doubt a radical overhaul of children’s diets is needed.
Why is sugar so bad?
‘Excessive unhealthy food and sugar-sweetened soft drink consumption has been linked to weight gain, as it provides an unnecessary source of calories with little or no nutritional value,’ says Kawther. This can lead to long-term health problems including Type 2 diabetes, increased risk of heart problems and low self-esteem. And this is for children, remember, who would be suffering with serious health problems at ages when growing and developing is often difficult enough to cope with.
‘Sugars in food and drinks play a major role in the development of dental cavities, too. Bacteria within plaque use sugar as energy, and release acid as a waste product, which gradually dissolves the enamel on teeth. Despite decreasing levels of tooth decay over the past decades, it still remains one of the most frequent problems in the UK, second only to the common cold. Around one-in-four children suffer from some form of tooth decay.’
National cut back
Salt has already been targeted and, according to Kawther, ‘the UK has led the way in public health by working towards voluntary salt-reduction targets. This is predicted to save at least 9,000 lives a year, with just a 15% reduction in salt intake across the population. Taste receptors have adjusted and people are used to a less salty taste.’
Now, Action on Sugar wants the same to happen with the sweet stuff. ‘An average of 100kcal per person per day could be removed from the diet by meeting sugar reduction targets set for each category of food and drink that contains free sugars,’ says Kawther. ‘By gradual reductions of 10% each year, we could aim for a 40% reduction from current levels by 2020. This amount is predicted by the Department of Health to halt the rise in obesity.’
To start, Action on Sugar recommends reduction targets for sugar-sweetened drinks first. This would be followed by reducing free sugars in the diet, preferably without adding artificial sweeteners. If it helps children eat more healthily and avoid serious health problems now and in the future, let’s hope that this campaign hits its target.
Make healthy swaps
It may seem a daunting task, but your kids probably won’t even notice simple food switches. Nutritionist, Kawther Hashem, reveals how to make a difference…
- Instead of adding sugar to kids’ cereal or porridge, use fresh fruit (try cherries, bananas or strawberries) or dried fruit (raisins, cranberries or apricots). It will increase your child’s five-a-day, too
- Cut back on the amount of sugar you add to things like cereal or pancakes. Start by halving it, and then carry on reducing
- Instead of serving sweetened yogurt, use plain yogurt and add fresh or dried fruit
- When baking cookies, brownies or cakes, cut the sugar in your recipe by one-third to one-half. Often, your children won’t be able to tell
- Instead of adding sugar in recipes, use extracts such as almond, vanilla, orange or lemon
- Remove sugar (white and brown), syrup, honey and molasses from your breakfast table –out of sight, out of mind!
- Enhance flavour with spices instead of sugar; try ginger, allspice, cinnamon or nutmeg
- Buy sugar-free or low-calorie drinks
- Use FoodSwitch UK, an award-winning free smartphone app, to help you find food and drink products that contain less sugar than normal