Public health advocates looking to reduce Americans’ consumption of sugar just got a big boost from the American Heart Association, which issued new guidelines urging parents to limit how much of the sweet stuff they feed their kids.
The guidelines are the latest salvo in the fight to curb sugar consumption as one way to roll back the steadily rising levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, which together account for most of the chronic illness and premature deaths in California and across the nation.
The Heart Association said last month that toddlers under age 2 should not eat any added sugar, and no child should have more than 6 teaspoons, or about 25 grams, per day.
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Previously, the group had issued different guidelines for older children depending on age and level of activity. But the association decided that one standard for all kids from 2 to 18 would make it easier for parents to understand.
“There has been a lack of clarity and consensus regarding how much added sugar is considered safe for children, so sugars remain a commonly added ingredient in foods and drinks,” said Miriam Vos, an Emory University medical professor and author of a study that guided the association’s statement. “The typical American child consumes about triple the recommended amount of added sugar.”
Most parents know that soda has a ton of sugar; kids can consume an entire day’s worth in one drink.
But other common foods also have a lot of added sugar. Breakfast cereal (including some healthy-looking granolas), tomato sauce, barbecue sauce, salad dressing and sweetened yogurt are also big sources.
Scientists are not sure exactly why added sugars seem to be worse for you than sugars that occur naturally in fruit, juice and milk. The difference may be due in part to the fact that added sugars come without the balance of other nutrients in foods that are naturally sweet.
But a recent study led by Robert Lustig, a UC San Francisco professor who has emerged as a leading critic of sugary diets, showed that reducing added sugar in children’s diets can almost immediately improve their health.
The study recruited 43 children who had at least one symptom of metabolic syndrome, such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar or abnormal cholesterol levels. On average, the children had been getting about a quarter of their daily calories from sugar, compared to the 10 percent that is considered the healthy limit.
The researchers replaced added sugar in the children’s diets with other carbohydrates so that their calorie count and weight would remain the same. After only nine days on the new diets, the children’s cholesterol, blood pressure and triglyceride levels all dropped significantly, and their blood sugars and insulin levels also improved.
Now, with the Heart Association weighing in and the Food and Drug Administration soon to require manufacturers to list the amount of added sugars on product labels, public health advocates are gaining new momentum in their campaign to limit sugar intake.
Look for more proposals like the soda tax Berkeley voters enacted last year, which one study says has already led to reduced consumption there. A statewide tax, with the proceeds used to fight chronic disease, might soon be viable in the Legislature or on the ballot.
At the very least, the debate over the effect of added sugar on our health is about to enter a new, more serious phase.
Daniel Weintraub is editor of the California Health Report. He can be contacted at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org.