By: Bill Frist, M.D.
Earlier this year, I called attention to the dangers added sugars pose to cardiovascular health and other health outcomes. In the months since, many people have told me how surprised they’ve been to learn about the sugar hidden in their healthy morning yogurt or afternoon energy bar. Frankly, I was too. And this lack of food literacy is a driving factor behind our nation’s growing health crisis and obesity epidemic.
Some health-conscious organizations are trying to bridge that information gap. This week, the American Heart Association (AHA) came out with its first ever scientific statement on added sugar for children. A team of scientists conducted an extensive review of the available evidence published in peer-reviewed studies examining the cardiovascular health effects of added sugars on children, and came to a powerful conclusion.
The AHA-backed experts recommended that children and teens should consume less than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar a day, and those under the age of two should not consume any added sugars. Additionally, those 2 – 18 should limit their intake of sugar-sweetened drinks to no more than eight ounces weekly (none for those under age two). That means less than one soda or sugary fruit drink per week.
If this seems overly strict, it wasn’t a conclusion the researchers came to lightly. The scientific statement explained that “a preponderance of relevant literature” supported a relationship between sugar and excess weight gain in children. Added sugars were also linked to increased blood pressure in children, a risk factor for heart disease. The report went on to say that “the introduction of added sugars during infancy [the first two years of life] appears to be particularly harmful and should be avoided.”
How far are we from this target? The average American child consumes about 75 grams of added sugar a day, three times the AHA’s recommended amount. This number is startling. To meet these guidelines, it will require a major change in our nation’s dietary culture.
To make this digestible for busy parents, AHA CEO Nancy Brown issued the following recommendation to help them get a sense of how much sugar their children are consuming:
“If you have children 18 or younger, I encourage you to look in your pantry and pull out three of your kids’ favorite items. For variety’s sake, pluck one each from breakfast, lunch and dinner. Next , locate the nutrition labels and add up the amount of sugar. Odds are, your total will be above 25 grams … perhaps even well above. And that’s just too much.”
Now, Nancy acknowledges this addition isn’t completely accurate since food manufacturers don’t have to tell you have much sugar they snuck in on the nutrition label – although that requirement is coming in 2018. For now, they are only required to disclose total sugars in the food or beverage and that includes both naturally occurring sugar (think fruit) and those added when processed or prepared (think table sugar, molasses, honey, or any ingredient ending in “-ose”). That number is still telling, however, and is further informed by scanning the ingredients list. If you see sugar, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, or any other sugar relatives on the label, its laced with extra sugar. And the more you consume at a young age, the more your body will crave sweet foods later in in life, since your palette preferences are shaped in childhood.
Part of changing our nation’s relationship with nutrition is making sure this information is readily available for those who want to better understand what they are consuming, and to educate those who don’t realize the impact diet has on longevity, illness, and chronic diseases. It will require us to begin to think of food as medicine – not just fuel to get us through the day.
As a cardiothoracic surgeon, I would love to be able to solve all our heart health problems with a pill or a vaccine or a surgery. But what I’ve learned from years of treating patients is that social determinants of health – the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age – play a much greater role in health outcomes than what goes on in a doctor’s office.
In the winter you wouldn’t send your child outside without some protection from the cold. Think of good nutrition as that coat you put on your child to prevent them from having health issues later on. We all want to set our children up for success. A good diet low in added sugar is a great first step to setting them up for a long-term healthy lifestyle.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.
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