Is sugar addictive for children?
The consumption of sugar by children is worrying, as in many cases the amount far exceeds the amount recommended by experts. What are the risks of this sugar abuse and how can we at school help to change it?
34% of the Spanish population aged between 3 and 24 years is overweight or obese, and this figure rises to almost 40% in the case of children aged between 3 and 8 years. These data were published last year and belong to the Nutritional Study of the Spanish Population (ENPE), published in the Spanish Journal of Cardiology (REC). These figures should certainly give us pause for thought, especially if we bear in mind that this trend of increasing sugar consumption has grown in recent years.
Health risks of sugar abuse
The Nutrition Committee of the European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) recommends that free sugar intake should be reduced and limited to a maximum of five percent of energy intake in adolescents and children over two years of age and as little as possible in infants and children under this age. The same committee also warns of the more obvious risks of high sugar intake:
- Overweight and obesity: “Studies have shown that exceeding free sugar intake recommendations, particularly from sugar-sweetened beverages, is associated with a significantly increased risk of overweight and obesity”, explain the ESPGHAN experts in their Guideline on Sugar Intake in Infants, Children and Adolescents. For its part, the Spanish Society of Cardiology (SEC) recalls that “overweight and obesity in childhood are associated with an increased likelihood of becoming obese adults and with an increased risk of suffering diseases such as type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease or certain types of cancer in adulthood”.
- Type II diabetes: In the same guideline referred to above, experts warn, “data in adolescents mirror those from adult intervention studies, which suggest that higher fructose consumption (from added sugar) is associated with multiple factors that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes”.
- Lack of nutrients: Sugary drinks and fruit juices, for example, are less filling than the fruit itself, yet contain more sugar. A diet rich in sugar-rich foods can lead to a deficiency of other nutrients such as calcium, iron and vitamins found in healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables.
- Intestinal discomfort: a diet that abuses sugar-rich foods can cause intestinal discomfort and problems such as bloating and abdominal pain, as well as being associated with stunted growth.
- Tooth decay: taking more sugar than the amount recommended by experts is associated with an increased risk of tooth decay.
Is sugar addictive?
First of all, it should be made clear that the key lies in the difference between sugar and glucose: “Our brain does not need added sugar, it needs glucose, and it can get this from carbohydrates: bread, pasta, cereals. And our body, which is very clever, chooses glucose from carbohydrates and gives it to the brain”, explains Marian García, a doctor in Pharmacy, a graduate in Human Nutrition and Dietetics and in Optics and Optometry, as well as a science communicator, better known as Boticaria García.
We have heard many times that sugar is addictive, and the truth is that we have all noticed that when we eat, for example, a chocolate, we usually want another one, but this does not usually happen if we have eaten an apple or a carrot, for example. The explanation for this is simple and is due to dopamine: “Apart from the fact that excess sugar is transformed into fat and remains stuck in the kidneys, when we eat sugar, dopamine is released in our brain and what this does is create a reward circuit which leads us to want to eat more”, as Boticaria García summarises.
The real problem behind the increase in children’s sugar consumption in recent years lies in what we call “hidden sugar”. That is, this ingredient is present, but is given little visibility, in some everyday products that are very attractive to children and, in general, have a good image among parents, such as fruit juices, breakfast cereals, sliced bread, biscuits, soluble cocoa, milkshakes… not everything is pastries, sweets or soft drinks.
Nutrition and sport
Education is a fundamental tool in the fight against this abusive consumption of sugar and both families and the school must be aware of the importance of educating children and adolescents about the need to eat a healthy diet, the risks of abusing sugar and the need to exercise. At our school we take care of our pupils’ diet and the school has its own kitchen, with the advice of a dietician to guarantee the most appropriate diet: balanced, healthy and nutritional menus. We offer alternative menus depending on the age and needs of each pupil (soft diet, vegetarian menu, halal menu for Muslim children, diet menu, for diabetics or coeliacs, etc).
At Agora Lledó International School we have a firm commitment to the physical and mental wellbeing of our pupils and we are committed to sport, which is why our school has state-of-the-art facilities for pupils to get the most out of their studies: artificial grass football pitches, basketball, mini-basketball, tennis and paddle tennis courts, and a multi-purpose sports centre with a semi-Olympic indoor pool, paddling pool, gym, dance room, saunas and much more.