What's That Doughnut Doing To Your Child's Health?

Written by Dr. Burtseva Tamara Viktorivna on Tue, 01 August 2023

Key Highlights

  • High intake of sugar and fat among children disrupts their normal growth.
  • Excess sugar and fat intake makes children vulnerable to weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • Limiting added sugar and high fat and combining with physical exercise is the key to good health.

Mealtimes at Martha's house are harrowing. Every morning, she assures herself that today is going to be different. But each day brings a new set of challenges and newer food tantrums: "This millet pancake looks like clay and tastes like dust; it's my birthday, I can eat as much cake as I want to; I want chips and juice for a picnic, no fruits please; I want to eat a doughnut after my homework."

Martha often finds herself complaining about her children's unhealthy food habits. These regular conflicts over food are becoming nerve-racking for her. She does not want to be a parent who always says "no". Nor does she want her child to feel left out. She is well-aware of the dangers of an unhealthy lifestyle and eating habits. But as a parent, she needs to choose her battles wisely.

Sugar, sugar everywhere

A few decades ago, nutrition research warned us to keep a tab on how much fat we ate, but there was no mention of sugar. As food manufacturers took out fat from products, they often replaced it with sugar. As a result, today sugar is everywhere.

It is no longer a delicacy saved for festivals or special occasions. It has infiltrated our lives and has become an everyday staple. Everywhere a kid turns, there stands a well-meaning adult offering something sweet: as a snack for school recess, during sports or dance practice, at picnics and movies, at playdates, or the grandparent's place.

Do not sugarcoat your child's health

Processed food is the epitome of 'high sugar-high fat-high salt' food and its global acceptance is the root cause of this chaos.

But how do sugar and fat affect the growth of children and make them vulnerable to diseases?

The food industry adds sugar to improve the palatability of food, preserve it, and confer properties such as viscosity, texture, and color. Added sugars improve taste and give sensory pleasure, but these are not vital components of our diet.

The World Health Organization has recommended reducing added sugar to less than 5% of daily calorie intake. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that parents should not feed fruit juice to an infant.

Children have a strong preference towards sweet taste and the earlier you introduce your child to high sugar levels, the preference for sweetness is intensified.

The sweet dangers of added sugar

Sugar typically refers to a category of simple carbohydrates: glucose, fructose sucrose, and lactose.

Here is how the terminology varies:

  • Added sugars is any sugar added to food or drinks, or sugar present naturally in unsweetened fruit juices, honey, or syrups
  • Natural sugar is present in vegetables, fruits, and milk.
  • Table sugar is sucrose, which is one-part glucose and one-part fructose.
  • High fructose corn syrup or HFCS is liquid sugar and comprises 40-50% of added fructose, while the remaining is glucose.

So, which is the unhealthiest sugar?

A major component of added sugar consumption comes from sucrose or HFCS through which we consume fructose and glucose together. This added sugar causes weight gain and obesity, high blood pressure, heart diseases, type 2 diabetes mellitus, liver and kidney diseases.

The most frightening part of the story is that its effects can begin in a child even before birth: when a mother consumes added sugar in excess, and this continues through breastfeeding. The effects last through early childhood, and the teenage years. In short, we cannot solve this problem by taking obese kids, making them eat a healthy diet, and getting them to exercise.

We need to work at the source. Unhealthy diet during pregnancy not only affects the mother's health, but also compromises the child's health and increases the risk of obesity during adolescence. This leads to a poor metabolic profile, and low mental skills.

What are the effects of sugar on the human body?

Sugars differ in how they are processed in our body and affect brain activity:

  • Natural sugars found in fruits do not harm our health the way added sugars do. Fructose is a cheap form of sugar that is of significant advantage to the food and beverage industry. When we eat fruits, our intake of fructose is accompanied by nutrients such as antioxidants, flavonols, potassium, vitamin C, and high fiber. All these collectively compensate for the negative consequences of natural sugars, if any.
  • However, added sugar lacks nutrients and provides empty calories that interfere with growth and development, damaging the heart, the liver, and most importantly, the brain. It is noteworthy that the quantities of fructose in a slice of mango and a sweetened beverage are drastically different.

How fructose and glucose affect our bodies differently?

At the same time, fructose and glucose have different fates in our bodies. Most of the glucose in the bloodstream is mobilized to muscle and fat tissue where it is immediately utilized as energy. Fructose, on the other hand, is a less direct source of energy and gets converted to fatty acids causing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

The other major problem with fructose is insulin resistance wherein the cells in muscles, fat, and liver stop responding adequately to insulin. As a result, our over-working pancreas try to salvage the situation by producing more insulin. Fructose also leads to life-long heart and brain diseases and diabetes because of this phenomenon.

1. Added sugar can be addictive

The addictive properties of sugar can be compared to that of drugs of abuse. Studies in rats have shown that sugar addiction resembles opiate addiction, and can induce typical addictive behavior such as bingeing, withdrawal, and craving. Rats addicted to cocaine perceived high levels of sweetness more rewarding than the drug of abuse.

No wonder, alcohol and drug abusers tend to have a greater preference for sweet foods.

2. High sugar levels can make you slow

Since the brain is dependent on a continuous supply of glucose as its principal source of energy, changes in blood glucose concentration rapidly affect brain functions. High levels of added sugar can have destructive and long-lasting effects on learning, memory, addictive tendencies, appetite, mood, and behaviour. Patients with diabetes report frequent mood swings and irritability.

Such feelings of diminished well-being make rapid thinking more difficult. If your children are suffering from learning or behavioural disabilities or if they cannot seem to control what they eat, it is wise to take a close look at their sugar intake.

3. The danger of sugar consumption

Protect your children from the dangers of excess sugar.

  • Pay attention to nutrition labels while choosing a cereal and choose the item with the fewest grams of added sugar.
  • Replace packaged snacks with fresh fruits and vegetables. Choose cereals based on ancient whole grains over refined grains.

The idea is not about demonizing sugar or feeding your child a perfect nutrient-rich meal, but to actually raise your kids to enjoy food and make healthy choices for themselves even when you are not around.

What is so bad about cholesterol?

Think about the last time you and your family were in a restaurant, shopping mall, at an airport, or on the road. You probably had some options for healthy eating, but likely those options far outnumbered the junk.

Imagine a busy working day, and you are picking up your child from school and driving back home. As you stepped out of the school building, right across the street you can see the doughnut shop, probably a pharmacy, and a grocery store.

As you turn left and one block over, you can find the KFC, Mc Donald's, and Starbucks. On your left are located Pizza Hut, a candy store, Dunkin Doughnuts, and noodles corner. You and your kids could either go this way and indulge, and go that way and indulge. Or even go right across the street and get chips and soda from the grocery store. Either way, it is a trap.

  • Sweets and fats dominate our food supply and we cannot escape even if we try.
  • The biggest influence on blood cholesterol level is the mix of fats and carbohydrates in your diet. Not the amount of cholesterol you eat from food.

A few decades ago, we followed the low-fat fad believing that dietary cholesterol is the root cause of all our health problems. Exhaustive research in this area expanded our understanding. and although cholesterol is not as problematic as we once believed it to be, it is crucial to limit the amount of fat in our diet.

Good fat vs bad fat

Cholesterol, the waxy substance in our body is not inherently 'bad'. Our body needs cholesterol to make cell components, hormones (estrogen, testosterone), vitamin D, and other vital molecules. But excess cholesterol can pose a problem.

  • High cholesterol is one of the crucial risk factors for heart disease and stroke.
  • Unlike sugar, cholesterol and fats do not dissolve in water or blood. So, the body utilizes proteins to pack fats and cholesterol into small particles called lipoproteins.
  • Lipoproteins easily carry fat and circulate in the blood and are of two types:
    • Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) - the infamous bad cholesterol
    • High-density lipoproteins (HDL) - the good cholesterol

Are fats good for your body?

All the cholesterol required in our body is synthesized in the liver. The rest of the cholesterol is obtained through food from animal and plant sources. For example, dietary cholesterol from meat, poultry, and dairy is high in saturated and trans fats.

Such types of fats further direct our liver to make more cholesterol than normal and may raise the risk of unhealthy levels. Bakery and confectionery items use high quantities of trans or saturated fats such as palm oil and coconut oil that can raise the levels of bad cholesterol.

The paradox with cholesterol intake is that though you cannot afford to have too much of the bad cholesterol, at the same time you cannot deprive yourself of the good cholesterol.

What do eating sugar and fats do to your body?

The combination of high fat and high sugar in our diet collectively impacts our health:

  • Cholesterol mixed with other substances forms a thick, hard deposit on the inside of the arteries. This can narrow the arteries and make them less flexible - a condition called atherosclerosis. If a blood clot forms and blocks one of these narrowed arteries, a heart attack or stroke can result.
  • In the present era of comfort food or processed food, we knowingly and unknowingly over-consume both bad cholesterol and added sugar. The combination of sugar and fat is hazardous to our health and significantly impacts our social and economic lives.

So, the key to good health is eating a well-balanced diet with a variety of foods and getting plenty of physical activity. Focus on nutrition-rich whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.


Dr. Burtseva Tamara Viktorivna

Dr. Burtseva Tamara Viktorivna is a pediatrician by profession based out of Ukraine. In 2004, Dr. Viktorivna graduated from Ukraine's Donetsk Medical University where she specialised in pediatric studies. She then gathered extensive experience on ground until 2011 at city polyclinic No. 1 in Donetsk, where she worked as a pediatrician handling a variety of cases.

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Current Version

Aug, 01 2023

Written By

Dr. Burtseva Tamara Viktorivna