Part of our lives

Sugar has been part of our lives for centuries and can be enjoyed as part of a balanced lifestyle. This is about eating a variety of foods, drinking clean water, partaking in physical activity and maintaining a healthy body weight.

In addition to the role of sugar in food preparation, production and its functional properties, sugar is used to create foods that are an integral part of cultural activities. Festive foods, such as sweetmeats and fruit cakes, come to mind. It would be difficult to imagine many cultural and religious events without the special foods that contain sugar. Sugar is used in baked goods and sweets, and these are associated with happy occasions such as birthdays and weddings.

So with sugar being part of our lives we need to understand how we can enjoy it in a healthy balanced lifestyle. It has been established that obesity causes lifestyle diseases. The World Health Organisation states that obesity is caused when there is an imbalance in calories consumed and calories expended. So when you eat more food than your body needs, the extra energy is stored in your body as fat. If you keep on eating more than you need over a period of time, you will probably become obese.

You, diet and sugar looks at all the different aspects of weight.

Consult your doctor prior to engaging in any physical activity and consult a dietitian to discuss a healthy meal plan.

Glucose into energy

“our bodies are designed to turn glucose into energy”

Carbohydrates provide energy or fuel which is required – not only when exercising – but when going about our daily activities. Sugar is a carbohydrate and, as with all carbohydrates, it is a source of energy. The energy value of sugar is 16.8kJ (4 calories) per gram whereas fat has 37.8kJ (9 calories) per gram.

Our bodies convert sugar into fuel quickly unlike fats that are stored to be used later. Our body is designed to use glucose as the preferred source of energy and is the only source of energy for the brain. Glucose is found mainly in carbohydrate foods including sugar, bread, rice, cereal and potatoes.

Physical activity is an important part of a healthy lifestyle because you use energy and this will help you to create that energy balance.

Your child and sugar

As parents we want our children to be healthy, to have lots of energy to learn and play. It’s really important to choose foods and drinks that provide the nutrients that are necessary for good health and to teach them good eating habits. The best time for children to learn about healthy eating is when they are young.

Nutrients are found in the foods we eat. If you know which foods to eat and how much of each type of food, it is easy to make the correct food choices. A healthy diet will make sure a child has the best nutrition for good health.

Let’s look at the best place for information, by turning to the South African Guidelines for Healthy Eating. These are applicable to adults and children, and were developed by the Department of Health, to help people of all cultural groups choose a healthy diet no matter where they live and what circumstances they face.

  1. Enjoy a variety of foods
    A variety of foods ensures your child gets the nutrients they need and makes food fun and enjoyable. Try different cereals and porridges, buy a variety of fruit and vegetables and add legumes to dishes you perhaps would not normally do. Alternate between chicken, fish and meat and encourage your child to try new foods. Vary the colours and textures of the foods you include in your child’s diet. Add a carrot or some small bright red snacking tomatoes to your child’s lunchbox to brighten it up or pop in a small packet of peanuts with mixed dried fruit. The bright colours will stimulate the appetite and provide nutrients.
  2. Make starchy foods part of most meals
    Also known as carbohydrates, starchy foods include bread, porridges, cereals, rice and pasta. These foods provide your child with energy, or fuel that they need to think, work and play. If children don’t eat enough healthy starchy foods they can become malnourished and can’t concentrate. Choose the healthier options such as whole-wheat bread, whole-grain cereals (high-bran breakfast cereals, unsifted maize meal, crushed wheat, and brown rice) and vegetables like mealies. If children learn to eat whole-wheat bread from a young age they become used to it and are likely to always choose this healthy option.
  3. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit every day
    Fruit and vegetables are packed with so many nutrients that are vital for your child’s health and also have protective nutrients. When grandma said your fruit and vegetables were good for you, she sure knew what she was talking about. In South Africa we are fortunate to have so many different types of fruit and vegetables to choose from. It’s best to choose fruit and vegetables in season as usually they will be fresh and more affordable. Try and eat a dark yellow or dark green vegetable like cabbage, broccoli, pumpkin, orange fleshed sweet potatoes, carrots, morogo (wild spinach), or butternut, every day. Adding a teaspoon of sugar to some vegetables may encourage your child to eat them. Fruits like oranges, naartjies, grapefruit, lemons, spanspek, guava, mangoes or pawpaw protect us against infections. Tomatoes in any form (raw, or as tomato puree, tomato and onion mix, or tomato sauce) are a healthy choice. Cut fruit into fun shapes or mix different fruit together to make it bright and appealing for your child.
  4. Eat dry beans, split peas, lentils and soya regularly
    These foods are called legumes. They are healthy and inexpensive and add to the variety in your meals. Perhaps not so tasty on their own and probably a challenge to get children to eat them, you may need to find ways to add them to meals such as soups and stews, or even a mince dish. See if you can get away with putting lentils in your child’s favourite spaghetti bolognaise. If that doesn’t work because they detect it and don’t like it, baked beans on a slice of whole-wheat toast is also a great way of adding this important food type. Nuts – either on their own or mixed with dried fruit – are another tasty option.
  5. Fish, chicken, lean meat or eggs can be eaten daily
    Growing children need protein and although you can use legumes as a protein, it is important to have variety. There are so many different ways to prepare food from this group, try and find options that are quick and easy for you to prepare, but tasty and healthy for your child. Grilling or baking food is always better than frying and try to avoid adding too much salt, and condiments.
  6. Have milk, maas, or yoghurt every day
    Milk, yoghurt and maas help to build strong teeth and bones.
  7. Use fat sparingly; choose vegetable oils rather than hard fats
    We need to eat some healthy fats like sunflower oil, olive oil, or soft margarine, every day but not too much as children may gain weight. Up to 18% of children in South Africa are overweight and up to 5% are obese, a situation that can be linked to eating too much fast-food which is high in bad fats (saturated fats, trans-fats and cholesterol). Obese children often become obese adults and can develop conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. So, teach your children to eat healthy fats in small quantities only.
  8. Use salt and food high in salt sparingly
    Salt or sodium chloride is added to food during cooking and most fast-foods and snacks contain a lot of sodium. People who eat too much sodium can develop high blood pressure which leads to other complications. Teach children not to add too much salt to food when cooking or at the table. Children love to learn, so if they are in the kitchen with you while you are cooking, tell them about salt and that it should be used sparingly.
  9. Drink lots of clean, safe water
    Our bodies contain a lot of water and we need to make sure that we replace the water we lose when we sweat so that our kidneys can work properly especially when it is hot or when children exercise or play sport. Water is the best choice for children who should have 3 to 4 cups of water at regular intervals through the day.
  10. Use sugar and food and drinks high in sugar sparingly
    Sugar can be used by parents to make healthy foods taste better such as a teaspoon of sugar on porridge or jam on whole-wheat bread which is an energy-rich snack for active children. Sweets and sweetened cold drinks should be seen as treats and used sparingly.
  11. Be active
    Physical activity is important for growing children to develop muscles, circulation, learn skills such as coordination and balance. It also protects them from gaining weight which could lead to obesity and ill health.

A sedentary lifestyle, which is sitting in front of computers and television, has contributed to children gaining weight alongside eating too much high calorie food. Encourage your children from a young age to participate in a physical activity or sport that they enjoy. Take walks with your children on the weekend and tell them about the importance of physical activity.

Consult a registered dietitian to get advice about daily requirements and quantities of different food types for your child.

Tips for healthy habits

  • Encourage physical activity and limit time in front of computers and television.
  • Make food preparation fun and encourage your child to help.
  • Talk to your children about the importance of food and how it gives us energy and nutrients.

 

Oral health for children

Healthy teeth are important and to avoid dental caries (cavities or structural damage and decay in the teeth) you need to brush your teeth regularly. These holes form because of the action of the bacteria found in the mouth. When you consume certain foods or beverages the bacteria can use it to release an acid. This acid weakens the enamel; if this happens many times a day, for many days, a cavity may develop. This hole will get bigger and deeper if it is not treated by a dentist. The whole tooth may have to be removed if the cavity gets very big.

Eat regular good mixed meals and limit the number of times snacks are eaten between meals.

Sugar is not the only carbohydrate-containing food that can be used by bacteria in the mouth. Sugar from fruit juice, dried fruit, bread, potato chips and crackers can also be fermented by bacteria, leading to acid production.

Sugar and starch-containing foods that remain in the mouth for a long time are a higher risk. Some foods may tend to have particles that remain in the mouth, such as between teeth, these may provide food to bacteria for a long time (e.g. raisins, popcorn, and bread).

Rinse your mouth with water after eating food and after eating sweets or snacks, and brush your teeth regularly. For advice about oral health care, consult a healthcare practitioner.

 

Sugar does not cause hyperactivity

There is no conclusive evidence for a causal link between sugar and behaviour. The possible explanation of excited behaviour may be linked to the event, such as a party, rather than sugar.

Scientists first became interested in the link between sugar and hyperactivity when the Feingold Diet became popular in 1973. Devised by allergist Dr Benjamin Feingold, it advocated the removal of food additives, such as dyes and artificial flavours, from children’s diets because they might lead to hyperactivity. Although this special diet did not originally mention sugar, sugar became grouped under the category of food additives due to the common belief that it affected behaviour.

Through various experiments over the years, scientists have discovered that there is no evidence to support the claim that sugar causes hyperactivity. One group of researchers studied mothers who believed their children to be sugar sensitive. The researchers deceived the mothers into believing that their five to seven year old children had been given a large dose of sugar. In reality all of the children actually received a placebo – aspartame, the popular sugar substitute. The researchers found that the mothers who thought their children had been given sugar believed their children were more hyperactive.

More interestingly though, the mothers who thought their children had just eaten large amounts of sugar behaved differently towards their children. They acted in ways that were more controlling, maintaining physical closeness to their children, criticising them more and talking to them more than did the mothers who were told their sons received a placebo.

Research has failed to show that children who consistently ate high levels of sugar were hyperactive. Nor did hyperactivity occur after children consumed single high doses of sugar.

The following video by Aaron Carroll of Healthcare Triage discusses the lack of scientific evidence for linking sugar and hyperactivity, and reinforces the importance of rigour in scientific trial designs.