February 1, 2016

House Call

Kids are eating the equivalent of 5,543 sugar cubes per year!

Peter N. Landless

Q: There is much talk and twitter about children’s lunch boxes and their sugar content; we make sure our children have loads of fruit and fruit juice—healthy and natural. Is this good?

A:It’s important to have this conversation about sugar intake for both children and adults. Type 2 diabetes has increased astronomically over the past 20 years. It’s frightening to recall that 40 years ago type 2 diabetes was an illness of patients in their mid-50s and older. We are now seeing elementary school children with type 2 diabetes in increasing numbers.

In the United States 29.1 million people aged 20 or older have diabetes, almost one third of whom are undiagnosed. The number of people with diabetes has almost doubled since 1995. Between 2008 and 2009 a little more than 5,000 people younger than 20 years were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. This number is on the increase.

Your question implied that the use of naturally occurring sugars (fruit and fruit juice) is safe and healthful. Well, not in unlimited amounts or in any form! Even if fruit juice is pure and unsweetened, it nevertheless contains large amounts of fruit sugar minus the fiber. The average glass of orange juice represents two to three oranges; optimal fruit and vegetable portions would be five to seven per day for optimal health. One glass of orange juice supplies the calories from two to three portions of oranges (fruit), but is seldom counted as such.

England Public Health has recently released an interesting statistic showing that kids are eating the equivalent of 5,543 sugar cubes per year!1 This translates to about 48.5 pounds of sugar per year, equivalent to the average weight of a 5-year-old! An organization called Change4Life has produced a YouTube video that graphically depicts what this looks like, with the harmful effects related to obesity, tooth decay, and possible diabetes at a later age.2 This publicity coincides with the launch of an additional sugar app that allows parents to track the amount of sugars consumed by their children.

It’s sobering to attempt to visualize just how much sugar is present in beverages and confectionary consumed on a daily basis:

  • six cubes (four grams each) of sugar in a bar of chocolate
  • five-plus cubes in a small carton of fruit juice
  • nine cubes in a can of soda/cola

Consumption of any one of these items would exceed a child’s recommended daily intake of sugar.

On the point of “natural” sugars (e.g., fruit and honey): I recall with nostalgia the words of one of my Jewish professors at the medical school where I studied who would pronounce with great emphasis and gusto: “Just because God made the bees, and the bees make honey, we do not have license to consume as much as we like!” (He loved the book Counsels on Diet and Foods.) Portion sizes and variety are important. Avoid excess, and avoid refined sugars.

Why this long response about sugar? The World Health Organization projects that diabetes will be the seventh leading cause of death by 2030!3 We are blessed to know that we may avoid this destiny by consuming a healthful diet, engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining normal body weight, and monitoring portion sizes.

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/5-year-olds-eat-and-drink-their-body-weight-in-sugar-every-year
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCQW2ewOA0c
  3. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs312/en/

Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.