Last fall, just in time for Halloween, scientists published a short-term clinical study in the journal Obesity about the effects of too much sugar on children’s health. It paints a frightening picture of an increase in diabetes in children.
Children Today Are At More Risk For Diabetes Than Ever Before
Type II diabetes used to be so rare in children that it was actually called “adult-onset diabetes”, but that’s no longer the case.
Young children who are obese are more likely to become diabetic when they’re older. Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children in the last 30 years. For adolescents, it has quadrupled. The number of children aged 6-11 who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012 (US figures). One in three children in America is now overweight or obese, and researchers at the Centers for Disease Control now predict that the risk of diabetes in children in the USA is as high as one in three. A third of children born in the US in 2000 will likely develop type II diabetes sometime in their lifetime (unless they get more exercise and improve their diets).
Interestingly enough, the study made it clear that the obesity in itself wasn’t the main trigger for diabetes in children; rather, it was the high levels of consumption of sugars. The children’s risk of diabetes could be lowered even before weight loss occured. I’m not saying that obesity in children is healthy, of course, but in this case significant improvements can happen within 10 days, even without weight loss.
Here’s What The Study On Sugar Said
The study focused on added sugars in the diets of children ages 9 to 18 who were at high risk for developing diabetes and related disorders. It was led by Dr. Robert H. Lustig from the Benioff Children’s Hospital of the University of California, San Francisco.
The short term study did not focus on cutting calories or even carbohydrates that the kids consumed. Instead, it replaced food choices with high added sugar with other types of carbohydrates. This is a particularly interesting study design because it helps clarify whether carbohydrate consumption is the primary issue, or whether it is the type of carbohydrate chosen (sugars).
They Focused On Eliminating Sugars, Not Carbs
In the study, researchers replaced foods the children typically ate, so for example sugar sweetened yogurt for breakfast would be replaced with bagels. The study kept the calorie intake roughly the same.
In Only 10 Days, Risk Of Diabetes and Metabolic Disease Dropped Significantly
Here’s the astounding part of the study: it lasted for only 10 days, yet created significant health results. The 43 children participating in the study didn’t lose much weight, but on average, their levels of bad cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) fell by 10 points, the amount of harmful triglycerides in their blood dropped by one third (33 points), and their diastolic blood pressure fell by five points. Their fasting blood sugar and insulin levels were significantly improved, which suggests that they had substantially decreased their risk for developing diabetes. Here’s what Dr. Luster told the New York Times:
“This paper says we can turn a child’s metabolic health around in 10 days without changing calories and without changing weight—just by taking the added sugars out of their diet.”
– Dr. Robert Lustig
Keeping Sugar to A Maximum of 10% Of Your Children’s Calories is Smart
The study didn’t eliminate all added sugar from the children’s diets, but it cut the amount of sugar consumed by an average of two-thirds. In the study, sugar was no more than 10% of daily calories consumed. That will signifcantly reduce the risk of diabetes in children.
Dr. Lustig is well known for his 2009 lecture “Sugar: the Bitter Truth” which has received over 6 million views on YouTube. I’ve embedded the video below, if you want to learn more about sugar. He is a very strong supporter of the belief that not all calories are equal. In other words, he doesn’t believe that calories in equals calories out, nor does he believe in our cultural tendency to blame obesity on gluttony and sloth.
Today, Even Babies Are Obese
He explains that we have an epidemic around the world of obese six month old babies, which makes it clear that this is not entirely an issue of lack of exercise and eating too much. Certainly, many of us are eating more, but he goes deeper to figure out why. He believes that too many added sugars (particularly fructose) are one of the main factors in the obesity epidemic in America. He goes so far as to call fructose a poison.
So What Specifically Should We Do?
Picture a child’s breakfast. Are you imagining sugar sweetened cereal, toast with jam, and a big glass of juice like in the picture above?
Just eliminating sweetened beverages like that juice would be a good start, but what about getting rid of the jam, and replacing some of the carbs with protein, or higher-fiber carbs? Let’s serve that child soft boiled eggs instead, with whole wheat toast cut into strips to dip in the egg. Replace the juice with water. Removing the juice, jam, and sugary cereal takes away a huge sugar load, and is a big step in the right direction.
Dr. Lustig explains in the film (at 1:09) the four simple lifestyle interventions he suggests that will reduce your child’s risk and increase their health.
- Get rid of all sugared beverages (including pop, juice, sports drinks, etc)
- Choose carbohydrates containing fiber
- Wait 20 minutes before having second portions
- “Buy” your screen time, minute for minute, with physical activity
In the film, he explains his colleagues study indicating that each additional sugar sweetened drink over a nineteen month period increased kids’ odds risk ratio for obesity by 60%. (14:08)
Here’s Dr. Lustig In Sugar: The Bitter Truth
What Type 2 Diabetes In Children Here In Hong Kong?
In Hong Kong, as of 2013, 9.51% of the adult population between ages 20-79 is known to have diabetes. That percentage is similar to the American prevalence (9.3%). That’s 540,020 thousand people here in Hong Kong. The International Diabetes Federation estimates another 266,770 adults have undiagnosed diabetes in Hong Kong. That means we can expect a similar incidence of diabetes in children when we compare to the American studies.
Paying attention to reducing your children’s sugar consumption (and your own), can help them live longer and healthier lives. The other suggestion that Dr. Lustig makes is to add more fiber, which I fully agree with. If you are struggling with reducing sugar, and you live here in Hong Kong, call my integrative medical practice at (+852) 2523 8044. We can help you understand nutrition and how to reduce the chances of type 2 diabetes in children in your care.