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Trick or Treat? Is Sugar our Friend or Foe?

I've been planning to do a blog post about sugar for a while now, and what better time than just before the candy-fest that is Halloween! Soz guys!

Sugar is a confusing one for me - my parents were pretty strict about sugar when I was a child, we never had sweets or fizzy drinks in the house, but regardless of that, and the fact that we brushed twice a day, my sister and I both had plenty of cavities in our teeth. And these days parents worry about sugars in strange places like fruit juices (aren't they supposed to be healthy?!), and every family seems to have its own sugar myths or conspiracy theories... Is sugar addictive, or is it not? Is the sugar rush is real, or is it nonsense? And does too much sugar put your child at increased risk of developing diabetes??

Luckily my pal, Pre and Post-Natal Exercise Specialist, and Registered Nutritionist, Emma West, joins me now to answer all these questions...

Emma West

Emma: "The topic of sugar can feel really overwhelming, what with there being so many different forms of sugar (remember anything ending with -ose in an ingredient list is a form of sugar!) and fruit suddenly turning into the devil when blended. Here we will explore the relationship between sugar and tooth decay, when you should introduce sugar to your children and much more!"

Emma: "Firstly, there are different forms of sugar. Natural sugars, which are found naturally in a food, such as fruit. Then we have added sugars, those added to a food or drink during processing, such as fizzy drinks, and chocolate. BUT, your body can't tell the difference, and processes them all the same way - our bodies aren’t that clever. The actual difference is that natural sugars tend to be more nutritious and contain more fibre, which protects your teeth and slows down the absorption."

So how does sugar affect my teeth?

Emma: "Tooth decay is on the rise in the UK, with one in four children experiencing tooth decay before they are five (Public Health England). When you eat sugar, the bacteria in your mouth react with the sugar to produce acid, which can damage your teeth over time.

What about my child’s baby teeth, does it matter if they suffer from tooth decay?

Emma: "It’s a common misconception that because baby teeth only last a few years, they aren’t as important as our adult teeth. Losing baby teeth prematurely can result in the adult teeth not coming through correctly which can lead to other issues such as: overcrowding, misalignment and hygiene problems."

How much sugar should children have and when should it be introduced?

Emma: "There are currently no recommendations for children under the age of 4 years old. For those aged between 4–6-year-olds, the recommendation is no more than 19g per day.

In regards to introducing sugary foods and drinks (those with added sugars) to babies, it is not recommended for those under two years old. Proper growth and development require calories and nutrients, which sugary foods and drinks don’t provide, as they are empty calories. Our diet at this age shapes our long-term food preferences - setting balanced diet patterns early in life helps children to maintain this throughout their lifetime."

Emma: "In regards to teeth, it’s not about the amount of sugar you consume, but the frequency you consume it. So, take John and Karen. John has two chocolate bars a day, and consumes both of them in one go. Karen snacks on two chocolate bars throughout the day. Karen has a higher risk of tooth decay because her teeth are constantly being exposed to sugar.

"So, the take home message is to limit the amount of sugary drinks and food your children has per week. It's up to you, their parents, to guide them, since children tend to not understand the difference between nourishing foods and fun foods."

Emma: "Here are some tips to not only reduce sugar in your child’s diet but to protect their teeth too!

  • Ban sugary drinks, they have no place in a child’s diet - this also includes fruit juice, smoothies, cordial and squash as they are also high in sugar (a better alternative would be a sugar free squash). Diluting these drinks doesn’t make much difference, your child’s mouth is still being exposed to the sugar and acid, causing the bacteria in the mouth to react.

  • Only water and milk should be put into babies’ bottles, as they tend to chew the bottle teat, which if covered with a sugary drink increases your mouths exposure. Babies tend to fill their mouths up with the liquid before swallowing, coating all their teeth. This means their teeth would get maximal exposure to any sugary or acidic drink, which could lead to tooth decay.

  • Dried fruit contains a higher concentration of sugar compared to fruit in its whole form, and tends to be stickier in texture, sticking to teeth more. This double whammy allows the bacteria to feed off the sugar more readily.

  • Remember it is about the frequency you consume sugar and the number of acid attacks their teeth are exposed to. So instead of having sugar multiple times a day, limit to once a day or a couple of times a week."

Does that mean fruit is bad for your teeth and what is the difference between eating a whole fruit and fruit juice/smoothies?

Emma: "Fruit contains a sugar called fructose, which isn’t as decaying as sucrose, the type of sugar found in chocolate, fizzy drinks etc. In whole fruits, sugar is contained within the cell membranes and has to be broken down and digested by your body over time - meaning that the sugar isn’t as readily available for the bacteria to feed on. This is also why fruit juice and smoothies are worse for your teeth, the cell membranes or fibre has been broken down. So it’s more readily available for the bacteria and quicker for your body to absorb, which can lead to sugar spikes."

Sugar rush: is it real or not?

Emma: "The long and short of it is *drumroll please*, this is a myth. Scientists and researchers have done experiments and there is no evidence to suggest this. Your body is finely tuned and likes to keep your blood sugar levels within a certain range. So when you eat something sugary, causing your blood sugar levels to rise. Your body acts quickly to lower it back down to your happy range again."

Can you be addicted to sugar?

Emma: "Can I get another drumroll or am I milking it? Evidence suggests sugar is not addictive like tobacco or alcohol. The theory of sugar being addictive comes from studies on animals, where we as humans are a much more complex species. We naturally like the taste of sweet foods, so we often use sugary snacks as a treat or pick me up - which can lead to habits developing."

What about sugar and diabetes? Does eating sugar cause diabetes?

Emma: "So, there are two types of diabetes - type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is not caused by sugar, nor anything else in your diet or lifestyle. In type 1 diabetes the insulin cells in your pancreas are destroyed by your immune system. With type 2 diabetes, the answer is a bit more complex. Sugar doesn’t directly cause type 2 diabetes, but you are more likely to get it if you are overweight. Taking in more calories than your body needs can lead to weight gain. Consuming lots of high sugar foods and drinks can make it easier for you to gain weight.

"So if you are eating too much sugar, and it is making you put on weight, you have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. But type 2 diabetes is complex, sugar is unlikely the only reason for the condition to develop. But, sugar sweetened drinks are associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, which is no necessarily linked to body weight. So ensure you have a balanced diet - this goes for adults and children and if you do drink sugar sweetened drinks (such as canned soft drinks), cut them down and out!"

Many thanks Emma! Emma is based around Loughton, Essex, and offers pre and post-natal sessions tailored specifically to your needs. If you are looking for personal training sessions she will also bring the gym to you! Sessions take place in the comfort of your own home. Visit Emma's website for more information and to get in touch!

While you are here why not read my Definitive Gift Guide for New Parents, and some more great tips from some of my other favourite specialists: Author and Forest School Leader Sarah Watkins, Midwife and Lactation Consultant Shelley Wilson, more advice from, Emma West, The Step-In-Mum Veronika Durham, and Declutterer and Organiser Joanne Forde.

And Happy Halloween!

Isobel x


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