24 Jan 2023
The Long-Term Consequences of a Sugary Childhood
Estimated read time: 5 minutes
People often talk about the negative impacts of a diet high in salt, but the excess consumption of sugar isn’t always seen as a bad thing. Especially in the world of Latin American food traditions, one in which a good dessert often involves heaps of sugary cream and meringue.
Sugar “melts in your mouth” and “soothes the soul,” and we typically associate it with comforting moments. Kids are given candy and other sweet treats from a very young age, often with little consideration of the dangers of sugar for children’s health — or its impact on their health as an adult.
Common sense indicates that consuming too many sugary products can lead to cavities, obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. These conditions are being diagnosed at increasingly younger ages, both in Latin America and around the world.
This pattern can also be seen in the United States, where some 3,600 cases of type 2 diabetes in children are diagnosed each year. And only in the US do people consume nearly 57 pounds (26 Kg) of added sugar (sugars and syrups that food manufacturers add to products like sodas, yogurt, candies, cereals, cookies, and the sugar you add to tea or coffee) per person every year.
Not Just a Health Concern
Experts have studied the consequences that excess sugar in the diet has on our health, but they have also examined its effects on education and the economy. That’s because consuming too much sugar can affect people in different ways, not only in childhood but in adulthood, impacting one’s ability to learn and become a productive member of society.
A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research led by two economists at the University of California, Berkeley offers evidence in this regard. The research looked at the ways in which excessive sugar intake early in life affects life and wellbeing 50 years later. To achieve this, they compared a group of individuals born in the United Kingdom during a period of sugar rationing, between 1950 and 1953, to those who were born just after rationing ended, between 1955 and 1959.
The study concluded that exposure to a sugar-rich diet in early childhood leads to worse health outcomes in adulthood.
“The end of rationing increased the prevalence of chronic inflammation by 8.8 percentage points (pp) (or 33%) … Related, we find worsened adult metabolic health: the prevalence of diabetes increased by 3.6pp or 52%, as did prevalence of elevated cholesterol, of arthritis and of having two or more diet-related chronic diseases,” the researchers wrote.
But the study also addresses the issue of sugar consumption from an economic perspective. The research showed that early exposure to a high-sugar diet affects human capital accumulation and economic well-being. On average, the end of rationing reduced the probability of having at least some post-secondary education by 9.2 percentage points (18.4%), and while it did not have an impact on the probability of being employed, it did reduce the likelihood of working in a skilled profession and above median wealth accumulation.
No More Sugar?
Sugar is a substance that is naturally occurring in sugar cane, fruits, and vegetables. It contains sucrose and fructose. Sucrose provides energy to the body’s cells so that they can function properly. Our bodies can generate glucose, but fructose can only be acquired by consuming products. And if we consume more than the body needs, this leads to weight gain.
Eliminating sugar from a child’s diet completely is a bad idea, since a certain amount of sugar is necessary for proper body functioning. In fact, the brain, which is the center of learning and development, needs sugar. But experts emphasize the importance of teaching children moderation so they can learn from an early age that while a little sugar is okay, too much can be dangerous.
The dietary guidelines set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggest limiting calories from added sugars to less than 10 percent of total daily calories. For a 2,000-calorie diet, this amounts to 200 calories or 50 grams of added sugar.
The WHO recommends 10% of free sugar (which refers to any sugar, not just added sugars) and an even smaller amount, just 5% of total daily calories, in the case of added sugars.
The difficulty is that nowadays sugar is added to almost everything, as avid readers of nutritional labels might realize — and balk at. Sodas are at the top of the list, with some of them contributing around 60% of the recommended maximum sugar intake, trailed by sweetened juices and fast food. But even meat, breads, and products marketed as “fat-free” contain some amount of what is known as added sugar.
Some of the lesser-known health effects of consuming too much sugar include:
- Higher risk cardiovascular disease
- Higher risk of dyslipidemia (unhealthy levels of fat in the blood)
- Increased risk of fatty liver and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
- Poor nutrient supply due to dental cavities, which make it difficult to eat
- Sleep apnea
- Attention deficit disorder, loss of focus, and impaired memory function, which can impact academic performance and, if occurring over a long period of time, can limit one’s education and employment prospects
These harms can start in early childhood, but can be just as detrimental if excess sugar intake begins in or intensifies in adolescence. Studies show that excess consumption of sugar in this stage of life can lead to persistent hyperactivity and neurocognitive deficits in adulthood.
The sole fact that it can increase the risk of chronic illnesses makes sugar one of the top enemies of individuals and public health systems already bogged down by the scourge of preventable diseases. But sugar and added sugar consumption is difficult to manage, which is why addressing this problem requires a collective effort.
On several occasions, the WHO has suggested that public intervention is necessary to achieve lower levels of sugar intake in infants and small children; for instance, by imposing a law that limits added sugar in school cafeterias. These efforts would ideally take place on a global, national, and local level. Manufacturers should be committed to reducing sugar consumption by creating and marketing healthier products, and parents and caretaker should avoid foods that they know to be rich in sugar.
The path has already been paved by science, which has proven the risks of sugar consumption; all the data we need to tackle this problem is available. Our task is not to ignore it.
Pan-American Life Insurance Group (PALIG) has developed a Personal Health Diary to help people prevent and manage chronic illnesses, like diabetes. This tool is a roadmap to better habits and includes guidance on when to see a doctor and what tests are important to securing a diagnosis.
These actions will create a generation of healthier children, and future adults, with better educational prospects and lower health costs due to preventable illnesses.
Remember, always consult with your physician or health care professional to determine the best options for your body and health and to answer any questions you may have regarding any medical matter, including your mental health.