It starts almost as soon as they start eating solid food. They're also not getting enough calcium and other nutrients, since sugary foods often edge out healthier fare, researchers say.
The long-term consequences could include a greater risk of obesity, heart disease, and dental cavities. Food habits adopted in childhood can be hard to change.
Just ask Sibylle Kranz, PhD, RD. She's a registered dietitian and assistant professor of nutrition sciences at Pennsylvania State University, and she's got the sugary scoop on the country's littlest eaters.
Kranz and colleagues tracked added sugar intake in 2- and 5-year-olds. The data came from children's food surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1990s. The surveys detailed what more than 5,400 children ate over two days.
The researchers focused on added sugar categories. Sugar is an ingredient added to many foods during processing or preparing. The study also included sugars eaten separately, such as candy or those added at the table, including syrup, and brown and white table sugar.
The researchers looked at main food sources of added sugar in preschool children including cookies, soft drinks, candy, and juices.
They didn't include the natural types of sugars, such as fructose found in foods like fruit, or galactose, a type of sugar found in milk products.
Sweet Tooth Statistics
Added sugar saturated the kids' diets.
On average, added sugar intake was 14 teaspoons per day for kids aged 2-3 and about 17 teaspoons per day for those aged 4-5. The highest level of added sugar for the younger kids was 23 teaspoons per day and more than 26 teaspoons per day for the older kids.
Sugar added up to more than one quarter of the total daily calories for 11 percent of the children aged 2-3 and 12 percent for the 4- and 5-year-olds.
Fruit drinks, high-fat desserts, and regular soft drinks were the most common sources of added sugar. They accounted for half of added sugar noted in the surveys.
Healthier Foods Sidelined
All that added sugar apparently pushed more nutritious foods off kids' plates. The more added sugar in a kid's diet, the less likely the diet contained grains, vegetables, fruits, and dairy.
"Children with the highest level of added sugar intake had the lowest consumption of most nutrients and servings of grains, vegetables, fruits, and dairy," say the researchers in the Jan. issue of The Journal of Pediatrics.
The kids who got most of their calories from added sugars, consumed significantly fewer calories from protein and fat, ate less fiber, and fell short on many nutrients. For instance, calcium intake was too low in 40 percent of the youngest kids and about 70 percent of the older children consuming the most added sugar.
Even those who ate the least added sugar (less than 10 percent of daily calories) often didn't get enough calcium.
Sugar Recommendations Questioned
Current added sugar guidelines might be too liberal, say the researchers. They note that the National Academy of Sciences recommends getting no more than 25 percent of daily calories from added sugar. That could be too much for preschoolers, say the researchers, calling for long-term studies.
Stricter limits come from the USDA's Food Pyramid and World Health Organization. The USDA recommends capping added sugar at 6-10 percent of daily calories. The World Health Organization advises getting less than 10 percent of daily calories from added sugar.
Want to limit kids' added sugar intake? Look beyond the cookie jar. Lemonade, 10 percent fruit juices, ice cream, pies, cakes, soft drinks, and sweetened cereals were also popular sources in the study.
They say that limitations of added sugar intake could result in higher, nutrient-dense diets.
Sources: Kranz, S. The Journal of Pediatrics, January 2005; vol 146: pp 105-111. News release, Pennsylvania State University.
By Miranda Hitti
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
© 2005, WebMD Inc. All rights reserved