How Much Sugar Can Children Have Each Day?

What is the maximum sugar recommended daily intake for children and how does too much affect their health?

How Much Sugar Can Children Have Each Day? photo

The recommended daily sugar intake for children, how sugar affects children’s health, and top tips for sugary swaps.

Understanding food labels is confusing at the best of times, and even more so when it comes to sugar levels. Eating too much sugar is linked to weight gain, tooth decay, and Type-2 diabetes, but it can be hard to know how much is too much, and what to eat instead.

Daily sugar levels for children

The UK guidelines for children’s daily free sugar intake are:

  • Age 4-6 years: 19g per day (equal to 5 sugar cubes)
  • Age 7-10 years: 24g per day (equal to 6 sugar cubes)
  • No guideline for children under the age of 4, but it is recommended they avoid foods and drinks with added sugars

Free sugars are those found in fruit juices, cakes, sweets, biscuits, fizzy drinks, cordials, honey, syrups, and any other foods and drinks with added sugar. Sugars found naturally in whole fruit, milk, and whole vegetables do not count as free sugars, but are included on the total sugar figure on food labels.

Foods with less than 5g sugars per 100g (this includes both free and naturally occurring sugars) are classed as ‘low sugar’. More than 22.5g per 100g is classed as high. But the simplest way to know is to look at the ingredient list: if sugar is one of the first 3 ingredients listed, then the food is high in sugar. Different forms of sugar include glucose, sucrose, dextrose, fructose, and corn syrup.

Negative effects of sugar

Diets high in free sugars are associated with tooth decay, weight gain and an increased risk of type-2 diabetes. Free sugars are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a spike in blood sugar levels. The body responds with a surge of insulin – the hormone that transports sugar into cells and takes any leftover sugar to be converted to fat. Over time, cells become non-responsive to these surges of insulin. Sugars remain in the bloodstream, and the body shifts towards developing type-2 diabetes.

The initial burst of energy that comes from eating a lot of free sugars is followed by a sharp drop, and symptoms of irritability, poor concentration, and lethargy - and a craving for more sugar.

What about artificial sweeteners?

From disturbing the gut microbiota, to affecting mood chemicals in the brain, artificial sweeteners bring health concerns of their own. Their sweet taste tricks the brain into thinking sugar has been consumed, which perpetuates sugar cravings and the desire for sugary sweet foods.

Top tips for sugar swaps

Cutting down on sugar can be tricky, especially if your child has a sweet tooth. Try these simple swaps, and give time for their tastebuds to adapt:

  • Switch sugary breakfast cereals for unsweetened wholegrain alternatives
  • Swap sugar-laden desserts for plain yoghurt with chopped banana or berries
  • Replace cordials and fizzy drinks with milk, or water flavoured with sliced lemon, orange, cucumber, strawberry, or kiwi
  • Swap to tinned fruit in juice rather than syrup
  • Enjoy smaller amounts of sweet treats alongside a main meal. Protein and fibre from the meal slows down the release of sugar into the bloodstream.

Switching to a lower sugar diet can reduce your child’s risk of tooth decay, weight gain, and type-2 diabetes. Reading food labels is a great way to discover hidden sources of free sugars and making simple swaps can reduce sugar intake.

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NHS. (2020) Sugar: the facts. [online] Available at https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/how-does-sugar-in-our-diet-affect-our-health/

Norwitz, N. G., & Naidoo, U. (2021) Nutrition as Metabolic Treatment for Anxiety. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12, 598119. doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.598119