Is sugar harmful for children?

We live a world controlled by sugar. It’s virtually everywhere, from being in breads, breakfast cereals and cakes to health bars and sauces. Some sugars are easy to spot, while others are not because they’re disguised as something else such as ‘natural sweeteners’ or ‘natural preservatives’.  


recommended daily limit

In Australia, the recommended daily limit for an adult is 9 teaspoons of added sugar per day. When it comes to children, those under 2-years of age should not consume any added sugar.

Children between 2 to 18-years old should limit their added sugar consumption to between 3-6 teaspoons of added sugar per day.

On average, an active 3-year old should not be consuming more than 2-3 teaspoons of added sugar per day. Whereas an active teenager should not be consuming more than 5 teaspoons per day.

Yet according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2011-2012 children aged between 4 to 18-years of age consumed around 92 grams or 22 teaspoons of sugar per day. The majority of added sugar came from soft drinks, energy drinks and confectionary. These numbers highlight just how much sugar our children are consuming on a daily basis.  

While the occasional treat is fine, the less sugar our children consume, the better. Here are some reasons why sugar needs to be avoided, especially for children.

Sugar is addictive

The most unfortunate thing about sugar is that it’s very addictive. This is why so many people, and especially children, find it hard to give it up. Sugar is addictive because when it hits the reward centre of the brain it releases a surge of dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter or brain chemical that controls functions such as emotions, behaviour and cognition. It also communicates with the front part of the brain, which is associated with pleasure and reward. Dopamine creates those ‘feel good’, happy feelings and motivates us to do more.

However, this effect doesn’t last very long, and when the level of dopamine created by a sugar rush drops, the brain signals us to consume more sugar to sustain the ‘feel-good’ state. Over time, more sugar is needed to maintain that happy surge, which creates a cycle of cravings. This cycle is what leads to sugar addiction in children.  

Sugar affects blood sugar levels

Sugar also creates havoc on blood sugar levels. I’m sure you’re familiar with the term ‘bouncing-off the walls’ used to describe a child who’s had too much sugar and can’t contain themself. High sugar meals or snacks cause a spike in children’s blood sugar. As blood sugar spikes, the child becomes hyperactive, fidgety, unable to focus, and sometimes they may even become aggressive. As blood sugar levels drop (normally within an hour or two), the child will suddenly feel hungry, tired and moody, and will often look for something sweet to quickly replenish their energy.

Sugar, the Gut and the Brain

Yeasts or candida thrive on sugar, and a diet high in sugar causes yeast overgrowth in the gut. Candida bacteria burrows through the intestinal lining, creating what is known as a leaky gut. As the intestinal lining becomes leaky, undigested proteins and fats will slip through and move into the blood stream. Our immune system recognises them as foreign substances and begins to ‘attack’ them, sending our immune system into overdrive and causing our body to become inflamed and more stressed.

Serotonin, the neurotransmitter that’s important for our mood, behaviour and sleep, is produced in our gut. Around 90% of serotonin is produced in the intestinal cells, which rely heavily on the health of the intestinal lining. A leaky gut disrupts the production of this neurotransmitter, which then disturbs our neurological functions. Some of the neurological conditions that have been linked with leaky gut include

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Autism spectrum disorder

  • Bipolar disorder

Sugar and malnutrition in children

The over-consumption of sugar can also lead to malnutrition in children. Growing bodies need a wide range of vitamins and minerals as well as adequate amounts of protein, fats and good carbohydrates. A child might be getting enough daily calories from sugar, but they will be lacking in the essential nutrients they need for growth and development.

Sugar also depletes the body of zinc, one of the most vital nutrients for the body. A lack of Zinc can lead to a wide range of health issues including low immunity, and mood and digestive disorders.

Tooth decay

Bacteria thrives on sugar. Tooth decay is caused by bacteria in the mouth that use sugar to produce acid that damages the teeth and gums. Children’s teeth, especially milk teeth, have much thinner enamel than permanent teeth, which makes them more prone to tooth decay. Tooth decay is painful and if left untreated can cause chronic disease such as heart disease and even mental disorders.

Reducing the amount of sugar in a child’s diet can be challenging, especially if they are used to having it regularly. But with patience and perseverance, their palate will change and they will become less dependent on sugar.

7 things you can do to reduce your child’s sugar intake 

  1. If your child is used to having juices, reduce the amount by diluting the juice with water, gradually increasing the ratio of water to juice. You may also use fruit infused ice-cold water as a replacement of your child’s juice. Fruits such as apples, strawberries and pineapples are great options to start with as they are flavoursome and look inviting in a glass bottles or jars

  2. Replace white/brown sugar when cooking or baking with other sweetener alternatives such as raw honey, coconut sugar or molasses. They have stronger flavours therefore less is required

  3. Slowly reduce the amount of sugar/sweetener used in cooking or baking. Start by reducing the required amount by ¼ then another ¼ and so on

  4. Increase the amount of protein and fat in your child’s daily meals, particularly at breakfast time. Start the day with foods such as eggs, avocados and tubers instead of toasts and cereals. Proteins and fat are slow releasing energy foods, therefore your child feel full longer and less inclined to reach for snacks

  5. Keep healthy snacks within their view and reach. Cut up carrots, cucumbers and celery and serve with fresh berries as a great snack option. Also, adding some nut butter or seed butter on top of the veggies and/or fruit will add flavour and keep them full for longer

  6. If your child is old enough, get them involved in food preparation. Your child will be more inclined to eat what they have prepared. This is also a good opportunity to introduce new foods into their diet

  7. Get the whole family involved. It is easier to implement change when all family members are on board. If your little one sees that their older siblings and parents are all devouring carrot sticks and flavoured water, they will be more inclined to follow suit


Sugar can be found in almost everything stocked in supermarket shelves. Sugar makes food and drink taste better and it also gives us that burst of quick energy. While the occasional treat is ok, it’s best that we limit the amount of sugar we give our children as over consumption can be detrimental to their health.