Is Too Much Sugar Harmful to Kids?

A boy eating a huge bar of chocolate
Too much sugar can be harmful to kids. Cultura RM Exclusive/Sporrer/Rupp Getty Images

Question: Is Too Much Sugar Harmful to Kids?

"Giving my 10-year-old candy is the best way to get him to behave. I end up giving it to him every day, and I think he might be eating too much sugar. Will this do him any harm?"

Answer:

Eating too much sugar, even developing into what some have termed "sugar addiction," has several potential harms to kids, both physical and psychological. Sugar addiction has been shown to develop in animal studies and has similarities with certain kinds of drug addiction.

You should be concerned if you find that your son experiences withdrawal symptoms if you don't give him sugary food for a day or two, including mood changes, such as irritability, and physical symptoms, such as tremors or changes in activity level.

The physical harms of too much sugar include obesity, malnutrition, and tooth decay. While it is widely known that too much sugar can cause people to put on weight, parents may be surprised to learn that even overweight kids can suffer from malnutrition. Many people believe that malnutrition is a result of starvation -- not getting enough food, but this is inaccurate.

Malnutrition happens when a person either does not get enough or gets too much of a nutrient or nutrients. When someone consumes too much of a nutrient, such as sugar, the result can be overnutrition. When someone does not eat enough of a nutrient or nutrients, the result can be undernutrition.

Even if your child is getting enough energy from sugar, he also needs protein, vitamins, and minerals, and he may not be getting enough of these other nutrients, even if he is overweight. Iron and calcium are particularly important for growing children, and may not be present in adequate amounts in sugary foods.

Tooth decay can potentially cost your child much more than the need for fillings -- it can lead to severe illness, and in extreme cases, even death.

Eating too much sugar, for example, eating candy on a daily basis, also has potential psychological harms. One particular study showed a clear link between daily candy consumption in ten-year-olds and violence in later life. This research looked at a sample of individuals at age 10 and then later in adulthood. Their daily candy consumption as a child was assessed. The researchers found that, of those who committed violent crimes, nearly 70% ate candy every day as children, compared to 42% who did not go on to commit violent crimes.

The authors of the study speculated that this phenomenon is related to parents using candy to control their children's behavior, which gets in the way of children learning to delay gratification. Other research has shown that not being able to delay gratification is related to delinquency. As well as giving kids too much sugar, candy also contains additives which have shown some association with behavioral issues.

Although giving your son candy might seem like the easiest way to get him to do what you ask, you could very well be setting him up for problems by giving him too much sugar. Try using effective discipline methods instead.

Sources

Chadeayne, A.,and Hoebel, B. Evidence that intermittent, excessive sugar intake causes endogenous opioid dependence. Obesity Research, 10(6), 478-488. 2002.

Moore, S.C., Carter, L.M., Van Goozen, and S.H.M. Confectionary consumption in childhood and adult violence.British Journal of Psychiatry, 195(4), 366-367. 2009.

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