It is evident that ordinary loving parents are very sensitive with regard to feeding of their children. Providing food to our kids is one of the most important demonstrations of parental instinct, and modern civilization, with its all-time feeding culture, the powerful food industry and a huge range of foods in any possible forms creates the perfect conditions for that instinct to be put into practice in full.
Average moms and dads can normally afford to buy various foods, and don’t tend to skimp on nurturing their beloved offspring. Taking into account that a child needs nourishing every day at least three times, there is nothing surprising in the fact that the specific nursing person (usually female) has a rather large personal experience of this process organizing, and quite definite views on both feeding and ingredients — qualitative and quantitative.
A situation where the child doesn’t only consume the food offered, but also enjoys it is a healing balm for the souls of nursing relatives. On the one hand, it is not difficult to provide the child with delicious food, but on the other hand we all wish to make sure that the food is also healthy. Not surprisingly, the most popular cooking guide is called «The Book about tasty and healthy food». I.e. the concept of «nutrient-enriched» or «healthy» food is very important. Any parental attempts to expand their own horizons to understand what is tasty and healthy at the same time can drive the most sensible people into insanity.
This is because we realise that the most delicious food are sweets, and sweets, in the opinion of thousands of doctors, nutritionists and journalists, are harmful.
Even a superficial acquaintance with what has been written on the subject, can cause confusion and resentment. It is totally unclear why candy wrappers, packages of cakes and jars of jam are not marked with a sign in bright and large letters: «Ministry of health warns that eating sweets is harmful to your health».
The list of diseases associated with the absorption of sweets is worryingly large: obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, allergies, intestinal disorders and even behavioural disorder!
This is how we come to the conclusion that a variety of goodies can be both a source of pleasure and cause serious health problems. And the first impression is that a fee for the pleasure seems to be unreasonably high. So what are we supposed to do? Are we bound to categorically deny sweets, or to learn how to use them? It seems a dead ender.
A bit of theory
The sweet taste we all like so much is given to the food by sugars. Sugars are soluble carbohydrates. Depending on their chemical structure they are divided into several groups. The most simple and basic in structure — monosaccharides: glucose, fructose, galactose. Slightly more complex are disaccharides: lactose, maltose and renowned sucrose (this is what we call normal sugar). There are also so-called polysaccharides (cellulose, starch, glycogen), but they belong to the group of complex carbohydrates and don’t have the taste of sugars (sweets).
No matter how complex in structure is a carbohydrate consumed by a human, after a small or large number of chemical reactions it will turn into a monosaccharide, usually the glucose. Glucose is the main source of energy – any energy required for skeletal muscle and heart, and brain. It is clear that the simpler the carbohydrate, the more readily available energy is; it is also clear that any disaccharide will turn into two monosaccharides: maltose into two glucoses, sucrose into glucose and fructose, lactose into glucose and galactose.
The sweetness of sugars varies, and if to assume the sweetness of the most famous and familiar to us all sucrose as the unit of measurement, it is possible to obtain the following figures: fructose — 1.74, glucose — 0.74, lactose — 0.16.
The most important point: the main function of carbohydrates in general and sugars in particular is providing the human body with energy. About 60% of the energy is associated with the metabolism of carbohydrates. This is their major function, but not the only one. Carbohydrates accumulate in the human body as glycogen, they form part of all organs and tissues, and synthesis of neither enzymes nor hormones is possible without them.
It is clear that sugar has nothing to do with complex «organ-building» processes i.e. performing so-called plastic function. Their role is completely different, and important, but, by and large, primitive — the provision of energy. Not the smallest of deeds...
From theory to practice
Complex chemical terminology and theoretical arguments regarding the importance of carbohydrates in the diet, at first glance, radically contradict many arguments about the harmfulness of sweets. Does a child need energy? No doubts! So, are you allowed to eat sweets? Turns out you can, but...
If your child eats potatoes, or whole flour bread, or oatmeal porridge, the body gets sufficient amount of complex carbohydrates (in the form of starch, cellulose, or pectin) and these carbohydrates sooner or later will turn into monosaccharides and will become a source of energy. But in addition to carbohydrates the child receives B vitamins, and ascorbic acid, and a good deal more of essential substances — calcium, phosphorus, iron, etc. Certainly, the energy requirements are easy to satisfy by substituting a bowl of oatmeal porridge with a dozen caramels. On the other hand, what about other ingredients? It looks like oatmeal is healthier.
I would like to make another important point. Let’s repeat the phrase from the previous paragraph: «Carbohydrates sooner or later will turn into monosaccharides». How important is whether it happens sooner or later?
Polysaccharides, such as starch, are converted to glucose gradually but relatively quickly (within several hours). The resulting glucose is gradually absorbed from the intestine, and the pancreas produces a moderate amount of insulin, which, in fact, further regulates glucose metabolism. Disaccharides (e.g. the same sucrose) turn into glucose and enter the bloodstream much faster (we're talking about minutes). In this situation, the pancreas works entirely differently, for in a short time it needs to produce a significant amount of insulin. It is not surprising that eating sugar significantly increases the load on the pancreas. Again it turns out that oatmeal is healthier.
Eating or not eating?
Is it possible to completely eliminate sugar from our diet? Theoretically it is impossible, taking into account that infants get more than half of all energy from lactose milk. It is practically impossible in any other situation, for all cereal grains, vegetables, fruits and berries contain glucose and fructose, and dairy products contain lactose.
But let's ask the question differently: is it possible not to include the sugar in the child's diet additionally, i.e. not to add consciously accessible and sweet sucrose in food products. Not to eat or drink sweets, forget about ice cream, candy, cakes, jam, chocolate and more... the answer is unambiguous – it is possible. But is it necessary?
Regarding the meaning of the sweets in human life in general and children’s life in particular, we can distinguish three main aspects.
1) the source of health problems;
2) the source of easily digestible energy;
3) the source of pleasure.
Let’s consider all this one by one.
Sugar and health
The main thing that should be emphasized in relation to health: low amounts of carbohydrates create many more problems than their excess.
The energy reserves of the child’s body in comparison with the bodies of their mums and dads are just not comparable. Physical stress, emotional stress, illness in general and fevers in particular - all this leads to increased demand for carbohydrates, given that your own body reserves are low, and the need for constant carbohydrate input is significant.
Deficiency of carbohydrates results in significant changes in metabolism. As a source of energy the body begins to use fat, which very few children have in sufficient quantity. In addition many amino acids begin breaking down in the energy exchange, but they are needed for entirely different purposes — for protein synthesis, i.e. for growth.
Excess carbs, and most often we are talking about the excess sugar, leads to the formation of adipose tissue, but for that to happen, carbohydrate load should be quite significant. The extreme outcome of these excesses may be obesity.
The most well-known disease associated with impaired metabolism of carbohydrates is diabetes mellitus. The causes of this disease still remain a mystery, but in any textbook there is no evidence of the fact that the development of diabetes is associated with the consumption of sweets.
On the other hand, the impact of sugars on the occurrence of tooth decay is proven convincingly, and there are no doubts about this. Glucose and sucrose with the active participation of microbes that inhabit the mouth form acids that contribute to the destruction of tooth enamel.
Excess sugar is one of the things contributing to the intensification of fermentation processes in the intestine. The latter may cause disorders in the breakdown and absorption of certain substances, resulting in a serious risk of skin allergies.
At first glance some doctors provide compelling data that proves that sugar is one of the factors that contribute to hyperactivity and aggression in children. However, it is worth mentioning that equal numbers of doctors provide no less convincing data to the contrary.
Preliminary summary on sugar and health problems.
The basic feature of the child's body is that carbohydrate metabolism is much more intense than for adults. Children are not only metabolizing carbohydrates more actively, but also are more resilient to carbohydrate loads. We are not even talking about the fact that the little boy’s pancreas is much healthier than a similar body part of his father... And taking into account all the above we conclude: that extra sweets absorbed by children are of course, of no benefit. But the risk of excess sweets is many times higher for adults.
Sugar and energy
Given that sugar is a source of digestible energy, the main rule regarding the safe absorption is the creation of conditions under which a child can spend this energy. The child that does not overheat and moves a lot (active games, sports), has enough opportunities to avoid problems associated with excess energy. Sugar is not compatible with a sedentary lifestyle, long hours of vigilance in front of the TV and computer, and clothing which doesn’t give the ability to move.
Let’s mention a very important point. In children’s lives, there are times when the need for easily digestible energy is very high. This concerns various sports competitions, brainstorming while preparing for exams, and disease. It is very appropriate to talk about the usefulness of sugars in these circumstances. No wonder that a hearty sweet drink or dropper with a solution of glucose is the common method of treatment of acute infectious diseases. Moreover, if there are no problems with allergies, the chocolate bar the night before the exam is a good thing.
Sugar and fun
Consumption of sweets is an obvious source of pleasure. If this process is regulated and does not cause health problems, why not have fun?
Most importantly we need to ensure that just to have fun is not the meaning of life and doesn’t give rise to other problems.
«Other problems» we are referring to is appetite, or rather its absence, and allergic reactions to specific sweets, and the presence of real health problems (obesity, for example).
The ability of sweets to have a significant impact on the health of our children is much exaggerated. This is because the consumption of sugars is only a fragment, not the most important component of such a global concept as lifestyle.
Dads tired of the struggle for existence can show their love to their child by buying candy. But it is possible to do the same by taking a child to a camping trip. In the first case, the child will only spend a day off, absorbing the candy in front of the TV, and the latter... Which is better? Which one is healthier? Who is to blame? Is it really candy’s fault?
Cakes and pastries do not appear in the house on their own accord. They are brought in by adults. If your child is overweight or lacks appetite, if they are not exercising and don’t spend time walking in the fresh air, the question is: why the mentioned sweets appeared in your house t the first place? Maybe at first it is necessary to solve pedagogical problems, to organize appropriate lifestyle, and then spend money on goodies?
Sweets are the easiest, most affordable and most primitive way to bring joy to your child. There are other ways though. Evidently, more time-consuming, and more expensive - active joint vacation, skiing, biking, comfortable, not constricting clothing, and much more, allowing you to spend energy in such quantity that no candy or chocolate will affect you greatly.
(Перевод на английский язык статьи Е.О. Комаровского «Страсти про сласти» любезно сделан Юлией Хейлетт.)