Most kids have a sweet tooth, a fact that's not surprising in a culture that considers sweets as a legitimate part of every celebration and as an expression of love and joy. But the debate rages on over how restrictive or indulgent we should be.

As parents, we always want to do what's best for our kids, but there can be instances in which we're not quite clear about what this is! Sugar is a prime example. You may be worried about your child's sugar intake. Most kids don't know how to practice moderation and there's no hard and fast rule on how much sugar one can have, without it harming our health.

With chocolates and candy being always available today what with doting family members and well-meaning friends who come bearing sweet treats as gifts, how would you know if your little one is overdoing it? "In general, less is best," advises Dr Parang Mehta, a pediatrician based in Surat, Gujarat. "If young children don't develop a liking for sweet food, it reduces their chances for dental cavities, obesity, and other health problems."

Shattering sugar myths

While it is advisable to be aware of your child's sugar intake, it is possible that as paranoid parents, we do tend to vilify it a little more than necessary? As a result, sugar myths abound. Some people insist that too much of the sweet stuff tends to cause hyperactivity in children, but experts say that this isn't possible. Sugar isn't a drug and cannot cause hyperactive behaviour on its own. "Sugar intake doesn't change behaviour in normal children," explains Dr Parang. "A child who is exhausted and has low blood sugar levels will respond to a sugary drink or snack by a restoration to his usual energetic self."

Another misconception is that if your child eats too many sweets you may be putting him at risk to diabetes. "Diabetes is a familial disease. If it's there in the genes, it will appear. But sugar does not cause or hasten it," explains Dr Parang. "What sugar can do, is make a person overweight, and obesity is associated with diabetes (among other terrible things) at a later stage. The diabetes that is caused by obesity (known as Type 2 and treated with oral drugs) is not often seen in children, though it is now increasingly common in teens and young adults. The common type of diabetes seen in children (called Type 1, which needs insulin injections for treatment) has a genetic cause, but most children who have it may not have an (immediate) family member with diabetes. Sugar in the diet cannot in any way cause Type 1 diabetes."

If you have diabetes in the family, how would you know if your child is at risk too? Increased thirst, increased hunger and increased urination are the signs to look for.

"If your child suddenly wets the bed, needs many more diaper changes than before and is thinner is spite of eating well, these are clues that can alert you to his condition. Uncontrollable vomiting, drowsiness, lethargy, and reduced consciousness are other danger signals," says Dr Parang.

Protect those pearly whites

The real dangers of a sugar addiction are certainly the formation of cavities. Many people tend to assume that cavities in milk teeth don't really matter, since they tend to fall out anyway. But experts say that a cavity at this stage could be very harmful for your child's health.

"The eruption cycle of teeth (when the milk teeth first begin to fall and the permanent set grows in) starts at age 6 ends at 12 years. If your child has a cavity, it can affect the formation of the tooth bud. This can in turn affect teeth alignment and even block the eruption of permanent teeth. Cavities can also cause severe problems to the muscles surrounding the mouth and jaw (called the muscles of mastication) that are involved in chewing," says Dr Amar Ravjiani, an orthodontist who runs the 'Smile with Confidence' clinic based in Mumbai.

Prevent painful cavities

"Night time brushing is even more critical than brushing in the mornings," says Dr Amar.

"This is because at night, the saliva production in our mouth (which acts as a natural cleanser throughout the daytime) is minimal. If you don't brush, food particles stuck in the teeth can emit acids that can cause cavities and decay."

As a common preventive measure, most children are asked to avoid chocolates, but these aren't the real villains, says Dr Amar. "Chocolates don't stick to the teeth. They dissolve completely. I've found that the worst offenders are wafers, which are very sticky and hard to rinse away. Other junk foods like cola and french fries tend to cause greater damage to the teeth than chocolate!"

The incidence of cavities is also directly related to the amount of time there is a sugary or sweet environment in the mouth.

"If your child is eating chocolate, ensure that he eats it at one sitting, rather than frequently taking sugary treats throughout the day," advises Dr Amar.

"The best and most practical way to prevent cavities is to ensure that the child rinses thoroughly after every meal."

Stemming the sugar rush

It can be difficult (if not impossible!) to explain to a young child why sugar is best avoided. But being too restrictive about sweets can only cause obsessive sugar cravings and perhaps lead the way to bad eating habits at a later date.

One strategy is to offer your child a healthy alternative, something with natural sugar and with more nutritive value.

"Fruits, non-sweetened snacks and juices help satisfy cravings while keeping it healthy" says Dr Parang.

"Sometimes distraction works as well. Start a game, offer a toy or just take your toddler out of the house for a walk."

(The author can be contacted at kamala.metroplus@gmail.com)

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