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Does your child have a sweet tooth?

KAMALA THIAGARAJAN
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HEALTH KAMALA THIAGARAJAN highlights the health hazards that the craving for sugar could pose to children

SIMPLY IRRESISTIBLEThere's such a variety of sweets available in the marketPhoto: G. P. Sampath Kumar
SIMPLY IRRESISTIBLEThere's such a variety of sweets available in the marketPhoto: G. P. Sampath Kumar

As parents, we always want to do what’s best for our kids, but there are situations when we’re not sure what’s best! 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 readily 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 paediatrician based in Surat, Gujarat. “If children don’t have 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 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 bouncing back to his usual energetic self.”

Another misconception is that if your child eats too many sweets you may be putting him at risk of developing diabetes. “Diabetes is a familial disease. If it’s there in the genes, it will surface. 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 teenagers 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 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 in spite of eating well, then 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 danger of sugar addiction is the formation of cavities. Many people tend to assume that cavities in milk teeth don’t really matter, since the teeth are not permanent. But experts say cavities at this stage could be harmful for a child’s health.

“The eruption cycle of teeth (when the milk teeth begin to fall and the permanent set grows) starts at age 6 and ends at age 12. 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 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 such as cola and French fries tend to cause greater damage to the teeth than chocolate!”

The incidence of cavities is also directly related to the number of hours the mouth has a sugary or sweet environment.

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

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

Curbing the craving

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 and also keep one healthy,” says Dr Parang. “Sometimes distraction does the trick. 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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