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Carbohydrates, Sugar, and Your Child


Often called carbs, carbohydrates are the body's most important and readily available source of energy. Even though they've gotten a bad rap in the 2000s and have often been blamed for the obesity epidemic, carbohydrates are a necessary part of a healthy diet for both children and adults.

The two major forms are:

  • simple sugars (simple carbohydrates), found in sugars such as fructose, glucose, and lactose, as well as in nutritious whole fruits
  • starches (complex carbohydrates), found in foods such as starchy vegetables, grains, rice, and breads and cereals

So how, exactly, does the body process carbohydrates and sugar? All carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars. These sugars are absorbed into the bloodstream. As the sugar level rises, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin, which is needed to move sugar from the blood into the cells, where the sugar can be used as a source of energy.

The carbohydrates in some foods (mostly those that contain simple sugars and highly refined grains, such as white flour and white rice) cause your child's blood sugar level to rise more quickly than others. Complex carbohydrates (found in whole grains), on the other hand, are broken down more slowly, allowing blood sugar to rise more gradually. Eating a diet that's high in foods that cause a rapid rise in blood sugar may increase a person's risk of developing health problems like diabetes and heart disease, although these studies have been done mostly in adults.

Despite the recent craze to cut carbs, the bottom line is that not all foods containing carbohydrates are bad for your child, whether they're complex, as in whole grains, or simple carbohydrates, such as those found in fruits. If carbohydrates were such a no-no, we'd have a huge problem, considering that most foods contain them. But, of course, some carbohydrate foods are healthier than others.

Good sources of carbohydrates include:

  • whole-grain cereals
  • brown rice
  • whole-grain breads
  • fruits
  • vegetables

A healthy balanced diet for children over 2 years should include 50% to 60% of the calories consumed coming from carbohydrates. The key is to make sure that the majority of carbohydrates your child eats are from good sources and to limit the amount of added sugar in your child's diet.

"Good" vs. "Bad" Carbs Carbohydrates have taken a lot of heat in recent years. Why? Because many medical experts think excess consumption of refined carbohydrates (refined sugars found in foods and beverages like candy and soda, and refined grains like white rice and white flour, found in many pastas and breads) are one reason behind the dramatic rise of obesity in the United States.

But how could any one type of food cause such a big problem? Of course, not exercising and eating larger portions of any foods than we need take the lion's share of blame for the obesity epidemic. But the so-called "bad" carbs - sugar and refined foods - tend to be significant contributors to excess calories. Why? Because they're easy to get our hands on, come in large portions, taste good, and aren't too filling.

People tend to eat more of these refined foods than needed. And, often, foods like colas and candy provide no required nutrients, so we really don't need to eat them at all.

Now the 2005 dietary guidelines are pushing for Americans to eat more unrefined (often called "good") carbohydrates by saying that everyone - including kids and teens - should increase whole-grain consumption and limit their intake of added sugar. For children, at least half of their grain intake should come from whole grains. (The Food Guide Pyramid will be revised soon to reflect the new dietary guidelines, which are published every 5 years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)

Whole grains certainly sound like the healthy way to go. But what makes them so different than simple carbohydrates? Whole grains are complex carbohydrates (like brown rice, oatmeal, and whole-grain breads and cereals) that are:

  • broken down more slowly in the body. Whole grains contain all three parts of the grain (the bran, germ, and endosperm), whereas refined grains are mainly just the endosperm - and that means more for your body to break down. More to break down means the breakdown is slower, the carbohydrates enter the body slower, and it's easier for your body to regulate them.
  • high in fiber. Not just for the senior-citizen crowd, foods that are good sources of fiber are beneficial because they're filling and, therefore, discourage overeating. Plus, when combined with adequate fluid, they help move food through the digestive system and protect against gut cancers and constipation.
  • packed with other vitamins and minerals. In addition to fiber, whole grains contain more essential fatty acids, vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc than their processed equivalents.

And if that's not enough, studies indicate that eating whole grains reduces your long-term risk of cancer and heart disease!


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