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Sneaky Sugars: What is Diabetes and Are My Kids at Risk?

November is American Diabetes Month, a time for families to learn about childhood diabetes and ways to prevent it. Obese youth are more likely to develop pre-diabetes, and obesity is often associated with excess sugar intake. Nearly one in three children are overweight or obese, so reducing excess sugar is an important tactic to staying healthy and guidance experts in Johns Hopkins All Children’s Healthy Weight Initiative help patients and families with every day. 

What is diabetes?

Diabetes refers to high levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood and is classified into two types – Type 1 or Type 2. Type 1 is usually diagnosed in children, teens and young adults, but it can develop at any age. It is caused by an autoimmune reaction where the body attacks itself and destroys specific cells in the pancreas, called beta cells, that make insulin. This can cause serious health problems, such as heart or kidney disease or vision loss and people with diabetes need to take insulin to counter the effects of high blood sugar. Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes, and develops because the body becomes resistant to the action of insulin. Early stages of this type of diabetes may be treated with changes in diet and exercise.

How much sugar should kids have per day?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children less than 2 years old have no sugar in their diet. Two and older should aim for 6 teaspoons or less.

Why are sugars so sneaky in our foods?

We often expect sugar to look the way it looks when we sweeten our tea or coffee — a powder. But the majority of foods that we purchase are fortified or supplemented with sugar and you would only know this by reading a food label.

What are the top foods with hidden sugars?

  • Sports and energy drinks
  • 100% juice drinks
  • Breads and cereals
  • Yogurts and flavored milks
  • Most breakfast foods (pancakes, waffles, croissants)

5 Tips for parents

  • Consider watering down/diluting juice, soda and sports drinks with water. Using flavored water options or sparkling water options can be very helpful.
  • Look for whole wheat options for breads and cereals. The more fiber the food has, the less sugar there is.
  • Look for the plain yogurt options and add fresh fruit or small amounts of honey to the portion (about the size of their hand). Also, milk is already sweet, so adding more sweeteners or flavor is unnecessary calories.
  • For breakfast, think about options that include unprocessed foods: eggs, fruit, vegetables and lean meats (turkey bacon) can really fill you up in a healthy way.
  • Try the 95210 approach to boost overall health:
    • 9 = The minimum hours of sleep a child should get each night
    • 5 = The number of servings of fruits and vegetables we want children to have
    • 2 = The maximum amount of hours of screen time a child should have
    • 1 = Hours of daily physical activity a child should get
    • 0 = Amount of sugary beverages a child should have

Visit the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Healthy Weight Initiative page for more tips on a healthier lifestyle.


*Presented by Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

Raquel Hernandez, M.D., M.P.H.
Raquel Hernandez, M.D., M.P.H.https://www.hopkinsallchildrens.org/Find-A-Doctor/Practitioner-Details/Raquel--Gomez--Hernandez
Dr. Hernandez is assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and medical director of the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Healthy Weight Initiative. She completed her medical school, residency and fellowship training at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She additionally completed a Master in Public Health with an emphasis on nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health during her fellowship in general academic pediatrics.

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