Simple carbohydrates are part of a complex problem

Overconsumption of carbohydrates, especially sugar can lead to health problems.

Why has our population, especially that of our youth, become so overweight? That is a loaded question, one that likely has many contributing factors. One such factor is the lack of discipline parents seem to take with their children’s food choices. It is easier to provide the sweet food and beverages that your children want than it is to only allow your children to enjoy these options as special treats.

Sugar is also referred to as a simple carbohydrate and is used plentifully in candy, soft drinks, cookies, muffins, cake and more. Sugar is readily absorbed into our bloodstream and can cause a quick rise in blood glucose. This rapid absorption-reaction system in our body can give us energy for short term durations but does not provide long-term fuel. Sugar is also referred to as “empty calories” because there are no beneficial nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, in sugar.

The advantage that complex carbohydrates have over simple sugars is that they provide many more nutrients such as fiber, vitamins and minerals. This makes choosing complex carbohydrates, such as whole-grain cereal, quinoa, mangos, berries, carrots, broccoli and nuts a healthier choice. In comparison, simple carbohydrates are not nutritious and because they are sweet and easy to digest, eating too many simple carbohydrates like sweetened bread and sports drinks can lead to a an excessive intake of calories. Overeating can contribute to weight gain which increases the risk of joint disorders like arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and strokes. In essence, moderation is ideal; excess is harmful.

Recommendations for sugar intake is described in the chart below, with an explanation of how much added sugar is in various types of food and beverages. Keep this in mind when deciding what choices you want to provide your child with. Their choices depend on what you as the parent or caregiver provide. Are you willing to say “no”, to frequent requests for “junk food” and offer them healthy options instead? By adhering to healthy choices and providing this discipline when your child is young, you’re paving the way for a foundation of healthy eating when your children are older and helping to prevent the overconsumption of calories that can lead to weight gain.

Age group

Daily recommended limit of Added Sugar

Newborns and Infants

0 tsp (0 gm)

Toddlers and Preschoolers

4 tsp (16 gm)

Children ages 4-8

3 tsp (12 gm

Pre-teens and Teenagers

5-8 tsp (20-32 gm)

Adult Women

6 tsp (24 gm)

Adult Men

9 tsp (36 gm)

In an attempt to look at what a “typical” amount of added sugar a child might consume the following foods are listed. The table is an example of what a 5 year old could consume during a day-long sporting event. Note, the chart only lists added sugar, not the total sugar content of each food.

Food item

Amount of added sugar

Capri Sun, reduced sugar

4 tsp (16.5 gm)

7 Donut holes (glazed)

19 tsp (74 gm)

12 oz Cherry slushy

10 tsp (41 gm)

Hot dog/bun


1 oz bag of potato chips


12 oz cola

10 tsp (39 gm)

4 pieces of licorice

5 tsp (19 gm)

1 slice pepperoni pizza


Capri Sun, reduced sugar

4 tsp (16.5 gm)

Ice Cream (1/2 cup)

4 tsp (15 gm)


56 tsp

Does this look familiar to you? If you see your child’s diet in the above table, maybe it’s time to re-think your choices, and how you plan to swap out some of the items for healthier choices. Michigan State University Extension supports the guidelines set forth by USDA, and following the My Plate recommendations.

Did you find this article useful?