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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Dr Angelica L Dumapit and Physician Lim Sock Ling on September 6, 2022

How Does Refined Sugar Impact Children’s Health?

Refined sugar has been linked to emotional problems, weight gain, and hyperactivity in children, but it's found in just about everything they eat. Here's how to work around that.

Kids eating sugar min scaled

Refined sugar is found in many foods that children commonly eat, such as granola or energy bars, fruit snacks, juice, canned foods, and cereal.

Eating too much has been linked to emotional and behavioral problems in children. It also increases their risk of metabolic diseases, such as obesity and diabetes.

Children like naturally sweet-tasting foods. So, instead of preventing them from eating sugar altogether, help them learn how to choose healthy sources.

In this guide, you’ll learn about the negative health effects that refined sugar has on children’s health. Plus, our experts provide tips for making healthier choices that your kids will actually eat.

Refined Sugar vs. Natural Sugar: What’s The Difference?

Natural sugar comes from whole-food sources, such as fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, refined sugar is found in processed foods, such as candy and junk food.

Both taste sweet, so what is the difference? As the name suggests, refined sugar is the type of sugar that has been processed.

During the refining process, sugar cane or sugar beets are extracted until they lose their natural molasses to create refined sugar. This is easily absorbed by the body. 

Refined sugar is different from natural sugar as the latter is found in milk, fruits, and vegetables. Basically, the sugar you get from supermarkets for cooking or baking is refined sugar.

In contrast, natural sugar is important for a healthy and well-balanced diet. Fruits and vegetables contain fructose and lactose, which get absorbed at a slower rate than their processed counterparts. These types of sugar sustain the body and keep the metabolism stabilized. 

Refined Sugar, According To TCM

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), concentrated sugar has an extremely yin, expanding, and releasing effect that brings Dampness into the body and weakens the energy of the Spleen. Therefore, people with a weakened Spleen and excessive Dampness should significantly reduce their sugar intake.

The Spleen is important because it is responsible for the digestion of food, water metabolism, and menstrual cycles. It also controls the overall harmony and balance in our bodies.

How Much Refined Sugar Is Safe For My Child To Eat?

Because sugar exists in almost everything we eat, avoiding it is impossible. We consume it when we drink a glass of juice or eat a slice of cake.

The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests limiting daily intake to no more than six teaspoons or 24 grams for women and no more than nine teaspoons or 36 grams for men. 

When it comes to children, the AHA recommends that children ages two to 18 should consume fewer than six teaspoons or 25 grams of refined sugar per day. Children are also advised to drink no more than a cup of sugary beverages per week.

Unfortunately, many children crave sugary drinks, or their parents give them sweets for dessert. One can of soda contains approximately 41.8 grams of sugar, a 42-gram chocolate bar has 21 grams of sugar, while 2/3 cup of vanilla ice cream has 18 grams of sugar.

Negative Effects of Refined Sugar on Children

From a TCM perspective, children who crave refined sugar have a weakened digestive system. This can impact their growth and development as the body cannot properly assimilate nutrients from food.

Like adults, children who consume too much of it are at risk of obesity, making them more prone to heart diseases. It can also affect children’s mental health and lead to to an increased risk of precocious puberty.

Hyperactivity and difficulty focusing 

Overconsumption of sugar can lead to angry outbursts and behavioral problems in kids.

As it’s quick to enter the bloodstream, refined sugar rapidly changes glucose levels and accelerates adrenaline production.

At its core, adrenaline is a hormone generated by stress and functions to provide a short-term energy boost to help cope with distressing situations.

Consequently, the adrenaline charge can cause not only excitement but also tremor, anxiety, and concentration problems in children. 

When a child consumes sugar, their energy and hyperactivity levels increase. They soon drop as blood sugar levels lower due to insulin regulation.

This is when they demand more sweet foods but lack the appetite for regular meals, creating a vicious cycle of sugar overconsumption and excitable behavior.

From a TCM lens, attention problems occur due to a weak constitution combined with acquired environmental and dietary factors.

According to TCM Physician Lim Sock Ling, “The primary causes of attention disorders in children are a weak body constitution and lack of Kidney essence. A child with Spleen Qi Deficiency or Liver Yang hyperactivity may also be at risk of attention disorders.”

Weakened digestive system

Refined sugar may cause a weak Spleen, which may impact your child’s ability to absorb nutrients to grow properly.

In TCM, the health of the Spleen relates to the proper functioning of the stomach and digestive system. It’s also believed that the Spleen is where digestion, absorption, and distribution of nutrients and essence (Jing) originates.

You can give your child herbs and traditional ingredients to promote food digestion, reduce gut burden, boost Spleen and stomach function, and improve nutrient absorption and distribution.

These include hawthorn (Shan Zha), malt (Mai Ya), grain sprouts (Dao Ya), and chicken gizzard (Ji Nei Jin). You can also use herbs like astragalus (Huang Qi), Codonopsis (Dang Shen), Poria (Fu Ling), and hemp seeds (Huo Ma Ren) to promote healthy bowel movement and remove excess Spleen Dampness.

Childhood Obesity

Studies show that eating too much refined sugar may increase the risk of childhood obesity.

According to TCM, children can improve their physique and health through diet therapy or a Chinese medicine regimen. TCM Physician Tiang Sack Sing says that generally obese children have dysfunction of the Spleen-stomach digestive system, and most of them have Qi (vital energy) Deficiency and Phlegm-Dampness. 

According to one study, Panax Notoginseng contains anti-obesity properties that may help combat childhood obesity. You can buy Panax Notoginseng in capsule form and add them to your child’s water, low-sugar yogurt, or smoothie. However, it’s important to always remember to consult with a registered TCM physician before giving your child any supplements.

How to Reduce Refined Sugar Intake in Children 

There are things adults can do to prevent children from consuming too much refined sugar: 

Check ingredient labels

Pay more attention to the ingredient labels and determine how much refined sugar is added to your children’s foods.

Other names used for refined sugar include granulated sugar, table sugar, or white sugar. It may also appear as different names, such as: 

  1. Brown sugar
  2. Corn sweetener
  3. Corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup
  4. Fruit juice concentrates
  5. Honey
  6. Invert sugar
  7. Malt sugar
  8. Molasses
  9. Dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, and sucrose 

Moreover, adults must carefully check for any synthetic coloring. Ingredient labels list them using phrases such as tart yellow, sunset yellow, bright blue, and carmine.

Some food dyes are made from organic sources, so try choosing products that contain them.

Use healthier alternatives to refined sugar 

Instead of candies, give children fresh fruits that contain natural sugar. If you bake, cut the amount of sugar you use. Avoid yogurts or cereals with added sugar.

Use propolis or raw honey as a sweetener. One of the wide varieties of honey, propolis has been known to have anti-inflammatory, anti-infection, and anti-viral properties. 

In TCM, raw honey falls under the category of a laxative herb that drains downwards. It is rich in oils and can lubricate the intestines to help remove stool from the body.

Neutral in nature, raw honey does not affect the yinyang balance in the body. It’s also sweet tasting, slows down acute reactions, and detoxifies the body. It has a tonic effect on the human body because it can replenish qi and blood. In particular, raw honey targets the Stomach, the large Intestines, and the Lungs.

Other healthier foods that are sweet that you can give your child in place of candy are goji berries and red dates. You can also introduce your child to black sugar cubes. They have a lower glycemic index than refined sugar, meaning they do not spike blood glucose levels as rapidly.

Black sugar cubes are also a good source of potassium, iron, calcium, and other minerals that support metabolism. To use, all you have to do is dissolve in water and drink. You can have your child enjoy this instead of soda or other sugar-laden beverages, including Gatorade.

Start early 

Teaching your children to eat healthy from a young age can help them reduce their sugar intake into adulthood.

Children are naturally drawn to colorful sweets and beverages, so trying to prevent them from consuming these can be hard.

One way to do it is to start them early. Introduce young children to fruits and limit their sugar intake so they’ll get used to it.

Found in numerous foods and drinks, refined sugar and its health risks can creep up on you or your children without you knowing.

Adults need to set a good example by making conscious decisions to be healthier. Be more mindful of what you put in your and your children eat by reading the ingredient labels and choosing healthier alternatives to refined sugar.


  1. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 2022. The sweet danger of sugar [online]. Available at: <https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-sweet-danger-of-sugar>
  2. American Heart Association. 2021. The Sugary 6 Infographic [online]. Available at: <https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/sugary-six
  3. European Journal of Paediatric Dentistry. 2019. The effect of added sugars on children’s health outcomes: Obesity, Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome (OSAS), Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Chronic Diseases [online]. Available at: <https://www.ejpd.eu/pdf/EJPD_2019_20_2_9.pdf>
  4. BioMedCentral. 2022. Potential impacts of synthetic food dyes on activity and attention in children: a review of the human and animal evidence [online]. Available at: <https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12940-022-00849-9
  5. UC San Diego School of Medicine. 2021. Understanding Natural Versus Added Sugars. [online] Available at <https://chear.ucsd.edu/blog/understanding-natural-versus-added-sugars
  6. Annals of Pediatric Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2017. Insulin resistance and bone age advancement in girls with central precocious puberty.
  7. Frontiers in Pharmacology. 2021. Effect of Panax notoginseng Saponins and Major Anti-Obesity Components on Weight Loss.

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