The Not-So-Sweet Truth About Teens and Sugar

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Teenagers who eat too much sugar may be putting their hearts at risk. A new study found that teens who consume a lot of sugary foods and beverages are more likely to have an increased risk of heart disease later in life. The study, published in the journal Circulation, was led by Jean Welsh, MD, of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

"We were a little surprised at the findings," Welsh told "But it does make sense. If we're consuming higher amounts of sugar and more calories, then this puts us at increased risk for high triglycerides and higher levels of the bad cholesterol. And these can lead to heart disease." If you're thinking sugar's OK to eat as long as you steer clear of high fructose corn syrup, think again. "It doesn't seem as if there's any physiological difference between eating high fructose corn syrup versus sugar," Welsh says.

Her study examined the dietary preferences of 646 teenagers and found that they were eating a lot more sugar than what was recommended by the American Heart Association. Teens who need 2,200 calories a day should eat no more than 150 calories a day in added sugar, according to the AHA. Yet research from the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES) found that the typical teenager eats nearly 500 calories in added sugar daily.

The overall message? "It's about just being aware of the sugar in the foods we consume overall," Welsh says. "And being aware that sugar is pretty high in our diets, and there may be some long-term heart risks because of this."

But for worried parents, it can be hard to persuade teenagers to cut down on sugar. They're not constantly under their parent's watchful eyes. So how can you motivate your kid to reduce sugar intake?

If your kid loves sugar, don't avoid purchasing foods that have no nutritional benefits. Buy foods that have healthy ingredients in addition to the sugar, recommends Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., RD, professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont. Presweetened cereals that are high in whole grains or fiber, or sweetened yogurt are good examples. "Then it's not as if they're getting totally sugar with no other added nutrients," Johnson says.

Expose your kids to non-sweet foods often. "We know that exposure to these foods leads to a preference for these foods," Johnson says. "Kids will learn to eat and drink less sweet foods."

Encourage your kids to exercise. "The more they exercise, the better," says Santiago Valdes, MD, assistant professor in pediatric cardiology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.

Show your kids how much sugar is in their pastries, soda, cereals, and cookies. They may be shocked to find out just how much they're eating. "If you take a basic yogurt that has 28 grams of sugar and the kids know that just four grams represents a teaspoon of sugar, they are usually shocked," says Ileana Vargas, MD, of NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia Medical Center in New York City.

Talk to your teens about soda consumption, Vargas says. Explain that if they just drink one 150-calorie can of soda a day, they can increase their weight by about 15 pounds a year. (You multiply the 150 calories by 365 days and then divide by 3,500, which is the number of calories it takes to burn a pound.) And obesity is a risk factor for heart disease.

Set a good example. "Kids get used to eating a certain way from their parents, and if they see you eating a lot of cookies and cake, they will want to do the same," Vargas says.

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Welsh, Jean A., Sharma, Andrea, Cunningham, Solveig A., Vos, Miriam B. "Consumption of added sugars and indicators of cardiovascular disease risk among US adolescents." 10 January 2011. Circulation.

Sabharwal, Neharika. "Teens with high sugar diet up their risk of heart disease - study." 12 January 2011.