A child takes a spoonful of a sundae
(ThornstenF/ Pixabay)

Eight out of 10 preschoolers eat too much sugar, especially in baked goods from muffins to cookies, according to University of Guelph researchers.

In the first study to focus on sugar consumption among Canadian preschoolers, the researchers found that 80 per cent of children eat more than the recommended amount every day.

That intake exceeds World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for how much energy should come from sugar each day and puts kids on a path toward higher risk of heart disease and obesity-related concerns later in life, said Anisha Mahajan, a PhD candidate in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences (HHNS) and the first author.

The paper was recently published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal Open. Co-authors included Drs. David Ma and Alison Duncan, professors in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences; Drs. Jess Haines and Andrea Buchholz, Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition; and Dr. Gerarda Darlington, Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

closeup portrait of young woman
Anisha Mahajan

Other co-authors were students Jessica Yu, Jaimie Hogan, Kira Jewell and Alex Carreiro, along with Angela Annis and Adam Sadowski, both staffers with U of G’s Guelph Family Health Study (GFHS).

The researchers looked at 109 children aged 1 ½ to five years (average age was 3 ½ years) whose families belong to the GFHS, co-led by Ma and Haines. That long-term study begun in 2014 and based at U of G is intended to help families and kids adopt healthy lifestyle patterns to maintain health into adult life.

Parents in the study completed daily food and drink records. The researchers analyzed sugar intake by looking at added sugar (sugars added to make sweetened beverages and sweets) and free sugar, a wider category that includes those added-sugar foods plus sugars in 100-per-cent fruit juices and concentrates.

Foods high in sugars ranged from bakery products, sugars and sweets, cereals and grain products to beverages.

The research team measured participants’ waist circumference, height and weight, allowing the researchers to calculate anthropometric measures (percentage fat mass and body mass index scores).

The WHO, Health Canada and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada recommend that kids get only five to 10 per cent of their daily energy needs from free sugar. The U of G study found eight out of 10 kids ate more free sugar each day than the five-per-cent limit, and one in three children ate more than the 10-per-cent recommendation.

“Eating patterns are established early in life, almost by about age six, so looking at free and added sugar intake is important,” said Mahajan, a registered dietitian. “We lack information on preschool children.”

Dr. David Ma

She contrasts those sugars, which break down more rapidly and can cause spikes in blood sugar levels, with natural sugars in fruits and vegetables that are absorbed more gradually. Fruits and vegetables also contain fibre, vitamins and minerals that are often lacking or lower in highly processed foods.

This study highlights that we should be aware of sugar intake starting from an early age, she said, as excess sugars and calories contribute over time to obesity and other chronic diseases later in life.

“The overarching goal of the Guelph Family Health Study is to bend the health-care curve and help prevent unhealthy habits that will lead to increased weight gain and other unhealthful behaviours – not just diet but physical activity, sleep and screen time.”

Ma said study limitations included the fact that most participants were Caucasian and had relatively high household income, meaning that the results may not readily apply to diverse ethnic or low socio-economic groups. Also, Canada does not require added and naturally occurring sugars to be included on food nutrition labels, making it difficult to differentiate free and added sugars in some products.

The researchers plan to share their results with policy makers and health-care professionals, and through the GFHS.

This study was funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and U of G’s Health for Life Initiative.


Dr. David Ma