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Published on November 04, 2015

The sticky truth about sugar: it’s not so sweetThe sticky truth about sugar: it’s not so sweet

Nine days.

That’s all it took to show dramatic improvement in the health of 43 overweight children, once sugar was removed from their diets, a new study shows.

Children suffering from metabolic diseases, like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease or type 2 diabetes, had dramatic improvements after just nine days when sugar was removed from their diets.

Robert Lustig, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist at Benioff Children’s Hospital of the University of California, San Francisco and his colleagues recruited the children, who were overweight and also suffered from at least one metabolic disease.

The results of the study were published last week online at the Wiley Online Library and will appear in the February 2016 issue of the journal Obesity. For nine days, the children’s diets were changed to remove food with added sugar. They exchanged sugary foods with other types of carbohydrates. For example, they traded yogurt for a bagel. The study was not intended to have the children lose weight or even eat healthier; it was purely to measure the effect of sugar on the body.

After nine days, the children’s diastolic blood pressure (the pressure when the heart is at rest between beats) decreased by five millimeters, the level of fat in their blood (triglycerides) decreased by 33 points and LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) dropped 10 points. Liver function improved and insulin levels were cut by one-third.

Those results are eye opening, though the findings are likely preliminary, said Sharon Daley, MD, of Seaside Pediatrics in South Yarmouth. She praised Dr. Lustig as a well-respected, nationally known pediatrician, but said more research is necessary.

“You cannot draw big conclusions from the study because the study was only nine days,” said Dr. Daley. “It’s an interesting study and it bears further investigation, but you cannot predict long-term health consequences.”

Still, Dr. Daley recommends the overall message of the study: Parents, limiting sugar in your children’s diet is a good idea.

“We talk about nutrition all the time with parents,” she said. “I think that if we wait until a child is overweight, it’s harder to change their habits.”

Dr. Daley says she is always talking to parents and children about food choices, even if the children are within the healthy weight range.

“I tell people to use common sense,” she said. “Eating less sugar and avoiding processed foods and food with lots of artificial ingredients is never a bad idea.”

She also recommends that children only drink water or milk with meals. She doesn’t recommend juice because it’s high in sugar, which adds extra calories and contributes to tooth decay.

“At the grocery store, the high sugar cereals and the high sugar foods are often stocked at a level that is right at children’s eye level,” Dr. Daley said. “The healthy cereals with zero to four grams of sugar are at the adult’s eye level. That’s a problem.

“Sugar is in so many foods that kids like. For example, yogurt has so much sugar, it’s basically candy. I recommend avoiding any of the high sugar foods.”

Dr. Daley does make exceptions for holidays like Halloween, though – with a caveat.

“Remember that Halloween is a holiday and not a season,” she said. “I recommend that the kids enjoy their candy for a couple of days and then I suggest to parents that they get the candy out of their house. If you spread it out, it does more damage to the teeth and ultimately more damage to the weight.”