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Carbohydrates: What Parents Need To Know

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Carbohydrates: What Parents Need To Know








Carbohydrates are an essential nutrient for your child that provides energy for the brain, central nervous system, and muscle cells. Carbohydrates are found mainly in sugars, fruits, vegetables, cereals and grains. There are simple carbohydrates, such as sugars, and complex carbohydrates, such as breads and pastas, which the body breaks down into sugars. A child aged 16 would require around 2,000-calorie-per-day which would consist of approximately 300 grams of carbohydrates. An active 17 your old boy could consume 2,500-calorie-per-day which would consist of 375 grams of carbohydrates. A medium baked potato with skin has 51 grams of carbohydrates, an apple has about 21 grams, a tablespoon of sugar has 12 grams, and a slice of pie can contain 60 or more grams of carbohydrates (Zoumbaris and Bijlefeld, 2001). To find out how many calories your child should be eating per day download the free Smash! Fit for Kids application from

Carbohydrates are divided into three categories: monosaccharide’s or simple sugars, such as glucose and fructose; disaccharides—composed of two monosaccharides—such as maltose, sucrose, and lactose; and polysaccharides, which are starches and glycogen (Cavendish, 2004).

When reading the food label on a chocolate bar you will notice that total carbohydrates are broken down into two categories: fibre and sugar.

Dietary Fibre


Fiber helps the body digest food. Soluble fibre, combined with a low fat diet, may reduce levels of the bad cholesterol. The recommended dietary allowance for children eating fibre depends on age. A boy aged 4 should eat 18 grams of fibre where a girl aged 16 should eat 22 grams per day. Generally, grains, such as oat, wheat, and rice products, are good sources of fibre, as are some vegetables. But some foods that might seem as though they would be high in fibre, such as cereals, in fact have very little. High-sugar cereals often have just 1 gram of fibre; a high-fibre hot wheat cereal could have 5 grams; and a 100% bran cereal could have 8 grams or more. Some fruits, such as an apple (3.5 grams), a banana (2.4 grams), three prunes (3 grams), and a half grapefruit (3.1 grams) also have high fibre content (Zoumbaris and Bijlefeld, 2001).


Sugars in foods are the monosaccharides and disaccharides described above. In some foods, carbohydrate makeup is almost entirely sugar. For example, a tablespoon of fruit preserves, sweetened only with fruit juices, has 9 of its 10 grams of carbohydrates in sugar. Breads and pastas, on the other hand, have high polysaccharide contents. One pita bread, for example, has 2 grams of sugar out of its 24 grams of total carbohydrates. Looking at the nutrition facts label becomes especially important when you want your child to cut down on the simple sugars they are eating. Take breakfast cereals, for example. Let’s look at two boxes of General Mills cereal designed to appeal to children. One is Kix; the other, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios. Both have 120 calories per serving and similar carbohydrate totals. But of the 25 carbohydrate grams in Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, 13 are sugar and 11 are “other” and there’s 1 gram of dietary fiber. Of the 26 carbohydrate grams in Kix, only 3 are sugar and 22 are “other.” There’s also one gram of dietary fibre (Mann, 2003).



Is Sugar Bad for Your Child?

The answer is it depends. By itself, one bowl of sweetened cereal isn’t bad for your child. But remember that sugars are at the top of the food pyramid. They are to be eaten sparingly and should not constitute the bulk of your daily diet. That’s true for several reasons. First of all, consider your child’s smile. Foods containing sugars and starches can promote tooth decay, especially if they stay in contact with your teeth for a long time. When your child eats or drinks sugary foods, try and encourage them to brush their teeth afterward. If they can’t brush, their teeth at least encourage them to rinse their mouth. That’s also recommended after eating dried fruit (Mann, 2003).

Sugar is also at the top of the pyramid because it’s high in calories and low in nutritional content. Taking in more calories without adding more physical activity will cause your child to gain weight. If your child fills up on sugary foods, they will be less likely to eat a more balanced diet. For example, if your child eats a candy bar a half hour before dinner then they will probably eat less dinner—which should have much more essential nutrients than the candy bar did (Cavendish, 2004).

Intake of a lot of foods high in added sugars, like soft drinks, is of concern. If your child consumes excess calories from these foods, they may contribute to weight gain or lower consumption of more nutritious foods (Zoumaris and Bijlefeld, 2001).

All carbohydrates eventually break down into sugars in the body. The difference is that complex carbohydrates do so more gradually, providing energy over a longer period of time. Complex carbohydrates also contain other nutrients not contained in simple sugars. That’s particularly true of “empty” calories, such as soft drinks and candy (Zoumaris and Bijlefeld, 2001).


Zoumbaris, S.K. and Bijlefeld, M. (2001) Food and You: A Guide to Healthy Habits for Teens: Westport, CT.

Cavendish, M. (2004) Encyclopedia of Life Sciences: Vol 3. Ed 2: Marshall Cavendish Publishing: Tarrytown, NY.

Mann, J. (2003) Sugar Revisited-Again. Bulletin of the World Health Organization. Volume: 81. Issue: 8. August 2003.

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