Can Excessive Dietary Sugar Be Toxic to Your Children? (Pedcast)

Can dietary sugar be toxic to your children?  Not worried about your children’s liver health? Maybe you should be as I am about to explain in this week’s post.


Musical introduction

What is Foie Gras and how is it produced? Riddle me this; what do some American children have in common with the ducks of France? This is actually not such a crazy question as you are about to see.  You may have heard of a food called Foie Gras if you have been fortunate enough to travel to France. The French and many others are wild about this food that is made from duck liver–more precisely the liver from ducks that have been force fed corn for a number of months. It turns out that by doing this, the French farmers are able to turn the duck’s normal liver into what is known as a fatty liver or Foie Gras. The duck’s liver can swell to up to 10X the volume of a normal duck liver from these forced feedings. According to many, these fatty duck livers have a great taste to many gourmets and a texture similar to butter. A gastronomic delicacy. And why not, it is loaded with saturated fat from what is actually the duck’s sick liver. How do they get the ducks to overeat to this degree you ask, by force feeding with a tube. 

What Does All This Have to Do with American Children? This is all very interesting but what in the world does this have to do with American children or your children for that matter? Well, I’m glad you asked. It turns out, that just like the ducks of France, if a child’s liver is overwhelmed with food, it too starts to undergo fatty change and become sick. We have discussed this before on this podcast. I will put a link to those discussions in the show notes. Anyway, as a child increases their over nutrition like so many American children have in recent years, they can develop something called NASH which stands for Non-Alcoholic-Steato-Hepatitis or NASH for short. These children’s livers become loaded with too much fat, their liver cells start to show the appearance of sick cells, cells swollen with fat, and their liver enzymes in their blood (a sign of liver sickness) begin to rise. It’s ironic that my very first lab in medical school in a class called histology was to expose mice to chloroform (a known liver toxin) and then subsequently looked at liver cells microscopically. By doing so, my classmates and I were able to see the cellular changes that sick liver cells undergo, one of which was the accumulation a lots of fat in and around their liver cells.

Good News for Children with NASH The main reason I am telling you about all this is that in January of 2019, the results of a small study was published in JAMA where the investigators took 44 overweight children with NASH and asked the question, would reducing these children’s sugar intake improve their liver health? The answer was a resounding yes. And remember what food source most American children get their sugar from…corn, just like the ducks of France! Corn is loaded with sugar and experts have suspected that consuming foods high in sugar, especially of the high fructose corn syrup variety that is derived from corn syrup, has something to do with this newly seen liver disease. This study backs them up. And as you can see, reducing sugar intake to less than 3% of calories, like these investigators did for these study participants, improved these children’s liver health within just 8 weeks!

What is the Take Home Message for Parents? So, let’s get practical here. After all, this is called Portable Practical Pediatrics for a reason. Here is what I want you to remember about sugar intake and your children’s liver health:

  • Excessive sugar intake, especially in the form of fructose, has the potential of causing devastating damage and life changing consequences for your child’s liver.
  • Liver damage from obesity and high sugar intake may be reversible but not always. There have been cases of children developing NASH who have gone on to have full blown cirrhosis of the liver just like adult alcoholics. 
  • NASH is usually seen in association with obesity so if your child does not have an elevated BMI, chances are small that they have developed NASH.
  • Sugar can be a “hidden” ingredient in almost any processed food, from sports drinks, yogurts, to baby foods, to processed meats. You have to look for it and become a label reader if you are going to minimize your children’s exposure to them. Some code words for sugar to look for on food labels are starches, sugar, mono, di, and polysaccharides, fructose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, concentrated fruit juice, sucrose, maltose, dextrose etc.  Actually, I found an article that listed 56 different terms for sugar in processed food. Parents need to become savvy readers of labels to avoid much of the sugar out there. 
  • Severely limiting processed foods, especially breakfast cereals, sodas and other sweetened beverages, and just about any food marketed at children will protect your children from suffering from the devastating effects that sugars can have on your children’s short and long term health.


Well, that wraps up today’s installment of Portable Practical Pediatrics. If you think the information you get from Portable Practical Pediatrics is valuable, consider taking a moment to write a review on iTunes or our Facebook page. By doing so you will help other parents find our site. And by all means subscribe to our blog at Your mother always taught you that sharing was a good thing, right, so go ahead and share episodes with your friends and family. It will just prove to them that you are one of the smartest parents in the room… but you knew that. This is Dr. Paul Smolen, Doc Smo, hoping you don’t get the shivers thinking about your children’s livers. Until next time.