Homemade cookies, your hometown ice cream shop and trick or treating on Halloween are what childhood memories are made of.
But let’s face it: kids can get sweets almost anywhere whether it’s the school cafeteria, on the sports field, in your local bank or in your own pantry.
What many parents don’t realize however, is that it’s not only the sugar that shows up in desserts or treats that are problematic, but also the sneaky sources that are in everything from cereal to yogurt.
Diets high in sugar are proven to lead to weight gain and obesity, type-2 diabetes, fatty liver disease and heart disease—all conditions that can follow kids throughout their lives.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend we limit sugar to no more than 10 percent of our total calories for the day.
For kids, that works out to be about 30 to 35 grams of added sugar for little ones who get between 1,200 and 1,400 calories a day, according to Jessica Cording, a registered dietitian-nutritionist in New York City.
Yet studies show most kids—even babies and toddlers—are getting much more than that.
The good news is that even cutting out small amounts of sugar can make a dramatic difference in your child’s health.
According to a February 2016 study in the journal Obesity, obese children who reduced the amount of sugar in their diets but didn’t change the amount of calories they consumed had improvements in their blood pressure, triglycerides, and LDL “bad” cholesterol after just 10 days. Researchers also saw significant improvements in their blood glucose and insulin levels.
So how do you slash sugar from your kid’s diet? Here are 10 ways.
1. Become an avid label reader
With more than 60 names, sugar is seriously sneaky and can hide in places you’d least expect it, such as:
- Instant oatmeal
- Barbecue sauce
- Salad dressings
- Granola, protein and cereal bars
- Canned fruit and fruit cups
When you’re grocery shopping, make a habit of reading labels and comparing brands to ensure you’ll make the best choice.
2. Forget juice
Although juice has historically been seen as a healthy food for kids, it’s anything but.
Juice is high in empty calories, sugar, and carbohydrates, and drinking it can lead to weight gain, cavities and diarrhea.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says if you’re going to give kids juice, limit it to between 4 and 8 ounces a day depending on their ages while infants under 1 should avoid it altogether.
Another option is to make homemade juices at home with 80 percent green leafy vegetables and 20 percent fruit, but still watch the portion sizes.
Although the sugars in homemade juice are natural, the calories and sugar can add up fast and they’re also processed in the body the same way as added sugars.
3. Cut sugary drinks too
Soda, sweetened ice teas, lemonade, sports and energy drinks, fruit punch, apple juice and chocolate milk make up a majority of the amount of sugar kids get in their diets.
In fact, between 2011 and 2014, 63 percent of kids consumed a sugar-sweetened beverage on any given day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Water is the best beverage to offer your kids but if they have a hard time giving up the sweet stuff, start by diluting their drinks or gradually replacing a few with water until you’ve completely eliminated them from their diets.
Or, serve water with slices of cucumber or strawberries for a hint of natural flavor and sweetness.
4. Serve kids real, whole foods
The more sugar your kids eat, the more they’ll crave.
What’s more, foods made with white, refined carbohydrates including flour, white breads and pastas, and white rice can spike your kid’s blood sugar and lead to sugar cravings.
To curb their preference for sweet foods, serve healthy, whole foods at every meal and snack.
Focus on protein and healthy fats, green leafy vegetables and fruits, including those with a low glycemic load like apples, pears and strawberries.
Depending on their ages, kids need just as many, or more, servings of vegetables than fruit.
5. Add healthy fats to your kid’s diet
Healthy fats found in foods like eggs, salmon, olives, avocado and coconut oil help kids feel satiated and curbs their sugar cravings.
Despite what we’ve been told for years, fat doesn’t lead to high cholesterol, heart disease, type-2 diabetes or obesity.
Need more proof? I recommend you read Food: What The Heck Should I Eat by Dr. Mark Hyman.
6. Ditch the dried fruit
Dried fruit can be a convenient, portable snack but they’re little sugar bombs kids don’t need.
Fresh or frozen whole fruit is always better and lower in sugar. Save the dried fruit for the occasional treat or dessert instead.
7. Purge the processed foods
Processed kids’ snacks, kid-friendly frozen meals and soups—even those that are organic, gluten-free or “made with real cheese”—may seem healthy but many have added sugar.
The only way to avoid these sneaky sources of sugar is to purge your pantry and replace your child’s meals with real, whole foods.
8. Make homemade treats
I don’t think kids should be deprived of desserts, but making your own homemade versions helps you to control the ingredients and the amount of sugar.
With upgraded ingredients like oats, applesauce, pumpkin, nuts and seeds and cacao nibs, you can make healthy, delicious treats for your kids.
And if you let your kids bake with you, even better. Cooking with your kids teaches them about healthy foods and how to prepare healthy meals.
9. Curb “natural” sugars that are actually added sugars
Agave, honey, and maple syrup might be natural, but once it’s separated and added to a food as a sweetener, it’s actually an added sugar.
Although I don’t see anything wrong with enjoying a drizzle of pure maple on pancakes, for example, keeping tabs on the overall amount of sugar in your kid’s diet will ensure he’s not going overboard.
Replace sugar with natural sources of sweetness
To slash sugar from your kid’s diet, choose whole foods that add flavor and sweetness.
Add fresh or frozen vegetables to plain, unsweetened Greek yogurt or apples, cinnamon and vanilla extract to oatmeal, for example.
Roasting fruits like apples or pears also brings out their natural sweetness and is a healthy and delicious dessert your kids will love.