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A slice of birthday cake, fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies, and ice cream on a hot summer day have always been quintessential moments of childhood, but it should come as no surprise that kids are consuming too much sugar.
Yet the sugar they’re getting isn’t only from obvious sources like desserts alone, but in places where parents are none the wiser.
In her book, “Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World,” Bettina Elias Siegel devotes an entire chapter to the problem of “treats,” with a schedule of a typical day in the life of a kid and how many times he eats sugar. Between the PTA fundraiser, classroom rewards, birthday parties, after-school sports, and running errands, kids can consume between 75 to 100 grams of sugar a day from treats alone.
According to Elias Siegel, “Children are ‘treated’ at every turn, and the resulting junk food glut not only undermines their diets, it also robs health-conscious parents of the chance to indulge their kids themselves. How can you offer homemade cookies after school when your child is already in sugar shock?”
WHY IS SUGAR BAD FOR KIDS ANYWAY?
Too much sugar is at the root of the long list of chronic diseases and health conditions we’re facing in the U.S. today.
Additionally, the coronavirus outbreak may be another wake-up call to the sugar epidemic in the U.S., since recent, preliminary research found obesity may be one of the most important predicators of severe cases of the virus.
Eating foods with a high-glycemic index like white bread, for example, can lead to cravings for more sugar.
“Sugary foods and refined carbohydrates cause a blood-sugar spike,” Ashley Gearhardt, a psychologist at the University of Michigan stated in this article. “And then three to four hours later, a blood-sugar crash. That cycle primes your brain and makes you want more of those foods.”
Foods with added sugars also contribute empty calories to your kid’s diet that can lead to weight gain and can displace nutrient-dense calories from real, whole foods.
Sugar may not make your kid hyper—I beg to differ—but eating sugar can make them feel sluggish and cranky.
Since studies show food preferences are established during infancy, feeding kids too many foods with added sugars could affect their eating habits now and throughout their lives.
WHAT ARE ADDED SUGARS?
What you may not realize is that it’s not only the obvious sources of sugar that are problematic, but the sneaky, added sugars, that are in everything from cereal to yogurt too.
Added sugars are any type of ingredient that sweetens foods and beverages—whether you can taste it or not.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, added sugars include syrups and other caloric sweeteners. These are ingredients like cane juice, dextrose and high-fructose corn syrup. You can read the full list of added sugars here.
There are also natural sugars like honey, agave and maple syrup that once they’re isolated and added to a food as a sweetener, are actually considered added sugars, Angela Lemond, RDN, told me in this article.
Luckily, the new Nutrition Facts labels, which will continue to be rolled out this year and into 2021, will have a line for added sugars both in grams and as percent Daily Value, making them easier to spot.
HOW MUCH SUGAR IS TOO MUCH?
The American Heart Association says kids under 2 shouldn’t have any added sugar in their diets while those between 2 and 18 should have no more than 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, of added sugar a day.
Of course, most kids in the U.S are consuming much more than that.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 16 percent of the total calories for children and teens come from added sugars.
Surprisingly, babies and toddlers consume too many added sugars as well.
According to a 2018 study, 99% of toddlers between 19- and 23-months-old consume an average of 7 teaspoons on any given day—more than what’s in a Snicker’s bar. What’s more, 60% of children were found to consume sugar before they turned 1.
HOW TO SLASH SUGAR FROM YOUR KID’S DIET
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. READ LABELS
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
Before you head out to the store or when you’re grocery shopping, make a habit of reading labels and comparing brands to ensure you’ll make the best choice.
2. AVOID FRUIT JUICE AND SUGARY DRINKS
Juice and sugary drinks including soda, sweetened ice teas, lemonade, sports and energy drinks, fruit punch, 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).
Juice in particular, is high in empty calories, sugar, and carbohydrates, and drinking it can lead to weight gain, cavities and diarrhea.
In September 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Heart Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry jointly issued new healthy kids’ drink guidelines for parents.
Healthy Drinks, Healthy Kids, are the first-ever consensus recommendations on what constitutes a healthy kids’ drink for kids ages 5 and under as well as the types of beverages parents should limit or avoid.
According to the recommendations:
All children ages 5 and under should avoid drinking:
- Chocolate milk and strawberry milk
- Toddler formulas such as toddler milks, growing up milks or follow-up formulas
- Plant-based/non-dairy milks (with some exceptions).
Beverages with caffeine, low-calorie sweetened beverages including those sweetened with stevia, sucralose or labeled “diet” or “light,” sugar-sweetened drinks including soda, fruit drinks, fruit-flavored drinks, fruit-ades, sports and energy drinks, sweetened waters, and sweetened coffee and tea drinks should also be off limits.
Infants from 0 to 6 months should only have breastmilk and/or infant formula.
Babies 6 to 12 months should continue to stick with breastmilk and/or infant formula. Once they start solids, parents should offer a small amount of water at mealtimes. Introducing a few sips of water can help them get used to the taste.
Additionally, the healthy kids’ drink recommendations state babies should avoid fruit juice—even 100% fruit juice—because whole fruit has much more nutrition.
Babies 12 to 24 months can be introduced to plain, pasteurized whole milk and plain water to stay hydrated. Although the recommendations say 100% fruit juice is OK, it should be limited. An even better choice? Fresh, canned or frozen fruit without any added sugars.
Children between 2 and 5 years old should stick with milk, ideally skim milk or low-fat (1%), and water. Again, small amounts of fruit juice are OK, but whole fruit is always better.
If your kids 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 it from their diets.
Or, serve water with slices of cucumber or strawberries for a hint of natural flavor and sweetness.
3. EAT REAL, WHOLE FOODS
One of the best ways to slash sugar from your kid’s diet and curb his preference for sugary foods is to serve real, whole foods at every meal and snack.
Focus on fruits and vegetables, and foods with protein, fiber, healthy fats, and whole grains.
Depending on their age, kids need just as many, or more, servings of vegetables than fruit.
4. INCLUDE HEALTHY FATS
Healthy fats like those found in foods like eggs, salmon, olives and avocado help kids feel satiated and can curb their sugar cravings.
Despite what we’ve been told for years, fat isn’t the villain it was made out to be.
While experts agree it’s the trans fats and some saturated fats that should be avoided, foods with healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats from whole foods are beneficial.
5. LIMIT DRIED FRUIT
Dried fruit can be a healthy, convenient, portable snack but it can also be a significant source of sugar in your kid’s diet.
While dried fruit has natural sugars, some manufacturers add sugar to certain types of dried fruit like tart cranberries so that they’ll taste sweet.
Fresh or frozen whole fruit has plenty of vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber and water which kids not only need to thrive, but promotes feelings of satiety, and it’s lower in sugar.
While dried fruit can be a part of a kid’s healthy diet, it’s better to serve it as an occasional treat or dessert instead.
6. LIMIT PROCESSED MEALS
Kid-friendly meals like frozen chicken nuggets, pizza, and boxed macaroni and cheese—even those that are organic, gluten-free or “made with real cheese”—may seem healthy but many have added sugars.
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.
7. MAKE HEALTHY 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.
8. WATCH OUT FOR HEALTHY JUNK FOOD
In recent years, there have been an influx of “healthy junk food” products on store shelves.
Think: granola bars made with vegetable extracts, ice cream made with Greek yogurt, and puffed snacks made with chickpeas. They certainly have better-for-you ingredients and less sugar than their traditional counterparts, but they still have added sugars.
Although these healthy junk foods can have a place in your kid’s diet, they should be the exception not the rule.
9. CURB SUGAR AT BREAKFAST
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but many of the foods kids eat for breakfast like cereal, muffins, pastries and sweet extras like jam or hazelnut spread are a significant source of sugar.
In fact, according to a 2017 survey by Public Health England, an executive health agency, children get half of their daily allowance of sugar at breakfast.
Also, breakfast at most schools is no better with options like fruit streudel, graham crackers, cinnamon crumble, chocolate milk and sugary muffins on the menu.
To limit sugar at breakfast, read labels and focus on whole foods that are also high in protein. Good options include eggs, plain Greek yogurt, or chia seed pudding.
10. FIND WAYS TO MAKE FOOD SWEET WITHOUT SUGAR
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.