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 way too much of the sweet stuff. Yet the sugar they’re getting isn’t only from obvious sources, but from processed foods, restaurant meals, and seemingly healthy foods like yogurt and cereal that have added sugars. The good news is that there are so many easy ways to slash sugar from your kid’s diet and still let them enjoy the sweets that childhood is made of.
In this post, you’ll learn:
- What are added sugars?
- Why sugar is bad for kids and how much sugar is too much.
- How to slash sugar from your kid’s diet.
75-100 GRAMS OF SNEAKY, ADDED SUGARS A DAY
You might think your kids are only eating sugar when they’re eating candy, cookies, and desserts, but kids are actually consuming sugar multiple times throughout the day, and in places you wouldn’t expect.
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.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people of any age who have obesity are at an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and the condition may triple the risk of hospitalization due to the virus.
Eating foods with a high-glycemic index like white bread, for example, can also 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 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 as well.
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 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 November 2019 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, between 2011 to 2016, 84.4% of infants and toddlers consumed added sugars on a given day.
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 can you reduce the amount of sugar in your kid’s diet? Here are 23 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. EAT REAL, WHOLE FOODS TO SLASH SUGAR FROM YOUR KID’S DIET
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.
3. INCLUDE HEALTHY FATS
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.
4. 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).
The good news is that the percentage of children who consume large amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages—500 calories or more a day—have significantly declined from 10.9% to 3.3%, a September 2020 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found.
Nevertheless, kids are consuming too much sugar from beverages which prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Heart Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry to jointly issue new healthy kids’ drink guidelines for parents in 2019.
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.
5. LIMIT DRIED FRUIT TOO TO SLASH SUGAR FROM YOUR KID’S DIET
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. CUT DOWN ON PROCESSED FOODS
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.
And if you let your kids bake with you, even better.
Cooking with your kids or taking a cooking class together teaches them about healthy foods and how to prepare healthy meals.
Also, you can usually cut back on the amount of sugar a recipe calls for without it affecting the sweetness.
8. WATCH OUT FOR HEALTHY JUNK FOOD
In recent years, there has 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. TO SLASH SUGAR FROM YOUR KID’S DIET, LOOK AT BREAKFAST FOODS
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 strudel, graham crackers, crumble cake, 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.
11. ESTABLISH TIMES FOR SWEETS
Raising healthy eaters is all about teaching balance so there’s nothing wrong with serving up sweets but setting limits is one of the best ways to reduce sugar in your kid’s diet.
When you allow your kids to eat sweets and other sugary foods depends on what you think is reasonable for your family.
For example, you may decide that dessert every night with or after dinner is OK, or that treats are only allowed on the weekends.
12. SLASH SUGAR FROM YOUR KID’S DIET AT LUNCH
In August, the USDA announced they would continue to serve free meals to children through December 31, 2020, to ensure they have access to food as the U.S. continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is vital for the growing amount of families affected by food insecurity.
Yet now, and in pre-pandemic times, school lunch and breakfast menus are filled with high sugar foods like chocolate milk, baked goods, cookies, and high-sugar cereals.
If you don’t rely on school meals to feed your children and you’re looking for ways to slash sugar from your kid’s diet, you may consider limiting or avoiding the meals altogether.
13. PAY ATTENTION TO PORTION SIZES
Whether you’re serving up store-bought treats or making homemade versions, be mindful of how much your kid is eating.
Something that you may not realize is that the serving size on the Nutrition Facts label isn’t the recommended serving size, but is based on the amount of food people typically consume.
Also, many foods—like a package of M&Ms—seem like they’re a single serving but in reality, they have 3 or more servings.
At home, you can keep portion sizes in check by making mini muffins and bite-sized bars and cookies, for example.
14. CURB WEEKEND EATING TO SLASH SUGAR FROM YOUR KID’S DIET
If you tend to eat out more and let your kids have free rein of the pantry on the weekends, they could be consuming more sugar than you realize.
Getting curbside takeout because you’re too tired to cook or enjoying cake at a friend’s birthday party is no big deal, but do your best to make sure your kids are also eating real, whole foods most of the time so you’re kids aren’t overdoing it on the sugar.
15. CHOOSE KIDS’ YOGURTS WITH LESS SUGAR
Yogurt is an excellent source of protein, and it has calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamin B12 as well as probiotics, the healthy bacteria that boost kids’ gut health and immune system.
Yet many kids’ yogurts brands are some of the worst offenders when it comes to sugar so read labels carefully and compare brands.
Another great option is to serve plain, Greek yogurt (which has more protein than regular) and add fresh fruit like raspberries or blueberries for fiber and a hint of sweetness.
Related: 7 Best Kids’ Yogurt Brands
16. OPT FOR HEALTHY KIDS’ SNACK BARS
Like yogurt, many kids’ snack bars are sugar bombs so be sure to read labels and compare brands and the different varieties for each brand.
17. DON’T USE SWEETS AS A REWARD
You might be tempted to offer your kids a piece of candy for a good grade, good behavior, or after a winning game, but using food as a reward teaches kids that food has power.
It’s also likely one of the reasons many adults treat themselves to a piece of cake after a long, stressful day.
Of course, using food as a reward can also undermine your efforts to slash sugar from your kid’s diet.
Instead of giving your kid a sugary treat for a job well done, look for non-food rewards, or simply a high-five or a hug.
18. SLASH SUGAR FROM YOUR KID’S DIET ON THE HOLIDAYS
Between Halloween and New Year’s, there are so many opportunities for kids to fill up on sugar.
There’s nothing wrong with indulging in grandma’s famous cheesecake or baking holiday cookies together, but if you want to reduce the amount of sugar your kids are eating, try to find opportunities to make healthier choices.
For example, on Halloween, you may decide that your child can keep 10 pieces of candy and the rest will be donated. Related: 6 Ways to Get Rid of Leftover Halloween Candy
Or, when you bake cookies, you can look for healthy ingredient swaps.
19. UPGRADE YOUR ICE CREAM
There’s nothing better during the summer months than to cool off with a cup or cone of ice cream but depending on what and how much you order, your kids could be getting a ton of sugar.
Instead, order smaller portion sizes, swap out your regular toppings for fresh fruit or avoid toppings altogether, or make your own ice cream in the Vitamix.
Related: 5 Ways To Make Ice Cream Healthy
20. SLASH SUGAR FROM YOUR KID’S DIET BY PURGING YOUR PANTRY
The old adage, out of sight out of mind, couldn’t be more true or helpful when it comes to cutting down on the amount of sugar in your kid’s diet.
If your pantry is filled with candy, cookies, and processed foods, that’s the first thing your kids will reach for at snack time.
Instead, consume what you have on hand, or donate unopened food to your local food pantry. And the next time you go grocery shopping, just don’t buy it.
21. SERVE HEALTHY CEREALS WITH LESS SUGAR
Walking down the cereal aisle at the grocery store can make your head spin.
There are cereals that claim “a good source of fiber,” “gluten-free,” and “made with real fruit,” and although they seem like good choices, they can be high in sugar just like those with bright, artificial colors, marshmallows, and chocolate-flavored puffs.
According to a May 2014 study by the Environmental Working Group, 92 percent of cereals contain added sugars, even those that are considered “adult cereals” or “family cereals.”
Like other foods, read labels, and compare brands. Related: 7 Best Breakfast Cereals for Kids
22. MAKE HEALTHY SNACKS EASY TO REACH
If you have the foods you prefer your kids to eat front and center and they’re easy to access, they’ll be more likely to make healthy choices.
23. MODEL HEALTHY HABITS
One of the best ways to raise healthy eaters and slash sugar from your kid’s diet is to model the healthy habits you want for your kids.
For example, eat mostly real, whole foods, share family meals, and cook with your kids.