Just about every kid loves a chocolate chip cookie, delicious ice cream or a candy bar.
But eating too much sugar on a regular basis can put our children at risk for obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes. Childhood obesity is a growing epidemic in the United States, and too much sugar consumption is one of the culprits. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity is about 20% among those ages 2-19, affecting roughly 14.4 million kids. Even among our youngest children, ages 2-5, obesity prevalence tops 13%.
Unfortunately, we know that many children who have obesity as youngsters are likely to carry the extra weight into adulthood. We’re even seeing chronic health conditions typically associated with adults manifest in overweight children as well.
When I talk to families about childhood nutrition, I emphasize balance. We must be realistic: We know kids are going to be exposed to and eat sweets. But I encourage families to work with their children on enjoying sweets in moderation. Most sugar in a child’s diet should come from natural sources – such as fruits – rather than from processed foods like candy and doughnuts. During this National Nutrition Month, I encourage parents to take a look at what their children are eating and to make some minor adjustments. Even small tweaks can go a long way in keeping children healthy and establishing a healthier relationship with sweets throughout their lifetime.
So when your child is clamoring for a cookie, what should you do? What should you keep in mind?
1. Know how much added sugar is appropriate, and how much is too much.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, infants and young children really have no room in their diets for added sugars. As children get older, sugar should be limited to 10 percent of calories. That means the maximum amount of added sugar a child should consume in a day is 24-25 grams, which is equivalent to 6 teaspoons. Check food labels: labels indicate the number of grams of added sugar in a serving size.
2. Understand natural sugar versus added sugar – and focus on the natural sugar.
Sugar occurs naturally and is the primary source of quick, accessible energy, or fuel, for our bodies. Naturally occurring sugars are found in fruit, vegetables and milk. One way to think about it is this: if the food came directly from the earth to your plate with minimal processing, it’s probably a healthy choice. Added sugar, meanwhile, is added to foods during the manufacturing process and is found in most packaged foods. These added sugars don’t help the body the way foods with natural sugars do.
3. Learn where sugar is lurking.
Of course, we know there is plenty of sugar in candy bars and cookies, but there’s also sugar “hiding” in many yogurts, breads, breakfast cereals – even the ones that you may have considered healthy because they are labeled “whole grain” – and condiments, such as ketchup, salad dressings and teriyaki sauce. Many salty foods also have a lot of added sugars. When you look at ingredient lists, keep an eye out for words that end in -ose, such as fructose and sucrose. These are sugars.
4. Focus on limiting sugary snacks.
I often tell families that rather than saying “no dessert,” instead avoid sugary snacks between meals. Sugary snacks aren’t sustaining and don’t provide the energy children need for growth and energy. Stick to snacks with fruits, protein and healthy fats. Good choices are apple slices, grapes, clementines, bananas, cut vegetables, nut or seed butters and low-fat cheese. It can help to have these foods prepped in advance and stored at the front of the fridge or countertop for easy access.
5. Don’t use sweets as a bribe or reward.
We don’t want to put sweets up on a pedestal. Giving sugary foods as a reward may lead to children overeating or becoming overly focused on these foods. Using sweets as a bribe or reward also teaches children that other foods are “bad,” while sweets are “good.” Instead, teach moderation and use non-food rewards for your children.
6. Set boundaries.
Remember, as parents, we need to set limits for our children. Maybe you decide your child can have dessert after a meal three times a week. Or you decide a small dessert is okay once a day, and you let your child decide whether to enjoy the sweet after lunch or after dinner. Or you decide that today just isn’t a dessert day and you gently say cookies aren’t on the menu tonight. Set boundaries and stick with them.
7. Be mindful of beverages.
The best beverage options for children are water and regular milk. Juices and sodas contain a lot of added sugar, as do sweet teas and sports drinks. If you can make just one change, limit sugary beverages for your children, or eliminate them all together. (Infants under age 1 should have no fruit juice at all.)
There is no nutritional need for juice or soda. As the USDA guidelines state: “These beverages displace nutrient-dense beverages and foods in the diet of young children. Infants and toddlers do not have room in their diets for the additional calories from added sugars found in these beverages. In addition, sugar-sweetened beverage intake in infancy and early childhood may predispose children to consume more of these beverages later in life.”
Whole fruits are full of nutrients and fiber and are a better option than juices. Also be careful with flavored milks.
8. Think about creative substitutions.
Instead of purchasing sweetened yogurt, try to buy plain yogurt and add just a little bit of honey at home. Opt for cereals with little added sugar. Try unsweetened applesauce in recipes in place of sugar. Top cereal with fruit instead of sugar. Frozen fruit is a great option to keep fruit accessible around the year. Enjoy nuts (as age appropriate and considering any allergies) rather than salty chips, where sugar may be hiding.
By making some minor changes, you can help your children develop healthy eating habits that prepare them to make good, nutritious choices as teens and adults. Also, remember the impact you have as a role model, and work to limit the amount of sugar in your own diet. Your health – and the health of your children – will benefit!