Is there too much sugar in your child's diet?
You already know foods like candy, cookies, and ice cream are high in sugar and should be limited in your child's diet. But did you know added sugars are often hidden in foods that seem healthy and 50% of most kids' sugar intake comes from beverages? Consuming too much sugar can lead to many health problems, so being aware of the ingredients in the foods you serve is one way to improve your family's eating habits and their health.
How much sugar is too much?
Before you can determine whether your child consumes too much sugar, you need to know exactly what "too much" means. According to the American Heart Association, children between the ages of 2 and 18 should have fewer than six teaspoons, or 25 grams, of added sugar every day. Sugary drinks, such as fruit-flavored drinks and sodas, should be limited to only eight ounces per week. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines for Americans states sugar should make up less than 10% of calories, starting at age 2. However, on average, calories from sugar form 17% of kids' diets.
All sugar is not created equal. It matters whether the food your child consumes contains natural sugar or added sugar. Added sugar is refined or processed sugar manufacturers add to food to enhance taste or lengthen shelf life. Sugar added to food at home, such as table sugar or honey added to cereal, drinks, or toast, also counts.
On the other hand, all foods that contain carbohydrates, including fruits and vegetables, dairy, and whole grains, have natural sugar. Because the body processes natural sugars more slowly, giving cells a steady energy boost, it's OK for your child to eat more of these types of foods.
What does excess sugar do to the body?
The body needs a certain amount of sugar to get the energy it needs to function. However, you get all you need from natural sugar sources, which means any type of added sugar is unnecessary.
Because the body processes refined sugar much faster than natural forms, added sugar can lead to quick spikes in blood sugar followed by a crash. When this happens, children can experience a sudden decrease in energy, along with fatigue, irritability, and other negative symptoms. Studies have found added sugar in beverages can be harmful because these calories don't satisfy hunger and can even affect the body's appetite control, contributing to obesity.
When children consume high amounts of added sugar, they increase their risk for many health conditions, including:
- Type 2 diabetes
- High cholesterol
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
Recent studies have found about 13% of children have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition in which fat collects in the liver. More than 37% of these children have an advanced form called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). Developing these and other conditions caused by too much sugar can lead to cardiovascular problems later in life.
How to cut back on sugar
How can you reduce the amount of added sugar in your child's diet? Start by checking the Nutrition Facts labels on prepared foods and being aware of the number of added sugars in the foods and drinks your child normally consumes. Food labels are now required to list added sugars separately, in addition to total sugars. You should also scan ingredient labels for these other names for added sugars:
- Brown sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Fruit juice concentrates
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Malt sugar
- Raw sugar
Be sure to check the labels of foods you might not think about when it comes to added sugars, such as ketchup, yogurt, soup, bread, cured meats, salad dressings, and peanut butter.
Other strategies for curbing sugar include:
- Limit how often your child has dessert after meals.
- Cut back on packaged and processed foods, which often contain high amounts of added sugar.
- Give your child fresh fruit to satisfy cravings for sweets.
- Take a healthy cooking class.
- Have your child help you plan healthy meals and snacks, which can help get them excited about trying new things.
Healthy food swaps
Looking for ways to swap sugary foods and drinks with healthier choices? Here are a few ideas:
- Buy unsweetened Greek yogurt instead of flavored low-fat yogurt and add berries, seeds, or cinnamon.
- Instead of soda and fruit juices, serve water with fresh fruits such as frozen berries or slices of lemon, lime, or orange.
- Look for lower-sugar versions of sauces and yogurts.
- Make your own simple spaghetti sauce and salad dressing, as those in grocery stores often contain high amounts of added sugar.
- Skip snack bars that can contain plenty of hidden sugar and serve veggies and fruits as after-school snacks.
- Serve low-sugar, whole-grain cereals instead of sugary versions marketed to kids. If your child resists, try mixing chocolatey rice cereal with plain cereal to cut the sugar in half.
- Swap popsicles for frozen grapes.
- Try giving your child canned fruit (in juice, not syrup) instead of pudding cups.
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