Jul 20, 2018, 11:26:20 AM CDT Oct 10, 2023, 5:09:15 PM CDT

Sugar and kids: How much is too much?

A dietitian shares five ways to kick your family's sugar habit

Mother holding an orange in one hand and a donut in the other, child's hand reaches to pick the orange Mother holding an orange in one hand and a donut in the other, child's hand reaches to pick the orange

There's no denying it: Kids love just about anything served up sweet. Most parents realize too much sugar is a bad thing, but it's often hard to know how much is too much – or even how much sugar is in some of kids' favorite foods, snacks and beverages.

"Many of the foods we eat have hidden sugar, including things that seem to be nutritious – yogurt, pasta sauce, cereal, juice, even peanut butter," says Otoniel Santiago, clinical dietitian with the Get Up & Go program at Children's Health℠.

The result? Kids are consuming too much sugar – and their health is at risk.

"Children should only have about 3-6 teaspoons of sugar each day, which is 12-24 grams," explains Santiago. "Today, children are consuming as much as 16 teaspoons of sugar every day. This excess sugar can lead to obesity and serious health conditions."

Why is sugar a health concern?

When children (and adults) eat sugar, it creates a physical reaction in the body: The brain releases dopamine, a feel-good chemical that can improve mood in the short term, and the body produces insulin to regulate blood sugar levels. However, too much sugar can create insulin-resistance, which often leads to diabetes.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is another cause for concern among pediatricians. This serious disease is on the rise and is linked to the number of children diagnosed with obesity. The condition occurs when too much fat is stored in the liver. Long-term, it can lead to scarring and swelling of the liver, cirrhosis and even liver failure or loss of liver function.

"Monitoring children's sugar levels isn't about being the bad guy or policing everything they eat," Santiago explains. "It's really about helping them make healthy decisions that last a lifetime."

Are artificial sweeteners better than sugar?

In an effort to reduce sugar and calorie intake, families may opt for foods containing nonnutritive sweeteners, also referred to as artificial sweeteners. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the prevalence of these no-calorie sweeteners has increased over time, which means more and more children and adolescents are consuming them. However, the AAP cautions that research is limited when it comes to how these sugar substitutes affect long-term health of children.

While these sugar substitutes are calorie-free, they do not offer any nutritional value to a child's diet. Research is limited, but artificial sweeteners may also have metabolic effects. Artificial sweeteners trigger the cephalic phase of hormones like insulin, which is triggered by the sight of smell, taste of food and chewing. This may lead to overeating due to a false signal of carbohydrates (sugar) entering the body without sugar being present. "It's like someone knocking on your door and then hiding in the bushes after you open the door," explains Santiago.

The bottom line when it comes to artificial sweeteners versus sugar? Santiago says it's best to take steps to avoid them both – and rather focus on consuming healthy, unprocessed foods that offer nutritional benefits.

5 tips for reducing your family's sugar intake

"As a parent of five children, I can relate to the sugar challenge," Santiago says. "But, if you start slowly and involve your children, you can build healthy habits."

Santiago shares five tips for encouraging children to eat healthy and consume less sugar:

1. Read the food label

"The best thing a parent can do to make sure their child is eating healthy is to read the food label," says Santiago. "Check the label which shows how much sugar is in each serving – and double-check what exactly a serving is."

He encourages parents to watch out for claims on packaging. "Just because a food is labeled low-fat or healthy doesn't mean it's low in sugar," Santiago shares. "Manufacturers often replace fat with sugar, so a low-fat food may actually be high in sugar. The same is true with sugar-free foods. They have sugar alternatives which can be just as unhealthy."

The ingredients list is another good way to gauge how much sugar is in a product. Manufacturers are required to list ingredients in order by how much is used. For example, a cereal with whole grains may sound like a good choice, but if the second or third ingredient is sugar, it's best to put the product back on the shelf.

"Children should avoid food that lists sugar as the first, second or third ingredient," Santiago says. "Choose food and snacks with five grams or less of sugar per serving to help cut down on sugar intake throughout the day."

Santiago recommends learning the different names of sugar, as there are more than 60 different names that might be listed. These include corn syrup solids, sucrose, pure cane sugar and agave.

2. Remember 5-2-1-0

Santiago encourages parents to use the 5-2-1-0 method as a general guide for day-to-day health. This means:

  • 5 fruits and vegetables (or more!) each day
  • 2 hours or less of screen time
  • 1 hour of physical activity
  • 0 sugary drinks, including fruit juice, sports drinks or soda

"One soda can have as much as nine grams of sugar," Santiago explains. "Cutting soda and other sugary drinks out of child's diet can be one of the most effective ways to reduce sugar."

Serving more fruits and vegetables throughout the day is another great way to curb sugary snacking. Fruits and vegetables are more filling and will help kids stay full longer – helping cut down on not only the sugar they eat, but how many calories they consume.

3. Start the day off right

Breakfast foods such as sugary cereals or pancakes loaded with syrup can start a vicious cycle that lasts throughout the day. A child's blood sugar will spike shortly after breakfast, but quickly crash by mid-morning – often right in the middle of the school day.

Instead of reaching for high-sugar foods, Santiago recommends parents offer a healthy breakfast high in protein. Try eggs, cheese roll-ups or even turkey sausage to give your child energy that lasts until lunchtime. And if your child still wants to satisfy their sweet tooth in the morning, serve fruit with breakfast.

"Fruit has a lot of sugar, but it's not the type to be concerned about," Santiago says. "The fiber in the fruit helps carry the sugar through the body more quickly, reducing the blood sugar spike."

4. Involve kids in meal planning and preparing

"When children help plan and prepare meals and snacks they are more likely to at least try the food," says Santiago. "Even if they only take one bite, that's still a victory."

Other ways to get children excited about eating healthy include:

  • Let them play with their food. Touching and smelling foods may encourage them to take a small taste.
  • If at first you don't succeed, try, try (and try) again. Experts say that it can take 15-20 times before a child is willing to try a new food.
  • Take kids to the store with you. Let children pick out a few healthy fruits, vegetables and snacks to try during the week. They will feel a sense of pride and be more willing to try new things when they get to choose what goes on their plate.

5. To succeed, take small steps

Break bad habits and establish healthier eating habits by starting small, Santiago recommends. "Pick one item and work from there. If you want to cut soda out of your child's diet, offer sparkling water or fruit-infused water instead of drinks high in sugar. Then, once you've accomplished that goal, move to the next one. It's easy to get overwhelmed when you're trying to change several habits all at once."

Santiago reminds parents that they are role models in the house. By making healthy choices and talking about the importance of those decisions, parents are setting their child up for success. 

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