By: Nimali Fernando, MD, MPH, FAAP
"Can I have a treat?"
"How many more bites?"
The USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends children (and parents) limit added sugar to less than 10% of their daily calories. However, the average American diet is so high in sugar that children can easily exceed that limit many times over without realizing it. Taking in excess sugar can fuel cravings for even more sweet foods or drinks.
Parents can break the cycle of excess sugar by making some simple changes overtime.
Tips for Taming Your Child's Sweet Tooth in a World of Sugary Treats:
Take stock of sugar. In order to know how much added sugar is in food, it's important to be able to spot it on a label. Current food labels display total sugar—which includes natural sugars like those found in an apple—and may or may not include any added sugars used to enhance flavor. On average, Americans get about 13% of their total calories from added sugars, with the major sources being sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks and sweets. By July 2018, however, food labels must display "Includes X g Added Sugars" under "Total Sugars." This change makes it easier for parents to understand how much sugar has been added to a product. See Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label: What Parents Need to Know for more information and a side-by-side comparison of the original and new labels. It also helps to know the conversion of sugar from grams to teaspoons (i.e., 4 grams = 1 teaspoon). In a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, for example, 10% would be equal to about 50 grams of sugar (or 10 teaspoons).
Spot "sneaky" sugar. Many foods that are marketed as "health foods" can actually have a lot of added sugar. Always check the labels on sports drinks, smoothies, protein and granola bars, and yogurt; some can have as much as 4 to 5 teaspoons of added sugar per serving. Whole fruit makes a great substitute for these items and counts as dessert, too. If your kids balk at first (and they will), melt some dark chocolate and let your kids dip—and what kid doesn't love to dip! Dark chocolate actually contains 70% cocoa and has less than half the sugar of milk chocolate.
Keep beverages simple. Stick with milk (including non-dairy milk) and water as your child's main beverages. While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does suggest 100% fruit juice can be an acceptable part of a healthy diet, be aware that it's wise to offer it in age-appropriate moderation (none routinely under 12 months of age and no more than 4 oz. per day for 1 to 3 year old children or 4 to 6 oz. for 4 to 6 year old children). In reality, it can be challenging to limit once kids get used to the sweetness. An alternative to juice would be to place sliced fruit into water to give it some flavor without the excess sugar. Also avoid letting your child sip on juice (or any other sugar-containing liquid, for that matter) for long periods. Whether by bottle, sippy cup, box, or cup, bathing one's teeth in sugary liquids can cause serious tooth decay.
Avoid rewards with sugar. Whether it's at home, in the classroom, or on the sports field, far too often kids are rewarded for good behavior with sugary treats. In the quest to coax kids to eat better, parents may reward "one more bite of peas" with a sweet treat. While these kind of rewards may work in the short term, it becomes a problem when children learn to expect a reward for appropriate behavior. A few sweets may turn into expectations for larger rewards like cell phones and designer clothes as children turn into teens. Consider yourself warned!
Change the culture. Far too often we celebrate holidays, birthdays, and other special occasions with sweets—making it challenging to curtail our kids' (and our own) cravings. However, kids value other "treats" just as much as sugary ones. With some creativity many of the sugary celebrations can be reinvented with new, healthier traditions. Talk to the teachers at your child's school, their coaches, scoutmasters, and other parents to come up with ways to celebrate with more fun and less sugar. If your child's sports team provides sweet treats after games, for example, suggest to the coaches that whole fruit may be a healthier alternative. In addition, plain water is the best drink for most children engaging in routine physical activity; the AAP clinical report on the subject says kids should not consume energy drinks and rarely need sports drinks.
Find balance. Although we would like our kids to stay away from sugary treats as much as possible, we also want them to learn how to balance all the available choices when they are able to make food decisions for themselves. Keeping sugary treats under lock and key—or banning them all together—may also fuel an unhealthy craving for sugar. Show your children that an occasional dessert or sweet treat can be part of a balanced diet; model that behavior yourself! Sweets and snacks in appropriate portions are OK in moderation.
By being educated about sugar intake and making the occasional sugary treat a part of your family's culture, you may find your children craving sugary treats and snacks less and enjoying them in a more mindful and balanced way for life.
Additional Information from HealthyChildren.org:
About Dr. Fernando:
Nimali Fernando, MD, MPH, FAAP is a practicing pediatrician and the founder of the Doctor Yum Project, a nonprofit organization that provides cooking instruction and nutrition education to families. She is also the co-author of "Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater" and owner of Yum Pediatrics, a general pediatrics practice in Spotsylvania, Virginia which features a teaching kitchen and garden and focuses on prevention of illness though nutrition education. Follow her on Twitter @Doctor_Yum.