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How to Tame Your Child's Sweet Tooth: Tips for Parents

By: Nimali Fernando, MD, MPH, FAAP

"Can I have a treat?"

"I want candy!"

Sound familiar?

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 kids can easily exceed that limit many times over without realizing it.

On average, Americans get about 13 percent of their total calories from added sugars. Meanwhile, children and young adults between ages 2 to 19 years consume an a whopping 17 teaspoons of added sugar each day, on average. And taking in excess sugar can fuel cravings for even more sweet foods or drinks.

Ready to break the cycle of excess sugar for your family?

You can start by by making some simple changes over time. Here are 6 tips to tame your child's sweet tooth in a world of sugary treats.

1. Take stock of sugar

To learn how much added sugar is in food, look at the label. Nutrition labels now make it easier to track how much added sugars are in packaged foods and beverages.

The nutrition label on foods display total sugars. This includes natural sugars, like those found in an apple, and added sugars. Added sugars include sucrose and dextrose (often added in food processing), and sweeteners that are packaged as stand-alone products like honey, table sugar and syrups. The label also breaks out how much added sugars a product contains, often in grams. (4 grams equals 1 teaspoon.) It also provides context with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines, which limit added sugars to no more than 50 grams in a 2,000 calorie daily diet.

So if a product contained 25 grams of sugar, it would list 50% on the label. Products are considered low in added sugars if the daily value is 5% or less, and high in added sugars if it is 20% or more.

2. Learn to spot "sneaky" sugar

Many foods 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 and can count for dessert, too. If your kids balk at first (and they will), melt some dark chocolate and let your kids dip—what kid doesn't love to dip! Dark chocolate actually contains 70% cocoa and has less than half the sugar of milk chocolate.

3. Keep beverages simple

Stick with milk and water as your child's main beverages. While 100% fruit juice can be an acceptable part of a healthy diet, offer it in age-appropriate moderation. That means no juice for children under 12 months of age, no more than 4 oz. per day for 1 to 3 year olds, and only 4 to 6 oz. for 4 to 6 year olds.

Know that it can be challenging to limit sweet beverages once kids get used them, though. Offer alternatives to juice by placing 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 the teeth in sugary liquids can cause serious tooth decay.

4. Avoid rewards with sugar

Whether it's at home, in the classroom or on the sports field, we too often reward 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 this kind of reward may work in the short term, it becomes a problem when children learn to expect it for appropriate behavior.

5. Change the culture

Holidays, birthdays and other special occasions also focus on sweets too often. This makes it hard to avoid them. 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 your child's teachers, 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 whole fruit as a healthier alternative. In addition, plain water is the best drink for most children engaging in routine physical activity. As the AAP clinical report on the subject explains, kids should not consume energy drinks and rarely need sports drinks.

6. Find balance

We may like our kids to stay away from sugary treats as much as possible. But we also want them to learn an important skill: 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.

More information

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 through nutrition education. Follow her on Instagram @doctoryumproject.

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2022)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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