Sugar is sneaky. There are plenty of foods out there that we think of as healthy that have added sugar. Unfortunately we don’t know exactly how much added sugar there is, as companies are not required to make a distinction between natural and processed or added sugars on nutrition labels. They also don’t have to tell you what percent of the recommended daily value of added sugar their product contains. (fortunately the FDA has proprosed changing this – if the proposed changes can make it through the legislative process).
There is a lot in the news these days about the negative health effects of added sugar. Notably, increased sugar intake adds to the risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer and many other health issues we would rather our children not have to experience.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day for adult women and no more than 9 a day for adult men . The average person in the US eats more than 20 teaspoons of added sugar a day. There is no specific number that tells us how much sugar is ok for young children to eat, but given the bad health effects noted above it makes sense to many doctors and nutritionists that added sugar should be limited. Many nutritionists and physicians agree that 25 g (6 tsp) of added sugars a day is a good limit. Here are some practical ways to make that happen in your household.
- No sugared beverages. This includes not only sodas but juices, Gatorade, sweet tea, lemonade, etc. Water and milk should be the only things your child drinks except on special occasions. Even if your child participates in competitive sports water is still the best way to hydrate and, unless your doctor has instructed you otherwise, a well balanced diet should allow kids to manage their electrolytes without the need for sports drinks. If you follow one tip alone, this one could have a significant positive impact on your child’s future health.
- Eat more fruits and veggies – 5-9 servings a day.
- Read labels – Like I mentioned, sugar is sneaky. It is in yogurt, ketchup, salad dressing, breads, canned fruits, pasta sauce, toddler snacks, gummy vitamins and a million other products. It tries to hide under various names like “evaporated cane juice.” Try to know what and how much you are serving your kids.
- Set reasonable, attainable short term goals with your kids. If you are not ready to make all the changes below, pick a few changes and commit to keeping those goals for the next 2 weeks. Decide how to reward yourselves for sticking to the goals (with something other than food)
- Don’t skip it. We know that breakfast in general improves academic performance and helps people of all ages maintain a healthy body weight.
- Watch out for sugary cereals. Did you know that regular Kellog’s Raisin Bran has more sugar per cup in it than chocolate Lucky Charms? If your kids are cereal eaters in the morning try mixing things up. Put some plain Cheerios in with your honey nut. Add some Wheat N Bran to your Frosted Mini Wheats. Again, read labels before you buy and look for low sugar options.
- Add some protein into your breakfast. There is some evidence that eating protein in the morning increases satiety. Cook up some eggs. Put peanut butter or cheese on your toast instead of just jelly. Throw a handful of pecans on your cereal. Make ahead something like this if you tend to be in a hurry in the mornings, then buzz in the microwave and eat on the go.
- Babies and Toddlers
- Avoid pre packaged meals and snacks that have added sugar
- Aim for at least half of lunch to be fruit or veggie
- School lunch
- If your child’s school offers options, encourage your child to make healthy choices. Look at MyPlate together and talk about how half of what they choose should be fruit or vegetable. (Bonus – there are games and activities you can do together on the website, plus sites specifically for teens and adults that include tips, meal plans, nutrition calculators and much more)
- Encourage your child to choose plain white milk or water. Whole, 2% or skim milk all have about 12 g of sugar per cup. The average chocolate milk has 24 g. If our goal is 25 g of added the extra 12g knocks out half of your allowance in one drink
- See if you school allows limits to be set on buying sweets or sugared beverages
- Monitor what your child is purchasing. Give them positive feedback when they make healthy choices or try new foods
- Packed lunch
- Make juice boxes special. Pack water or plain milk most days. When packing juice choose an option that is low in sugar such as Capri Sun Roaring Waters or Honest Kids
- Pack at least 2 fruit or veggie servings.
- Avoid fruit cups packed in syrup. If your kids love fruit cups go for the ones packed in monk fruit juice or pear juice. Even better – pack whole fruits, or slice your own apples or pears and toss in a squirt of lemon juice to keep them from browning.
- Fruit snacks and fruit roll ups are not fruit. They are candy. These do not count as a fruit serving, even if “made with real fruit juice” is on the package. Even the organic ones.
- Watch out for yogurt, sweetened apple sauce and granola bars. Many yogurts have 24 g of sugar per serving but there are others with 9g. Some granola bars are essentially candy bars but there are low sugar options available.
- Remember that sweets should be special, and not necessarily daily. If you are in the habit of packing a treat try a FunSize or pack a half serving.
- Carve out time in your day to sit down together for dinner as a family. Evidence shows that kids who have regular family mealtimes eat healthier and are less likely to be obese. For more evidence on how eating together as a family has been linked to boosting young children’s verbal skills, improved academic performance in school age children and decreased risk of depression and high risk behaviors in adolescents check out this short article.
- Make your plate look like this
- Serve fruit for dessert. Try baked apples with raisins, melons, fresh peaches or a strawberry/blueberry mix as a treat after dinner.
- Get your kids involved in cooking. Kids who help prep meals are more likely to try new fruits and veggies.
Have other great tips? I would love to hear from you!