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How Long Will it Take Your Child to Get The “Recommended” Amount of Added Sugar in a Normal Day?

Dairy aisle at the grocery store
Quick note from Katie: November is National Diabetes Awareness Month, which is a good time to talk about the connection between type 2 diabetes and white sugar. It’s affecting our KIDS now, and it breaks our hearts. This post from Certified Nutrition Consultant Leah Vachani is so important! 

The other day I was walking through the yogurt section at the local grocery store checking nutrition labels for sugar amounts. I was SHOCKED! And not in a good way.

I did some really quick math in my head and realized that the average child probably consumes WAY more than the recommended daily amounts of added sugar.

Unfortunately, I was right.

“On average, U.S. children consume 19 teaspoons of added sugar daily, largely from soda, fruit-flavored drinks, sports drinks, cakes and cookies.”  – AHA Journal Circulation

How bad are 19 teaspoons of sugar?

Well, let’s start by finding out what the suggested limits are. The AHA (American Heart Association) put forth these recommendations:

  • Children over age 2 years should consume no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar each day.
  • Children should not drink more than one 8-ounce sugar-sweetened beverage per week.
  • Children under 2 years should avoid consuming any added sugar since they need nutrient-rich diets and are developing taste preferences.

Whoa! So the average child over age 2 is consuming more than 3 times the recommended daily amount. I’m terrified at how many grams of added sugar the average child under age 2 is consuming, but I would wager it’s more than the recommended 0 grams…a lot more. Yikes!

Type 2 Diabetes Rates in Youth are Skyrocketing

“Until 10 years ago, type 2 diabetes accounted for less than 3% of all cases of new-onset diabetes in adolescents. At present (2011) 45% of cases are attributed to it.” – American Diabetes Association  

These statistics are from 2011 and even more alarming are the findings from a 10-year study completed in 2012. The shocking results of this study stated that the rate of type 2 diabetes increased by over 30% in this decade and is only continuing to rise at a rate of almost 5% each year! (Incidence Trends of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes among Youths, 2002-2012.)

This is a concern because although Type 1 diabetes is something we can’t do anything about, Type 2 is understood to have root causes in diet and lifestyle, so this is a major shift. Type 2 diabetes is actually referred to as “adult onset diabetes,” and it’s a really new problem that it’s emerging in young people. Obesity and lack of exercise are two major causative factors (WebMD).

Where is all this sugar coming from?

Let’s look at what a typical child might eat for breakfast, snack, and lunch:

Breakfast

A bowl of cereal: 10-15 grams of added sugar, sometimes more. (Since milk doesn’t have any added sugar I won’t count that, but keep in mind it does contain about 14 grams of sugar.)

child eating a bowl of cereal
Snack

Fruit flavored yogurt tube, 2.25oz: 10 grams of added sugar

Lunch

Peanut butter (1-2 grams added sugars) and jelly (about 8 grams added sugars) sandwich on whole wheat bread (3-4 grams added sugars) – a total of about 12-14 grams added sugars

Fruit snacks, 1 individual package – 11 grams added sugars

Carrots – no added sugars

Water – no added sugars

If we add this up, a child eating this menu will have consumed 43-50 grams of added sugar (or 11-12 teaspoons) by midday! Uh-oh! This is about double the recommendations and we haven’t even counted afternoon snack, dinner and possibly dessert.

bag of ranch doritos

Not sure how “added sugars” and “total sugars” are different? Katie explains it here in a video (made for kids) about how to read nutrition labels.

Now you might be thinking that your child doesn’t eat that way. And maybe you are right! But have you ever added up the amount of added sugars your child is eating? Sometimes we don’t actually believe it until we see it.

List of how much sugar is in typical kid food.

If you are freaking out right now, just take a deep breath. There are lots of ways to curtail the amount of added sugars in the diet. Let’s start by talking about 7 common foods to address.

Healthy Substitutions for 7 Common Foods High in Sugar

1. Soda

A 12-ounce can of regular Coke contains 39 grams of total sugar, which is about 9.8 teaspoons of sugar.

What to do instead: Swap soda for sparkling water with a splash of juice.

2. Juice

A 12-ounce serving of apple juice contains 165 calories and 39 grams of sugar (9.8 teaspoons).

What to do instead: You could just serve plain water, or you could serve a mixture of 75% water and 25% juice (basically mostly water with a splash of juice).

Need something portable? You can mix 75% water + 25% juice in a kids’ water bottle and just take it to go. Or, there are some new juice box options now that contain roughly 50% juice + 50% herbal teas! We keep Drazil juice/tea boxes on hand for grab-n-go moments.

RELATED: Skip the juice and eat the whole fruit instead.

3. Commercial flavored yogurts
“One finding of the study that might come as a surprise to consumers is that organic yogurts were some of the sweetest of all. The median sugar content for organic yogurts was 13.1 grams per 100-gram serving, and some brands had almost 17 grams of sugar per 100-gram serving.” – NPR.org

Just to be clear, 17 grams of sugar is a bit more than 4 teaspoons…in a serving size of about ½ cup. That yogurt is ⅙ sugar by volume!

What to do instead: Swap out the commercial yogurt blends for plain, whole-fat yogurt and add a drizzle of raw honey (use the code Katie15 for 15% off at that site!) (for children 1 year and older) and perhaps some cut up or mashed up fruit for extra flavor and sweetness.

Here are 5 more ways to reduce the sweetener with your yogurt.

4. Sports Drinks

The average 20-ounce bottle of sports drink like Gatorade or Powerade packs 34 grams of sugar.

Even a 20-ounce bottle of Vitamin Water, promoted as a healthy drink, contains 32 grams of sugar!

What to do instead: Just stick with water. Kids don’t need extra electrolytes during sports activities. With a well-rounded healthy diet, they are getting plenty of minerals to sustain them through an average day of activity.

If your child wants a “flavored” water drink during sports either add some fresh squeezed lemon or lime juice or a splash of real fruit juice. With just slightly more effort, you can make your own healthy sports drink alternative with this recipe. Or make “smart water” with this recipe.

5. Chocolate Milk

One cup (8oz) of the average chocolate milk contains about 25 grams of sugar, or just over 6 teaspoons of sugar.

What to do instead: Serve plain whole milk or perhaps try a chocolate smoothie with raw cacao, kale or spinach, milk, sweetened with banana and honey. You might want to try this recipe for No Fail Chocolate Kale Smoothie, (it’s not just for kids)! This homemade chocolate milk is loaded with protein! 

6. Fruit Snacks

One package (23 grams) of Annie’s Homegrown fruit snacks contains 11 grams of sugar, or almost 3 teaspoons of sugar. While I’m a fan of the fact that some companies, like Annie’s Homegrown, don’t use artificial dyes or colors, there isn’t actually any fruit in these “snacks” other than a small amount of fruit juice concentrate.

One package (39 grams) of Haribo gummy bears contains 18 grams of sugar, or 4.5 teaspoons of sugar. It also contains artificial dyes and colors.

So if we compare a “fruit snack” to a gummy candy on a gram per gram basis, they actually contain basically the same amount of sugar. (They both contain roughly 50% sugar).

What to do instead: Offer these “fruit snacks” sporadically as treats. For something easy to grab on-the-go as a more frequent healthy option try cutting up fruit or even grab a whole piece of fruit. If you need a packaged option, try buying some dried fruit with no added sugar. You might find that the amount of sugar is between half or close to the amount in the gummies, but the sugar is 100% from fruit (not cane sugar) with no added artificial ingredients! Real fruit (dried or not) also contains fiber which slows down the release of the sugar into the body.

7. Cereal and Granola

When you pour your child a bowl of cereal with milk in the morning he is getting, on average, about 14 grams of sugar from one cup of milk and about 10-15 grams of sugar from 1 cup of cereal. (I took an average of a long list of popular commercial brands of breakfast cereal that kids like.)

bowl of yogurt with blueberries on top

Adding that together makes about 22-29 grams of sugar, and that is just in your child’s first meal of the day.

What to do instead: Try using one cup of plain, whole milk yogurt or kefir with ¼ – ½ cup granola with low to no added sugars (like Bear Naked, Udi’s, Bubba’s Ungranola) or make your own – it’s super easy! Here is a great granola recipe.

There are many other non-cereal breakfast options that are high in protein, healthy fats, and nutrition without containing high amounts of sugar. I know cereal is easy and fast, but try changing it up with these healthy breakfast ideas.

Other ways to reduce kids’ sugar intake from nutritionist Jess Sherman.

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Some Parenting Tips & Advice for Addressing Kids + Sugar

With food and kids, you are only in charge of what, where, how and when. NOT HOW MUCH.

I think it’s important to remind parents of this often! It’s so easy to freak out over how much or how little your child is eating but it’s not up to us. Even restricting sugar has been shown by research to have negative side effects for children and their relationship with food.

Here is what we can (and should) control, especially in regards to sugar: what comes into the house, where the sources of sugar come from (natural versus added), how and when it is offered.

I highlighted a few examples earlier of what you can change to on your grocery trips and snack choices to provide healthier choices for your family. Make smart choices when shopping so what you bring into the home are all things you can say ‘yes’ to when your child asks for it.

Where would you prefer your child getting their sugar from? Added sugars and hidden sugars like high fructose corn syrup or fructose found naturally in fruit?

It’s up to you to decide how and when to offer sugar-containing foods. Rewarding the consumption of veggies with a promised treat can signal to the child that the dessert or treat is of higher value than the vegetables on their plate. Perhaps offering a treat or dessert at afternoon snack time would alleviate that scenario and take the stress out of trying to negotiate the consumption of veggies for treats.

When can also mean how often high-sugar foods are offered. Perhaps you have an “ice cream day” on Fridays or treats are offered only in afternoons. Kids feel good with boundaries and repetition. So try out a “treat schedule” that you think is reasonable and see how it goes, you may be pleasantly surprised!

Dr. Dina Rose, feeding expert, recommends focusing more on the habits than the food. Fascinating interview!

10% of our food nourishes our soul, 90% of our food nourishes our body

Teach a 90/10 Goal

This works really well with older kids, starting around age 6/7. Start having conversations with them around how different types of food and ways of eating affect our mood, energy level, and behavior. For example, many kids would rather chat and play at school lunchtime rather than eat. Do they come home “hangry”? Help them start to understand the correlation between not fueling the body and their moods.

For kids in sports, start explaining how certain foods can provide more lasting energy rather than the short-lived burst we get from high-sugar foods. Help them understand why we need protein in each meal and how sugar can’t help us build muscle and strength.

You can also point out how a well-rounded breakfast helps them think and focus better at school. They can get more work done, learn more efficiently and perhaps have less homework (or at least be more efficient!).

All these small talks with your kids over time should be focused on the ultimate goal of eating 90/10. That is, 90% of their food should nourish their bodies and minds, 10% of their food can be fun treats and sweets that don’t necessarily offer any nutritional benefits.

It’s all about moderation and helping to teach your children (and maybe yourself!) about making better choices.

Soon enough, if not already, your kids will be able to buy their own food, order their own food at restaurants and make their own lunches or snacks. They will make better choices with better food education and a healthy relationship with food.

Here’s to less sugar and better choices!

Do you have a treat rule in your house?

sugar cubes on a spoon and in a pile

 

Your kids can learn to cook, even if you don’t know where to start

My 4 kids and I created the online Kids Cook Real Food lessons to help bring real food and independence to families all over. Over 10,000 kids have joined us and we’d love to invite you along for the adventure!

Kids watching a cooking lesson at a kitchen island

I’m so pleased to offer a little gift from our family to yours, a knife skills lesson as a free preview of the full cooking eCourse!

5 thoughts on “How Long Will it Take Your Child to Get The “Recommended” Amount of Added Sugar in a Normal Day?”

  1. This is fantastic. Thank you! In general, we avoid added sugars, but breakfasts have seen a gradual increase as my children opt for maple syrup on their baked oatmeal. Guess I need to go back to applesauce as the topping of choice!

    One other thought I had while reading was that sweet treats at afternoon snack could have a negative overall effect on healthy dinners. While my children were toddlers, I noticed that snacks kept them from eating well at mealtime, so I didn’t give snacks. We just ate dinner at 5 pm. That way they were hungry for the meal and ate more nutrient-dense food. We still only have desserts on birthdays and holidays.

    A habit of snacking is a modern phenomenon, and according to the data, it doesn’t appear to be a healthy shift.

    (I just finished reading The Compete Guide to Fasting by Jason Fung, MD. It was very helpful in thinking about our “need” to eat as frequently as we have been told.)

    1. Hi Debbie!

      You make such great points here. We too have faced the “snack dilemma” and played around with dropping afternoon snack for the same reasons you listed. Instead, I offer a plate of raw veggies with a healthy dip (low or no sugar) and the kids can eat as many of this healthy snack as they want. That way I know they’ve gotten in a couple servings of veggies before dinner has even started!

      We too found that the amount of sugar intake for our kids was slowly creeping up. It’s always good to take a step back and look at the big picture, right? (Ahem, even for a nutritionist here!!)

      Thanks for the comment!
      -Leah

  2. I log my child’s calories in an app. The app says she got 115 grams of sugar yesterday. Hard to cut back on sugar though when she is a picky eater and low weight, so the doctors basically want me to let her eat whatever she likes, plus advise giving her sugary drinks like Pediasure.

    1. Hi Kandra,

      I understand the perspective your doctor is coming from. They want to make sure that your child has sufficient calorie intake.

      One way I counsel my clients who have low-weight kids is to really focus on providing lots of healthy fats. There are some really great “high fat” healthy recipes that taste really yummy too! For example, these “Mudballs” https://www.kitchenstewardship.com/easy-gluten-free-nut-free-breakfast-mudball-recipe/.

      Finding higher fat, lower sugar snacks and recipes could help your daughter to slowly accept less sweet foods as well. Sometimes when our bodies are hungry we *think* we want sweet foods but what we really want (and need) are calories, and these higher fat snacks and recipes can help satiate us better than the high sugar foods. Kids often respond really well to these changes.

      Thanks for the comment, I know it can be a little extra challenging with “selective eaters”! Best wishes!!

      -Leah

    2. Becca @ The Earthling's Handbook

      When I had trouble keeping my weight up while breastfeeding my first child, one of the things I did was add almond oil to foods like oatmeal, applesauce, and pumpkin. It has a sweet flavor and lots of calories! Just make sure to use it quickly so it doesn’t get rancid.

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