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:
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.)
Fruit flavored yogurt tube, 2.25oz: 10 grams of added sugar
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 (for children 1 year and older) and perhaps some cut up or mashed up fruit for extra flavor and sweetness.
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.)
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.
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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!
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.
Here’s to less sugar and better choices.
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