One of the most common questions I get in my workshops and online classes is the one on sugar in our kids’ diets. The recent debut of “Fed Up” added to the parents’ concerns.
In my opinion, blaming all our health problems on just one food is an example of oversimplification of a complex issue. In other words, by just removing sugar from our diets we are not likely to achieve extraordinary benefits. It is an overall eating pattern that matters.
If a family prepares most meals at home, eats together, schedules snacks and enjoys sugary desserts from time to time, I see this as a good eating pattern.
If a family relies mostly on pre-cooked meals and there is not family meals, lots of all-day grazing and mindless snacking on the sofa while watching TV, it does not matter how much they are trying to avoid sugar is in their food, their eating pattern is NOT healthy.
With 80% of all food on grocery store shelves containing some type of sugar, it is easy to see why it is easy to eat too much. An average can of soda contains about 8 teaspoons of sugar, 10 jelly beans have 5 teaspoons of sugar, a cup of flavored milk – 3 teaspoons and even each tablespoon of ketchup brings a teaspoon of sugar to the table.
At the same time, American Heart Association recommends only 4-5 teaspoons of added sugar per day for toddlers. For older kids, the amount is even 1 teaspoon smaller because their nutrient needs are so high.
Here are some of the ways I used to reduce sugar in my kids’ diet at home. I did not include the obvious ones like “we do not eat cupcakes every day” or “we drink water instead of soda with meals”, trying to leave room for those that you may find more useful.
Are you also using these strategies? What are your secret tools to reduce sugar in your kids’ diet? Please share in comments below.
We serve sweet treats from time to time. This may seem like counterproductive advice in an article on cutting sugar, but research and more research shows that when kids feel deprived they overindulge once given access to “forbidden” food. The key is to serve sweets on a schedule, ideally for a snack so that they do not interfere with eating other foods. And if we serve something special for dessert, we do not make it contingent on eating dinner.
This is why I had to bring soda home and often serve dessert with dinner. Here is a great piece from Ellyn Satter explaining why and how to include treats in your child’s diet and another one from Raise Healthy Eaters on how to avoid raising sweet obsessed kids.
We do the math. A teaspoon of sugar has 4 grams. So if the nutritional label on a cereals box says 12 grams of sugar, I know that my child’s morning bowl of cereal will be sprinkled with 3 (!) teaspoons of sugar. I know that my kids would never put 3 teaspoons of sugar on a cup of plain cereal so I go plain whenever I can and let them sweeten it if they want.
We know natural sugars. Naturally occurring sugars like lactose in dairy or fructose in fruit are also included in the umbrella term “sugar” on the nutritional label. This makes things confusing because you would have to subtract these natural sugars from the total amount before calculating the amount of added sugars in a product.
Here is a simple formula for dairy products: Added sugars = total grams of sugar – grams of lactose. A glass of milk has about 12 grams of lactose and a 6oz tub of yogurt – around 9 grams.
But when it comes to fruit-containing drinks and snacks, it is harder to figure out how much fructose they contain. To make my life easier, I serve fresh fruit instead of juice or fruit-juice based snacks in most cases.
We do not rely on “healthier” sugars or artificial sweeteners. Natural sugars like honey and maple syrup are essentially added sugars with a negligible sprinkle of nutrition. They do not necessarily make the product better for you or less caloric. Another natural sugar, agave, is 1 1/2 times sweeter than sugar and can save calories because you would need less of it to sweeten food but nutritionally it is very similar to other common added sugars like high fructose corn syrup.
Zero calorie sweeteners, like aspartame, acesulfame-K, neotame, sucralose and saccharine, do not add calories to diet or contribute to cavities. But it is good to remember that these sweeteners are often used to sweeten foods with low nutritional value like ice-cream, cookies and soda, and using them instead of regular sugar does not make these foods healthier.
We do it ourselves. We buy plain, unsweetened versions of milk, yogurt and cereal and sweeten them at home ourselves if we need to. You will be surprised how much sugar you will avoid using this simple strategy. We mash up some sweet fruit like mango or ripe pear, sprinkle some berries or use a little honey or real sugar to add a little sweetness without going overboard with sugar.
I also use less sugar in my favorite recipes like I did with this banana bread. In general, the more you cook from scratch, the more you are able to control the amount of sugar that goes into food. And you will be surprised to see the whole family happier and healthier with less sugar in their diet.
Here are a few more low sugar nutritious treats that my family likes: