Sugar: How Much is Too Much?

If your child frequently enjoys cookies and candy, fruit drinks and flavored milks, sweet breakfast cereals and snacks, he or she is like most American kids — consuming too much sugar.

THE SUGAR FACTS

The good news is, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children are eating less sugar than in the past. However, it’s still too much. According to a 2009 study by the American Heart Association, the sugar facts speak for themselves:

IT ALL ADDS UP

You might wonder how sugar intake can add up so quickly. Considering that a typical 12-ounce soda or other sugar-sweetened beverage contains 10-11 teaspoons of added sugar (that’s about 44 grams of sugar), it doesn’t take much to tip the scale. Tack on a bowl of sugary breakfast cereal, a pouch of fruity snacks, and an after-dinner cookie, and our kids are easily over the recommended level.

“So what?” you might think. But consider this: In addition to promoting tooth decay, high amounts of sugar intake make children likely to devour too many calories and too few nutrients. In fact, calories from sugar provide nothing in terms of nutrition — no vitamins, no minerals, no fiber — just plain old empty calories. Kids who consume a high amount of sugar are also more likely to have problems with their weight, giving them higher chances for developing conditions such as high blood pressure.

WHAT TO DO

We as parents play a significant role in what our children eat and drink based on the choices we make at the grocery store and the foods and drinks we keep in our homes. If you’re interested, you can help your child reduce the amount of sugar he or she consumes by making a few changes. Here are five suggestions to consider:

1) Replace processed food snacks with fresh foods.

Organic fruit snacks and granola bars may sound healthy, but they’re often  filled with sugar in the form of syrups and other sweeteners. Instead of these items, keep fresh fruit on hand for snacks — bananas, apples and grapes are naturally sweet, delicious, and nutritious. Consider replacing your child’s after-dinner sweet treat with fruit too –- kids don’t need “treats’ on a daily basis. A good rule of thumb: choose foods that come in their own package, not a cardboard one.

2) Choose packaged foods wisely.

Processed and packaged foods, such as breakfast cereals and snacks, are part of life for many families. If you choose packaged and processed foods look for items that have less than 10 grams of sugar per serving. Better yet, look for items that have as little sugar as possible.  Avoid items with cartoon and movie characters on the package since they are marketed to children and likely higher in sugar.

3) Watch out for hidden sugars!

Sugar has many names and faces, so be sure to look at the ingredients list on the foods you eat and choose accordingly. Sugar shows up as high fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener, molasses, evaporated cane juice, sucrose, dextrose, maltose, fructose and more.  And don’t be fooled by healthy-sounding sweeteners such as honey, brown rice syrup, fruit juice concentrates, raw sugar and agave nectar — it’s still sugar.

4) Pay attention to beverages.

Over 40% of sugar in children’s diets comes from sweetened beverages, contributing nothing in the way of nutrition. Skip the Gatorade, energy drinks, sodas, sweet tea, and fruit “drinks” that are 90% sugar and 10% juice. Start by offering water or low-fat milk at meals instead of sweet drinks.

5) Don’t use treats as rewards for good behavior.

When food is frequently offered as a reward for good behavior, children learn to think that some foods are “better” than others. Instead, offer stickers, kind words and a hug, or other non-food rewards.

In summary, take advantage of fresh whole foods. If you don’t buy foods and drinks with added sugars, your kids will eat them less often.

Anne Marie Kuchera, our Kids Plus Nutrition Consultant, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Dietitian.