Date: January 1, 2011
Here's the sugary scoop: American kids consume far too much of the sweet stuff. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), toddlers are getting 12 teaspoons of added sugar a day instead of the recommended 4 teaspoons, and school-aged children who should have no more than 3 teaspoons are consuming 21. Preteens and teens take the cake; instead of the recommended 5 to 8 teaspoons per day, they're getting up to 34.3 teaspoons. That's more than two-thirds of a cup per day.
How does this mountain of sugar affect kids? Besides contributing to childhood obesity, poor cardiovascular health and juvenile diabetes, sugar can play a major role in mood swings, meltdowns and tantrums.
"Sugary foods cause blood sugar to spike and then plummet, leaving kids feeling cranky, irritable and tired," says The Today Show licensed nutritionist Joy Bauer, best-selling author of Joy's Life Diet and Slim and Scrumptious. And when sugary snacks fill plates and stomachs, less room is left for the nutrient-dense calories that growing children need.
It's clear that kids should eat less sugar. But let's face it: the thought of a sugar-free world sends chills down parental spines. Sugar can reward, motivate or pacify, and a well-timed treat can work wonders. I've been known to avert toddler tantrums with a chocolate chip or two, and I keep an emergency lollipop in my purse.
Even highly motivated parents who want to cut sugar face an uphill battle. School lunches, misleading food labels, relatives and even kids themselves can throw a wrench in the most well-intentioned plans. Still, it's hard to ignore the facts and the potential payoff.
"By dealing with a sugar habit early in life, parents are giving children a lifelong gift," says Kathleen DesMaisons, best-selling author of Little Sugar Addicts. "Parents whose kids are out of control are absolutely amazed at the bright, loving, incredible child who emerges."
Ditching a sugar habit benefits moms too. "By limiting sugary foods, you maintain a steady blood sugar level and keep yourself feeling energized and alert all day long. Nothing's more important when you have active young kids running around," Bauer says.
If you're ready to change your family's sugary ways, fear not. Drastic measures aren't required. Instead, slowly shut off the sugar tap with a step-by-step approach.
Drowning in liquid sugar
First, take a look at what your family sips. The AHA reports that Americans drink most of their added sugar in the form of soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages.
According to American Journal of Preventive Medicine, consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages with meals has doubled. One 12-ounce cola has 8.2 teaspoons of sugar that add up to 140 calories. Switching to water or low-fat milk will make a huge dent in kids' sugar consumption.
Even 100 percent fruit juice contributes sugar and calories kids may be better off without. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting fruit juice to 6 ounces for children younger than 7, and 12 ounces for older kids. Stretch the smaller servings by diluting juice with water, or create a healthier alternative to soda by mixing juice with seltzer.
Top of the morning
Next, work on meals. Start at the top — of the day, that is. According to DesMaisons, breakfast is absolutely essential. A proper breakfast sets the stage for a healthful day, and eating the right foods in the morning helps ward off sugar cravings later.
Begin by losing the sugary breakfast cereal. Bauer recommends that parents choose cereals with no more than 8 grams of sugar per serving. Instead of sweet cereals and candy-coated pastries, serve protein and complex carbohydrates like eggs and whole-grain toast or protein shakes made with fruit.
Combining protein with complex carbohydrates provides lasting energy and enables the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin to enter the brain. Kids will feel satisfied, alert and ready to start their day.
After kids have accepted a new breakfast routine, move on to lunch, dinner and snacks. Gradually replace sugary foods with healthy alternatives and give kids time to adjust to each change.
Plan to spend anywhere from two weeks to six months on the whole process, DesMaisons says, depending on their level of sugar consumption, attachment to sweet foods and temperament.
Plan for success
Kids need to eat on time to avoid the blood sugar crashes that bring on meltdowns (and that emergency lollipop). Don't plan outings when children are running low on fuel. Aim to serve meals at a consistent time and keep fruit, crackers, nuts and other snacks on hand for hectic days.
For those occasions when a sugar splurge is inevitable, like at birthdays and holidays, serve a high-protein snack before the festivities begin. They'll eat less of the sweet stuff on a full stomach, and the protein will slow the absorption of sugar to ward off a post-party crash.
Family physician Tony Vento, M.D., tells moms to become label sleuths to cut out sneaky, hidden sugars that kids probably won't miss.
"Spend a week reading every label, and you'll be surprised," Vento says. Some brands of kids' favorites, like peanut butter, fruit snacks and dried fruit, contain added sugar, while others don't. Switching brands can add up to big sugar savings. Eliminating hidden sugars gives more dietary leeway for treats they'll appreciate.
Fortunately, the AHA dietary guidelines allow for some sweets. It makes sense to spend some of that discretionary sugar on nutritious foods like yogurt or chocolate milk. (The Journal of the American Dietetic Association reports that flavored milks are fine in moderation and don't cause weight gain in children.) When total sugar intake is under control, even cupcakes aren't off-limits. Now that's a sweet reward to feel good about.
Malia Jacobson is a freelance writer and mother of two.