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Kids and Sugar: 5 Tips for a Low Sugar Diet

Learn about kids and sugar, the recommendations for daily sugar intake, and easy ways to ensure a low sugar diet.

girl eating an ice cream cone

How do you feel about your kids and sugar? Does sugar make you cringe? Or, are you of the mindset that sugar is to be enjoyed and part of every child’s childhood?

Many parents are worried their kids are getting too much sugar. After all, it can be found pretty much everywhere, and it isn’t always easy to pass up.

The worry you may feel about sweets can be calmed with knowledge.

In this article, you’ll learn why you should keep an eye on sugar in your child’s diet, what exactly we should be looking out for when making food choices, the recommended sugar limits for kids, and how to meet them with a low sugar diet.

Why should we care about sugar?

Sugar is sweet and when added to foods, can make them taste delicious. Just think of cookies and ice cream. Both have quite a bit of sugar in them. But did you know that other foods, like spaghetti sauce and ketchup also have the sweet stuff added?

Our bodies need sugar to function properly, however, too much sugar can be a problem. A diet that contains too much has been linked to health problems, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and more.

These health problems likely start in childhood, build up over time, and “catch up” during adulthood.

You want to pay attention to sugar intake now so you can help prevent these outcomes.

What is added sugar?

In food, sugar comes in many forms. From natural sources of sugar, like lactose, to added sugar, understanding which types of sugar your child is getting will help you balance his diet better.

Added sugar is typically cane sugar, honey, agave, and other food ingredients that end with -ose.

You can look at an ingredients list on food packaging and see if added sugar is present. Or, you may simply recognize candy, cake, cookies and sugary beverages as being an obvious source of added sugar.

What are natural sugars? 

Natural sugars occur in food without being added. These foods, like milk which contains lactose for example, are made this way in nature. Another example is fruit. It naturally contains fructose.

What about hidden sugars?

As mentioned, some foods are just obvious when it comes to being a source of added sugar. However, other foods are inconspicuous. That is, they don’t appear to be sweet.

Foods such as pasta sauces, granola and granola bars, yogurt, instant oatmeal, prepared dinners (i.e., teriyaki chicken), frozen breakfast foods, salad dressings, cold cereal, energy drinks, coffee drinks, canned fruit, prepared tea, ketchup, and bar-b-que sauce can harbor added sugar.

What are the sugar limits for children?

According to the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) and the American Heart Association, children under the age of two years should not be eating foods with added sugar.

For older kids, the recommendation is 10% of the overall diet, which shakes out to be about 6 teaspoons (24 grams) per day.

colorful candy

Kids and Sugar: 5 Tips to Keep a Low Sugar Diet

It’s not always easy to keep a tab on how much sugar your child is consuming, but if you’re parenting food, these tips to keep a low sugar diet will help.

1. Use the 90-10 Rule

The 90-10 Rule is a great way to strike a good balance with kids and sugar. I’ve been teaching this food balance approach for years. In a nutshell: 90% of what you serve is wholesome, nutritious food with an allowance of 10% of the diet coming from sweets and treats.

It’s an easy way to strike the recommended sugar limits without being too controlling or restrictive. Not only is the 90-10 Rule an easy concept to teach children, once they learn it, they can use it to manage their eating independently.

2. Be a Detective for Added Sugar Ingredients

It seems obvious, but reading food package labels and their ingredients lists can help you make smart purchases.

Thankfully, we now have the new nutrition facts panel which denotes ‘added sugar’ clearly. I recommend keeping added sugar around 6 to 9 grams or less per serving.

3. Mix Sugary Foods with Low Sugar Foods

One of the easiest tricks in the book to lower sugar content is mixing sweet foods with their unsweetened versions. This is an easy way to cut the sugar amount in foods.

For example, mix fruited yogurt (which contains added sugar) with plain yogurt. Or, mix sweetened cereal with plain, low sugar cereal to cut down on sweetness. Try mixing plain oatmeal with sweetened, flavored types.

You get the idea.

4. Eat nutritious foods with sweets and treats

When serving desserts or other sweet treats, offer a nutritious, sugar-free food alongside. For example, when cookies are served, offer milk. If you’re serving brownies or candy, offer a piece of fruit or a cheese stick with it.

Coupling nutritious foods with sweet treats is a sure way to add nutrition and cut down on overall sugar while raising a good eater.

5. Sit down and enjoy!

Encourage your child to be mindful with eating sweets. To truly enjoy the experience and savor the flavor.

Don’t fret or make your child feel guilty about eating sweet foods. Embrace the enjoyment so your child can grow up to have a healthy relationship with them.

And remember, don’t get too obsessed about sugar. Your child’s intake of added sugar will vary day to day. The overall balance, or average intake, is what matters most.

Need More Help with Kids and Sugar?

Being knowledgeable about nutrition is something that will make feeding your family much easier.

My nutrition 101 class for parents, The Nourished Child Blueprint, gives you the food information and feeding strategy to be successful with sweets and treats!

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