Everyone knows that having too much sugar isn’t good for you, but current data shows a clear upward trend in sugar consumption amongst both children and adults. This increase in sugar consumption is a direct result of the widespread availability of sweet sugary snacks and ubiquitous inclusion of sugar in all kinds of ready made products, from breakfast cereals to bread and tomato sauce.
For children especially, increased sugar consumption is a concern as it is known to have a detrimental effect on their health and development. As parents, we should be looking at ways to reduce the amount of sugar our children are consuming, for their own wellbeing. In this article we’ll discuss some simple ways you can reduce the amount of sugar in your children’s diet.
Why sugar should be limited in children’s diets?
It may be in most packaged foods and snacks, but sugar is one of the most harmful ingredients you can include in your child’s diet. Excess consumption has been shown to lead to the development of tooth decay, obesity, psychomotor hyperactivity, and diabete. At the same time, consuming lots of extra-sweet sugary foods reduces a child’s desire to eat valuable foods that may not taste as good to them. In turn, this can result in deficiencies of important vitamins and minerals needed for children’s intensive growth and development.
How much sugar should my child eat?
In an ideal world, children would not be eating sugar at all. Unfortunately, that’s not very possible in this day and age. Instead, you should limit the amount of sugar in your child’s diet. Children under the age of two should not eat foods that contain added sugar. At this age, sugar should be coming from natural sources like fruits and vegetables.
For older children, the amount of sugar shouldn’t exceed 4-5 teaspoons per day, which is about 10% of their daily energy requirement. Interestingly, you can get almost that exact amount of sugar by drinking half a glass of fruit juice. The less sugar in your child’s diet, the better for their health.
Are all types of sugar good?
When we talk about sugar, we mean products obtained from sugar beets or sugar cane. But you can still find sugar listed in ingredient lists under different names like sucrose, fructose, glucose, or glucose-fructose syrup. These types of added sugar are metabolised by the body in the same way as sugar from natural sources, however that doesn’t make them good for you. Regardless of the type of sugar consumed, excessive consumption is never advised as it can still contribute to the development of disease.
You can also find many natural sugar substitutes, like raw sugar, coconut sugar, agave syrup, and date syrup. Unfortunately, these products often still have the same (or even worse) sugar content than regular sugar. It’s best to not look for healthier sugar alternatives and instead focus on reducing consumption.
How to reduce sugar in a child’s diet
- Read labels. It’s essential that you carefully read the ingredients list and calculate the sugar content on products you buy for your children. This is the only way you can start to limit the amount of sugar in your child’s diet. You might be surprised by what you find on ingredient lists – many people don’t realise how much sugar can be found in one small fruit yoghurt or kids’ snack! When reading food labels, remember that 4g of sugar is about 1 teaspoon, and children above two shouldn’t consume more than 5 teaspoons a day.
- Talk and raise awareness. Don’t just cut sugar out of your children’s diets without offering an explanation. Try talking to your children about the consequences of eating large amounts of sugar and teach them how to distinguish between healthy and harmful foods. These kinds of talks can be very informative and a great deal of fun for a child, so it’s well worth a try. Of course, try to adapt the words you use and the form of communication to suit your child’s age and attention span.
- Prepare as many meals as possible at home. Ideally, every meal you eat would be prepared at home, but we know this is difficult. Lack of time and the appealing variety of takeaway options mean that we often eat out, however in doing so we have no control over the ingredients in the food we eat. If you do eat out, try to choose kids’ meals that are less processed and avoid sugary drinks.
- Introduce healthier sugar substitutes. If your child’s diet is full of sugar, stopping abruptly could end in frustration, crying, arguments, and a general failure in changing their eating habits. The best thing to do in this scenario is gradually decrease the amount of sugar and involve your child in their food preparation. If they like strawberry yoghurt, invite them to the kitchen and let them mix natural yoghurt with strawberries. You can also let them add oatmeal, coconut flakes, or other ingredients to their homemade snack. There are many possibilities when it comes to introducing healthier substitutes to their favourite snacks, and you’ll also be spending some valuable time with your child.
- Invite the child to the kitchen. Letting a child prepare their own meals (or with a little help from parents) helps build a positive attitude towards food and cooking. Involving your child in the cooking process also makes them more likely to try and eat foods they may not normally like, or foods made with unknown ingredients. This is because children have the chance to get used to these ingredients through exposure and contact. Try it – your kids just might choose to eat their vegetables!
- Add the right spices. When making desserts or sweet snacks at home, you can often replace some of the sugar content with sweet tasting spices, like cinnamon, vanilla, or cloves.
- Take care of the aesthetics of the sweet snack. Readymade kids’ snacks attract attention with their colourful packaging, bold labels, and fun shapes (like animal-shaped biscuits). If you want to convince your child to eat healthier food, try to make them look as appealing as their unhealthy counterparts. You can use different coloured ingredients and decorate the foods with different shapes (e.g. cutting fruit into stars). You could also prepare a fruit skewer and pour melted dark chocolate over it. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
- Set a good example. Children learn a lot of behaviours from their parents and guardians, and that includes nutrition. Kids are known to mimic the behaviour of adults around them, so it’s worth setting a good example and limiting the amount of sugar you consume yourself. A family that practices healthy habits is an investment in good health.
Reducing sugar intake is a long and sometimes difficult process, but it’s worth doing for the wellbeing of your children. There are so many recipes for healthy desserts and snacks for kids on the internet, have a look and involve your children in the process. Not all of the healthy dessert options may appeal to your child, but you’re sure to find a more wholesome substitute for their favourite snacks. Healthy eating habits will pay off in the future, so it’s worth starting now.
A pharmacy assistant and a dietitian. Loves nature, healthy food, and travels. After suffering from health problems related to my stomach, checking food labels has become my obsession. I run Check Labels – an independent product labels review site in Australia. Our mission is to educate people and raise awareness about product ingredients before they make a purchase.