This post was updated in November 2019.
Too many sweets can be a health hazard for kids.
Learn how to hit the sweet spot on added sugar intake, including understanding how much added sugar is appropriate for kids, and ways to cut out extra added sugar to achieve a healthy eating pattern.
Many American children are getting too many sweets in their diets.
In the recent recommendations coming from the American Heart Association (AHA), children’s added sugar intake should be 6 teaspoons per day.
Children under 2 years should skip it all together.
Let’s noodle on that for a bit.
Before we dig into way to reduce overall sugar in your child’s diet, let’s explore the current recommendations.
What is Added Sugar?
Added sugar is the refined sugar that is added to foods during processing.
For example, the sugar found in candy, cookies and cakes are added to the recipes. These are obvious sweets and sources of added sugar.
Other foods aren’t so obvious. Foods such as cereal, yogurt, spaghetti sauce, and yogurt aren’t so clear.
These are hidden sugars.
How Many Grams of Sugar Per Day?
The current recommendations for children is six teaspoons per day.
This doesn’t mean the number of teaspoons you actually add to your child’s food.
This is the daily added sugar allowance your child eats in a given day from all food sources.
Little, little ones? Kids under age two shouldn’t be having any added sugar in their diet, if you can help it.
(Personally, I’d give the green light on the first year birthday cake.)
[If you want the lowdown on your child’s daily sugar allowance, read The New Sugar Recommendations for Children]25 ways to slash added sugar in your child's diet -- pick one and get started! Click To Tweet
Who Needs a Better Sugar Balance?
In truth, probably all children would benefit from cutting down on sweets and total sugar in their diets.
If you look at the statistics on sugar intake, the rates are almost consistently higher in children of all ages (including teens) than they should be.
Kids with ADHD May be Sensitive to Sweets
Some kids are extra sensitive to sugar. That is, their behavior changes when they eat it.
They may become more aggressive or hyperactive or difficult to parent.
A small percentage of kids with ADHD have been shown to be sensitive to sugar in their diet (as well as some sugar substitutes).
How to Cut Down Sweet Foods (25 Ways!)
I’ve got 25 different ways in which you can pare down the obvious and hidden sugar in your child’s diet.
There are many ways to cut down on sugar and this is a long list.
I suggest you pick the tactics that would work best for your child and your family, and get going!
25 Ways to Slash Sugar and Sweets
- Limit candy to one “regular” serving when allowing it. That means, no super-sized portions. Check out the sugar content of popular Halloween candy for an inkling on just how much sugar is in candy.
- Follow the recommended serving size on the back of the package (usually 2 or 3 per serving) for treats like cookies. No box or bag of food in front of the TV!
- Purchase canned fruit that is “canned in its own juices,” rather than in syrup or heavy syrup. You’ll automatically cut down on the sugar content.
- Consider a policy for sweets during the school week, such as “only brain food (nutritious foods) during the school week; treats and sweets on the weekend.”
- Use water and milk (or a non-dairy fortified substitute) as the primary beverage offerings for your child, most of the time. This is in line with the current beverage recommendations for children under age 5.
- Limit soda and other sugary beverages to special occasions.
- Watch the amount of juice, even if it’s 100% juice. According to the recent guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children under 1 year of age should not consume fruit juice; children age 1 to 3 years should be limited to 4 ounces per day; children aged 4 to 6 years should consume no more than 4-6 ounces; and those kids aged 7-18 years, no more than 8 ounces per day.
- Be careful of sugary cereals, and try to choose a cereal with less than 9 grams of sugar per serving.
- Alert! Granola bars can be a sugar trap. Use my granola bar guidelines and buy granola bars with less than 10 grams of sugar per serving.
- Cut the amount you add to homemade recipes. It’s easy to cut out ¼ cup of sugar without any major impact on taste, especially in baked goods like quick breads and cookies.
- Don’t spoil the health benefits of yogurt. The most sugary types of yogurt are the ones with candy or chocolate you can add to the yogurt (nestled on top or alongside the package). The versions with fruit on the bottom carry a punch, too. Plain and flavored yogurts contain the lowest amounts. Read: How to Choose a Healthy Yogurt for Kids
- Make sure after-school snacks are nutritious and preferably showcasing a source of protein, healthy fat, and/or fiber. Check out my 51 snack ideas for kids! Or, if you really want to renovate your snacks, check out my Healthy Snack Planner for Kids.
- Make your own popsicles. Puree frozen or fresh fruit in a blender with water or milk and freeze into popsicle molds. If you’re purchasing popsicles at the grocery store, check out some of the healthiest popsicle varieties.
- Offer fruit at most meals, if not all of them. Fruit offers that sweet flavor kids may crave without all the sugar.
- Frozen fruit makes a refreshing treat. Try freezing grapes, mango and banana for starters.
- Cut down on pre-made meals. Prepared meals like chicken teriyaki can carry quite a bit of sugar! As an extension, carry out meals like Chinese can also be high.
- Get a handle on sports drinks. Young athletes can over-consume them, adding extra sugar to their diet. Most young athletes do just fine with water. (Exception: exercising in a hot, humid climate or for over an hour).
- Don’t use sweets as a reward for eating healthy foods, or for trying a new food. This is bribing your child to eat something healthy, and in the long run, it can change the way your child views sweets (as more important and desirable) and more nutritious food items like vegetables (as less desirable).
- Sprinkle sugar sparingly when adding it to fruit, cereal, or toast.
- Honey, agave, sugar, syrup, chocolate sauce and more are fancy words for hidden sugar! Use them in moderation.
- Dilute the sugary foods your child likes with its non-sugary counterpart. For instance: Mix sugary cereal with a low sugar cereal or mix plain and fruited yogurt together.
- Surprise, surprise! Hidden sugar is often found in mayonnaise, bread, baby food, crackers, tortillas, sausages, salad dressings, packaged oatmeal, and more. Keep your eyes open and read the ingredient labels. It can appear in some of the most unexpected places, and if it’s listed early in the ingredients, you know the product packs some serious amounts. (Hint: names for sugar include words that end in -ose, like sucrose or glucose, and indicate sugar.)
- Use the 90-10 Rule and Limit sweets to one or two per day on average, and keep the portions petite when you can.
- More surprises: canned soup, salad dressings and tomato sauce can harbor hidden sugar, even though they don’t taste sweet.
- Use mini-portions of sweets and treats as much as possible. If baking your own sweets, make cookies bite-size, cut brownies into “bites,” and use the mentality of quality over quantity.
As you can imagine, there isn’t one magical step that will reduce your child’s overall intake, however, taking a few of these proven tips and working on them will add up!
Which tips will you work on to slash the sugar from your child’s diet?
I discuss this topic further on The Nourished Child podcast in these two episodes:
Sign up to get access to my video The ADHD Diet for Kids: Dodging the Most Common Nutrition Mistakes (so You Can Help Your Child Focus, Behave and Grow).