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Healthy Weight Series: Reign in Added Sugars

added sugar

No doubt the presence and regularity of added sugars in a child’s diet has an influence on their health and weight.  I take a closer look at the role of added sugar and childhood obesity and leave you with some tips to manage your sweet child.

What are Added Sugars?

“Added sugars” are the sugars added to foods during food preparation (think baking cookies) or during food processing.  In contrast, natural sugars are inherent to a food, such as in the case of milk, fruit, and vegetables.  The crux of the issue for children is this:  How often do foods with “added sugars” appear in a child’s diet and, do these foods crowd out more nutritious foods?

We know that drinking soda can have a significant impact on a child’s weight, due to the amount of added sugar.  While soda may contribute up to 30% of total added sugar intake in a child’s diet, other sources of sugar are lurking in the grocery aisles. 

Where are Added Sugars?

It appears that the rest of the sugar in children’s diets are coming from obvious and hidden sources.  Obvious sources such as cookies, candy, soda, cakes, pies, and ice cream, otherwise known as confectionary sources, are considered high sugar products and contribute a significant amount of sugar to a child’s diet, and few nutrients.  These sweets are obvious, and most people recognize them as sugar-laden.  In addition to the sugar content, these foods can also be rich in fat and contribute to excess weight gain.

Hidden sugar sources, often advertised and appearing to be healthy, represent the remainder of  the sweets in a child’s diet.  These are sources of sugar that can be sneaky, and can leave parents unaware of their impact on total sugar and calorie intake.  Sugary cereals, yogurts, granola bars, energy bars, sports drinks, trail mixes, and fancy coffee drinks, are some items to be wary of, to name a few.

Added Sugars and Young Children

In a recent study, researchers looked at total sugar intake in preschoolers.  On average, added sugar intake was 14 teaspoons per day for kids aged 2-3 and about 17 teaspoons per day for those aged 4-5. That’s a hefty punch for young ones, especially considering the World Health Organization’s recommendations of <10% calories from added sugar per day. 

The main culprits?  High fat desserts, regular soda, and 10% fruit juices accounted for half of “added sugar” sources.  Apparently, our young ones are getting off on the wrong tooth–the sweet one.  Equally concerning, this study also concluded that healthier foods such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, and grains may be missing or lacking in diets that are rich in added sugar.

What about the Influence of Marketing?

Not only should we be concerned with the overall sources of sugar in a child’s diet, we need to be aware of marketing.  In other words, advertisers aim to influence our children with ads that promote sweeter foods.  Sugary foods that are most commonly advertised to children?  Sugar-enhanced and -coated cereals, sweetened dairy products, and the obvious sweets.

Getting a Grip on the Sweets in your Child’s Diet:

Sweets are a treat!  Reserve obvious sugary foods like cakes, cookies, ice cream, soda, and candy for special occasions.

Focus on natural sugars.  These nature-made sugars are readily available in the form of fruit, vegetables, milk and milk products–and the best part, natural sugars go hand-in-hand with other nutrients that benefit your child’s health, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Strike the balance.  If your child won’t eat yogurt unless it is sweetened, or drink milk unless it is chocolate, relax.  In these foods, added sugars keep company with other beneficial nutrients such as calcium, Vitamin D, and protein, which are an important part of a healthy diet and for a child’s growth.  Focus your efforts on making sure your child gets a healthy dose of  natural sweets. Try the 90:10 Rule and listen in to more advice on how to manage sweets in your child’s diet.

Be a “sugar-sleuth.”  Don’t let the “healthy” foods trick you–be a savvy consumer and seek out hidden sources of sugars — look on the ingredient list of food products for words like table sugar, fruit juice concentrate, cane sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, and honey–these should send off a caution light in your head. 

Other, more subtle, tricky words, such as dextrose, sucrose, maltose, and other words ending in “-ose” are red flags for the presence of added sugar.  Compare products to find the lower sugar content, which can be determined by looking at the nutrient label for grams of sugar per serving, and by looking at the ingredient list for the type of sugar.  Pay attention to the order of the ingredients:  if the sugar source is near the top of the list, then it delivers a hefty dose of added sugar.

Look for and recognize hidden sources of added sugar in your usual purchases, pick up more foods that contain natural sugars, and limit sweet treats to special occasions.  

How are you doing with added sugars?

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