Children in the U.S. consume nearly 20 teaspoons of sugar every day – three times more than recommended – which negatively impacts their health immediately and for the rest of their lives.
The short-term consequences of too much sugar in a child’s diet are cold-like symptoms like chronic runny noses, coughing and excessive mucus, croup-like coughing, acid reflux-like symptoms, cavities, a weakened immune system and stomach aches. Sugar is not directly linked to behavioral problems in children, but the way the body processes large amounts of sugar can result in your little one feeling shaky or sluggish and craving more sweets which can lead to meltdowns. Eating lots of sugar early in life is linked to obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and heart disease later in life.
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Knowing this, it is our job as parents to limit the amount of sugar our kids are having every day. Now it will be easier than ever to keep track of how much sugar you and your family are consuming because of a change to food labels. The FDA has updated the requirements for Nutrition Facts labels on packaged goods to provide consumers with new scientific information about the link between chronic diseases like obesity and heart disease, and what we eat. One of the changes, which goes into effect on Sunday, is a new line for “added sugars” in grams and as a percent daily value.
The American Heart Association says that children between the ages of 2 and 18 years old should have no more than six teaspoons, or 25 grams, of sugar every day and no more than one sugar-sweetened beverage every week. Experts say that children under age two should not have any additive sugar because it offers no nutrients and can negatively affect developing taste buds and food preferences. That means toddlers and babies should not have candy, soda or junk food. In fact, they should not even have juice.
“No juice?!” you may be saying. Yes. No juice! Even 100 percent juice has no nutritional value for little ones. This may sound insane to some, but juice is loaded with sugar and the empirical proof shows that sugar is really bad for our kids. If your kids are some of the millions who are having more sugar than they should be, here are some recommendations on how to cut back.
MAKE CHANGES GRADUALLY
If you and your kids go cold turkey, everyone will suffer. Start to make small changes, a little at a time. Evaluate where your family gets its sugar high and make a plan to swap out those items for healthier choices. Have an apple instead of something packaged. Add vegetables to snack on and at meal time. Water down the juice before cutting it out entirely. Say goodbye to soda. Get unsalted nuts instead of chocolate candies. Plan to work on one healthy change each week until your new normal includes far less sugar. This can be difficult, but will be so worth it.
TEACH HEALTHY EATING
Talk to your kids about why healthy eating is important. Explain to them that every day we need to fuel our bodies with a blend of nutritional foods, like protein and produce. Sugar can only make up a very small percentage of our daily diet. Invite them to be a part of meal preparation by giving them small tasks and chores to help. Educating your kids while they are young may assist them in making the right decisions when they get older.
When on the go, try to always have water bottles and healthy snacks with you. Once kid starts snacking, they all turn into seagulls and there is always that well-intentioned mom at the playground that is happy to share candy with all the kids. If you’re trying to cut down on your kids’ sugar, something like this could be a major setback (plus a major meltdown). Stock your car, purse and diaper bag with healthy snacks like pretzels, peanut butter packets and dried fruit, so you can whip them out when your little one is hungry.
DON’T MAKE SWEETS A REWARD
Offering sweets as a reward is a handy bribery tool used by many parents. But you should start offering stickers instead. Making sweet foods (like candy) a reward inadvertently says that sugary treats are better than other foods. Kids could also become even more obsessed with the reward food. Some experts also think that rewarding with sweets sends the wrong message that children should always expect rewards for normal, appropriate behavior.
READ THE LABELS
I was shocked to see how much sugar is in a baby portion of an organic yogurt made especially for children. I assumed it must be good for kids simply because of the packaging, so I did not even bother to look at the ingredients. My son, Killian, had quite a few of these before my husband noticed the amount of sugar on the nutritional label. After we realized, I started giving Killian plain yogurt with cinnamon. Be informed before you decide what to serve to your children. Look for added sugar as fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, glucose, honey, lactose and sucrose in the things you by at the grocery store. Because of the new updated labels, it will be easier than ever to see exactly what you are feeding your little ones.
SET THE EXAMPLE
You cannot lecture your children on the importance of healthy eating from behind a box of Cocoa Puffs. Children mirror the behavior they see so it is critical that we parents are also conscious of how much sugar we are consuming and show our children healthy eating habits. We all know that too much sugar is not good for any of us. Make healthy choices for your kids and yourself.
TALK TO YOUR PEDIATRICIAN
We should always talk to the experts and get personalized guidance for each of our own unique situations. If you are concerned that your child’s diet has too much sugar, make an appointment to see your doctor or plan to discuss a strategy for cutting out the sweet stuff at their next wellness visit.
Like so many things in life, the key to enjoying sugar is moderation. Sweets are a part of childhood, and I want Killian to enjoy treats like ice cream on the beach or funnel cake on the boardwalk. But knowing what I know now about the dangerous and deadly consequences of too much sugar, those special occasions need to be the exception, not the rule. Teach your children about moderation and healthy eating habits. If unhealthy habits have formed, start to make those small, gradual changes now so your children can break their sugar addictions before it hurts their lifelong health.
Do you find it is hard to monitor or limit your child’s sugar intake? Has your child’s health been affected by too much sugar? Share with me and other parents in the comments section below or Tweet me @ThePhillyVoice and @KathleenEGagnon.