How Sweet Should Childhood Be? 3 Tips to Navigate All That Sugar

Dec. 5, 2016

Please always discuss any health and feeding concerns directly with your pediatrician.

Every parent hopes to create a childhood overflowing with sweet memories and experiences for their precious little one. But that “sweet” part can sometimes be a little too literal: according to the American Heart Association, children now consume about 19 teaspoons (80 grams) of added sugar every day.1

As humans, we’re hardwired to prefer sweet flavors starting from our first days of life. But how much sugar is acceptable to still raise a lifelong good eater? Are some types of sugar preferable to others? And how can parents strike the right balance so the occasional cookie or birthday cupcake can be treasured and savored? Whether you’re just stepping into parenthood or already feel like a parenting pro, for many of us managing sugars can be sticky business. 

We’ve got you covered. Here are 3 surefire strategies to help your family find that sweet spot when it comes to building a delicious, nutritious diet that enables your little one to flourish.

1. Understand the difference between added and naturally occurring sugars.

When you read the Nutrition Facts Panel of a food label, you’ll see “sugars” listed as a single line item. But that number includes both naturally occurring sugars -those naturally present in whole foods such as fruits, many vegetables, whole grains and dairy products- and also any added sugars- additional sugars or sweeteners that are sometimes added to foods and beverages to sweeten their appeal. The recent FDA rule to revise the Nutrition Facts Panel will include added sugar and goes into effect in January, 2020. 

While they are lumped together: sugars provide energy for your tot to power their oh-so busy lives, but the source of foods that contribute sugar is important to factor into your dietary choices. For example, fruits naturally contain fructose and are also a source of important nutrients such as dietary fiber, potassium, and vitamins A & C.  Cow’s milk naturally contains lactose, but comes with calcium, protein and other essential nutrients. Added sugars, in contrast, are the ones you want to try and limit, as a diet filled of foods  with added sugars often displace nutrient-dense foods , making it harder for your child to get the recommended essential nutrients he or she needs for optimal development, including a healthy body weight

2. Know how to spot sugar on a label. 

What’s in a name? According to the FDA there are over 60 different names for added sugars and sweeteners that can be included on a label. Read ingredient lists and check for ingredients like refined sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, honey and high fructose corn syrup. The current Nutrition Facts Panel and the ingredient list are important tools to help parents get a rough idea of whether and how much added sugar may be in a particular product. And it’s helpful to know that ingredients are required by law to be listed in descending order according to weight. While many alternatives to refined sugar such as agave syrup or coconut palm sugar are often touted as smarter choices, they still “count” as added sugar, so it’s a good idea to treat these the same as common sweeteners and still stay within the guidelines (see tip #3). 

3. Stay within the guidelines for added sugars - even “healthier” sugars. 

The 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines set new guidelines around added sugars, recommending no more than 10% of calories (or 50g) come from added sugar each day based on a 2000 calorie diet. This is consistent with the level established by the World Health Organization. 

Bottom line: a diet that’s filled with plenty of wholesome, nourishing foods (vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, whole grains and dairy products) and minimizes processed foods and beverages made with added sugars will help contribute to a healthy lifestyle. And you can still enjoy the occasional sweet treat for special celebrations. Now that’s delicious news for sure!

Added Sugars and Cardiovascular Disease Risk in Children. Miriam B. Vos, et al. Circulation. 2016;CIR.0000000000000439, published online before print August 22, 2016.