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Six dietary guidelines to reduce sugar consumption in kids

US Sugar Consumption is Too High

When it comes to sugar consumption, there is good news and there is bad news. According to the latest findings from the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, children today are eating less sugar than in the past. However, we all still eat way too much.

In a data brief released by the National Center for Health Statistics, 16% of the total daily caloric intake of children and adolescents comes from sugars added to foods and beverages. While this is down from 18% of calories for the average American in 1999, it is still higher than the recommended upper limit of 15% for added sugars and added fats set by the US Dietary Guidelines.

Just to clarify: The term “added sugars” includes all sugars used as ingredients in processed and prepared foods such as breads, cakes, soft drinks, and sweets plus those added in the home, such as putting sugar into iced tea or syrup onto pancakes. Naturally-occurring sugars, such as those in fruit and 100% fruit juice were not considered in the calculations.

Think about it this way – the CDC report shows that our kids are consuming an average of 322 calories per day from added sugars. Since a pound of body fat is roughly equal to 3500 calories, this amount of excess on a daily basis could lead to a weight gain of one pound every 2 weeks (keeping all other factors equal).

Excess sugar consumption obviously has detrimental effects to our children’s health. According to the CDC, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years and one-third of children in the US are considered overweight or obese. The immediate health effects of excess weight include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and glucose intolerance (prediabetes). Kids are also at a greater risk for bone and joint problems and sleep apnea. In the long-term, kids who are overweight are much more likely to be overweight as adults, leading to a greater risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and several types of cancer.

But where does the sugar come from? According to the report, parents have received the message that caloric beverages such as soda and juice drinks are huge sources. For example, a study last year published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that the consumption of sodas has decreased in the past decade. The latest data has found that now, 59% of added sugars in the diets of the surveyed families came from foods, not drinks.

As a parent, you can cut back on excess added sugars in your child’s diet with some simple measures:

Avoid the obvious – too many sweets
Parents too often use sweet treats as mainstay of the meal – meat, starch, vegetable, dessert. Change that habit in your home by either eliminating the need for a daily sugar source or trying new and fun ways of making fruit a staple treat. For example, instead of ice cream, try making a “parfait” of vanilla yogurt layered with unsweetened applesauce.

Another place kids tend to eat junk foods are at events such as scouting trips or athletic games. Skip the Gatorade and cupcakes and instead offer cold, refreshing water and fruit leather.

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Trade out processed foods for fresh
The CDC survey found that much of the foods consumed by children that contributed the most added sugar were those that were highly processed. Yes, it is convenient to pick up a package of Granola bars for a snack – after all, don’t they sound healthy? – but some brands offer much too much sugar in the form of syrups and other sweeteners.

Another source of sugar is the packaged lunches we send to school with our kids. Again, crackers, turkey and cheese sound like a pretty healthy lunch, but some of the packaged “Lunchable” style meals can actually contain as much as 30 grams of sugar. Canned pasta such as SpaghettiOs has 13 grams in each serving.

When possible, prepare foods from fresh as much as possible, bypassing foods that have long lists of unpronounceable ingredients.

Pump up the produce
Only 16% of elementary school-aged children meet government recommendations for vegetable consumption. Get kids interested in eating more fruits and vegetables by making it fun for them to try new foods. Not only will this add necessary vitamins and minerals to their diets (something that may be lacking when eating processed foods), but most of these are also quite filling and will reduce cravings for those foods that are not so healthy.

Experts suggest trying some of the following tips. Serve vegetables as an appetizer. If they are hungry, they will eat. Institute a rule in your home of “at least one bite”. If they try it, they might like it. Let your kids shop and prepare vegetables. If you have the space, growing your own vegetables can encourage them to eat what they sow. And if you are the creative type, try making fun shapes and designs with fruits and vegetables to make it fun.

Watch out for hidden sugar sources
Check out the ingredient list on ketchup (which at one time was actually considered a vegetable by some.) One of the top ingredients is often high fructose corn syrup. This ingredient is often used in processed foods because it acts as a preservative, extending the shelf life of the food product. However, it is also linked to health problems such as high blood pressure and weight gain.

Before buying anything, be sure to look for these words that mean “added sugar”: corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, and sucrose. Also note that honey, fruit juice concentrates, molasses, raw sugar, brown sugar, and agave nectar are all healthy sounding sweeteners, but in the end really just added up to extra sugar.

Continue to pay attention to beverage consumption
While the majority of the added sugars are coming from processed foods, a very large amount of sugar (41%) is still being consumed by way of caloric beverages. Teach your child to reach for water first, then 100% fruit juice, and then another flavorful drink. Limit sodas, juice “drinks” (that are really only 10% juice and 90% sugar), energy drinks, and sugar added to tea and lemonade.

Eat at home more often
This survey found that most of the foods that we eat are consumed at home, but that doesn’t discount the fact that restaurants and fast food venues contribute a lot of added calories, fats and sugars to the daily American diet. Regular family meals do a lot to help improve children’s nutritional intake, plus they are a great way to bond and spend time with your child – which can also improve mental health as well as physical health.

Source Reference:
Ervin RB, Kit BK, Carroll MD, Ogden CL. Consumption of added sugar among U.S. children and adolescents, 2005–2008. NCHS data brief no 87. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2012.

Additional References:
Center for Science in the Public Interest, Sugar Intake Hit All-time High in 1999
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Childhood Obesity Facts
Welsh JA, Sharma AJ, Grellinger L, Vos MB. Consumption of added sugars is decreasing in the United States. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Sep;94(3):726-34. Epub 2011 Jul 13.