Added sugars in your family’s favorite foods could be pushing everyone over their recommended daily allowance of the sweet stuff. Here’s how to stop eating so much sugar—without causing a rebellion

By Katherine Lagomarsino
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Did you know that the average American consumes almost 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day? That's far beyond the daily allowance of 6 teaspoons for women, 9 teaspoons for men, and 3 to 6 teaspoons for children (depending on their age) that the American Heart Association recommends.

Added sugars should not be confused with the naturally occurring sugars found in whole foods such as fruit (fructose), vegetables, and milk (lactose). These foods provide vital nutrients to growing bodies and should never be cut out of a diet, unless under a doctor's orders.

Found in non-diet soft drinks, cookies, cakes, and other processed foods, added sugars, especially when consumed in abundance, can create serious health problems such as an increased risk for being obese or of developing heart disease or diabetes. High levels of added sugar consumption have also been linked to behavioral problems in children and acne in teenagers.

But when you consider that a single 12-ounce can of soda can have 11 teaspoons of added sugar, and that practically all (74 percent!) of processed foods, from ketchup to cured meats to crackers, have added sugars, it may seem impossible to rein in your family's sweet tooth. But lowering your family's sugar intake could be well worth the effort.

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Go Slowly

For Amy Hodges of Herriman, Utah, her now 7-year-old daughter, Charlotte, was reason enough to reduce her family's added sugar intake. When Charlotte was in preschool, she began having meltdowns that could last as long as 2 hours. After trying behavioral therapy and occupational therapy, Amy enrolled her daughter in a program that focused on, among other things, diet.

In February 2018, the Hodges family, including her husband, Teddy, and their 2-year-old daughter, Jojo, began eating less added sugar—no more than around 4 teaspoons each per day.

"We just started slowly," says Hodges. "I got rid of the Halloween candy. I just threw it all away." She overhauled her pantry and started buying more whole foods or processed foods with just a few ingredients.

"I had to start reading labels," she says, admitting that in the beginning, trips to the grocery store were more arduous. "It doesn't just say sugar; it says dextrose or malt barley."

Amy also began tweaking recipes to make them healthier. She now adds unsweetened applesauce to pancake batter and makes ice pops using blended fruit.

Perhaps most importantly, she now involves her kids in their food choices and gives them options.

"We go to the grocery store, and I'll say, 'Let's see if we can find a purple vegetable,' and Charlotte would find cabbage. You can also try cooking the vegetables different ways," says Amy. "If they don't like them steamed, you can fry them or bake them."

Don't Make Sugar the Enemy

While there are many ways reduce added sugar in your family's diet, none of them should include making sugar the bad guy, says registered dietitian nutritionist Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, founder of NutritionStarringYou.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.

"You don't want to vilify sugar," says Harris-Pincus. "It doesn't promote a healthy relationship with food. We worry too much about what foods to avoid and not enough about what foods to include. Half of your plate should be fruits and veggies. The more room you give to the healthy items, the less room there is for the junkie stuff."

She suggests starting out small, like mixing your child's favorite sweet cereal with its unsweetened counterpart, or diluting their juice with water. She also recommends buying foods like yogurt and oatmeal in their plainest form and then adding sweetness with fruit, honey, or maple syrup.

She says that unless someone in your family is a severe diabetic, there is no need to go cold turkey when it comes to cutting sugar. "It's not a medical emergency," she says. "It's a lifestyle change."

Lindsay Hazard, RDN, in Dallas, agrees. "If you cut down too much," she says, "children could become obsessed with sweets and treats. This could lead to them hiding those types of food and bingeing on them when they're around."

The Hodges have indeed taken the gradual approach on sugar reduction, including shifting their mindset away from rewarding good behavior with sugary treats.

"We were constantly rewarding them with things like snow cones or Popsicles," says Hodges. "Now we reward with activities, like ice-skating at the rec center."

Sweet Benefits

Over the last 15 months the Hodges family has experienced noticeable changes, especially with Charlotte.

"It's been night and day with my daughter's meltdowns," says Hodges. "If she does have one, it's usually because she needs to eat, and the meltdown is 10 minutes or less."

As for Hodges, she no longer has pre-diabetes and has gradually shed 15 pounds. She also sleeps better.

"Cutting back on sugar will benefit the whole family, not just the kids," says Hazard. "And, by cutting [added] sugar out of your diet, you will more likely be turning to more nutrient dense foods, like whole grains, fruits and vegetables—all of which the typical American does not get enough of."

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