If you asked me to describe my kids' eating styles, I'd say this: my older son is sweet and my younger son salty. I say this because my 15 –year-old is like the Candy Man. He loves cookies, cake, candy, chocolate and everything sweet. My 11-year-old, however, is more of a chip lover. He will eat sweet things like vanilla ice cream (with nothing on it), vanilla cookies and ice cream sandwiches, but he's the only child I know who doesn't like candy. We're not sure where he came from, because both my husband and I have a bit of sweet tooth, but I guess we should count our blessings, right?
As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I know too much sugar—especially in the diet of a growing child—can be a saboteur. Eating too many empty calorie, sugary treats can provide too many calories to the diet and contribute to unhealthy weight gain. It can also crowd out more healthful, nutrient-rich options (including fruit, nature's candy) and contribute to inadequate nutrient intake to meet kids' needs for growth and development. Let's not even talk about the dental effects of too many sweet food and beverages—we all know they can take their toll on teeth and contribute to cavities, degraded tooth enamel and so much more.
The good news, according to a recent analysis by the NPD Group for USA Today, is that children seem to be making progress when it comes to curbing sugar intake. The report, based on daily eating diaries kept by 5,000 people living in 2,000 households nationwide, shows that children eat and drink fewer sugary sweets than they did 15 years ago. Specifically, the report shows that the typical child ate or drank the 20 most common sugary sweets an average 126 times fewer in 2012 than in 1998—that includes 62 fewer occasions of drinking carbonated soft drinks and 22 fewer times eating pre-sweetened cereals.
Despite the fact that kids are, in fact, consuming less added sugar, their average added sugar intake hovers around 16% of total calories according to national survey data. Current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than 5 to 15% of calories from added sugars and total fats combined—or roughly 120 to 260 calories for children who consume anywhere between 1,200 to 2,000 calories depending on their age, gender and other factors.
To help you help your kids curb their added sugar intake, here are 6 tips from registered dietitian nutritionist Margaret Wertheim, author of Breaking the Sugar Habit:
1. Help them have healthy drinking habits. Habits develop at a young age, so if you offer water, low fat milk and other nutrient-rich beverages instead of soda and other sweetened beverages at home or when they're on the go, they're more likely to enjoy such beverages when they're older.
2. Offer satisfying snacks. It's pretty much guaranteed that if sweet nutrient-poor snacks lurk in your cupboards, they will be eaten. Instead, stock your cupboards with healthy snacks like unsweetened dried fruit or fruit leathers, nuts, natural peanut butter, whole grain tortilla chips, whole grain crackers and whole grain, high fiber, low sugar cereal. Some satisfying snack options include apple slices or whole grain crackers with natural peanut butter, fruit with plain yogurt, vegetables with hummus, whole grain tortilla chips or crackers with hummus or guacamole or homemade trail mix made with nuts, whole grain cereal and unsweetened dried fruit.
3. Sweeten foods yourself. Look for yogurts, hot cereals and other foods in their lowest sugar form and sweeten them yourself. For example, you can add fresh or dried unsweetened dried fruit and/or honey or maple syrup to plain low fat or nonfat yogurt. Or add cinnamon and a touch of honey, maple syrup or brown sugar.
4. Make sweets special treats. Instead of offering children desserts like cookies, pies, cakes, and chocolate daily, save them as special occasional treats. Offer fresh fruit or unsweetened dried fruit, a fruit smoothie, or unsweetened applesauce as sweet after-school or after-dinner treats.
5. Slash the sugar when you make dessert. Make lower sugar desserts like homemade applesauce or apple or berry crisp, or homemade ice cream or sorbet using only a small amount of added sugar. Alternatively, offer kids dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa content. (Higher cocoa content usually means there's less sugar in the chocolate.)
6. Use small plates and bowls for desserts. A small amount of ice cream in a large bowl may feel less satisfying than the same amount served in a small bowl. When you offer dessert, offer a set portion (like a small bowl of ice cream or one cookie). Avoid letting kids eat desserts out of containers or packages, as this can make portions get out of control. Instead, encourage them to eat slowly and savor the portion they have.
How do you help your kids eat less sugar?
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Image of a beautiful little girl holding a big colorful lollipop via shutterstock.