Sugar and Kids: What You Need to Know

Staff Writer
Solving the sugar mystery with the 5 most commonly asked questions and their answers
Antonis Anchilleos
Should you ban sugar altogether from your kid's diet or only allow a little? Missy Chase Lapine addresses sugar your concerns.

Sugar is a tough issue for parents — presenting choices and challenges all day long. From cold cereals at breakfast and cupcakes at birthday parties to the bedtime snack of cookies and (chocolate) milk, just about every kid-friendly "treat" seems to be loaded with added sugars, and it can raise some pretty nail-biting concerns for parents.

First, the sickeningly sweet facts: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average teen consumes 125 grams of sugar a day, which amounts to about 500 calories (one quarter of a typical 2,000 calorie a day diet). Considering the American Heart Association’s (AHA) recommended amount of added sugar is no more than 12 to 36 grams per day, depending on age and gender, we are way, way over the limits.

Don’t worry, though, because there’s light at the end of the tunnel. In other words, there’s a way to treat your kids to some sugar and help them stay healthy, too. Here are the top five most frequently asked questions from parents about sugar and the answers they’re looking for.

Should parents forbid sugar outright?

No! Don’t be the extreme mom who won’t let her kids have a slice of cake at the birthday party, or who bans all sweets on the homefront. Nothing makes kids want it more, and ultimately they’ll overindulge when they find access to the "forbidden fruit."

From a scientific perspective, our brains need sugar every day to function — we just need to pay attention to what type of sugar and how much sugar is being ingested.

How much sugar is too much sugar?

According to the AHA, the recommended daily sugar intake for adult women is 20 grams, for adult men it's 36 grams, and for children (depending on age) it's about 12 grams. But who’s going around counting the grams? The simple answer is moderation. If your kids are having a donut and hot cocoa for breakfast, cookies and juice for snack, and jelly beans after lunch, they’re having way too much. Just remember, added sugar makes food taste good (why do you think they sweeten children’s medicines) and makes us want to eat more. This can lead to overeating and possibly to obesity.

Is it OK to serve dessert every night?

Yes. Just make sure added sugar isn’t always high on the ingredient list, and that the dessert portions are on the small side (no need to bring out a whole pie — just one slice per person suffices).

Variety is the spice of life, so broaden your definition of dessert to include juicy fruit (or fruit salad), popcorn, kale chips, dark chocolate, a homemade goody, or an occasional outing to an ice cream parlor (which is less damaging than making daily dips into an ice cream carton in the freezer!). When you make a dessert, you can usually reduce the sugar the recipe calls for. Better yet, replace those undesirable "added sugars" the Sneaky Chef way, with naturally sweet fruit and veggie purées. Want a recipe? Try Sneaky Chef’s Brainy Brownies.

What’s an easy way to read a food label and look out for sugar?

Sugar is in almost all packaged and processed foods — from salad dressings to soups, condiments, fruit tubs, and of course, cereals. It lurks in large quantities in some surprising places, as well: for instance ketchup, bread, pasta sauce, many so-called "healthy" cookies, and barbecue sauce.

An easy rule of thumb: if sugar (or high-fructose corn syrup) is the first or second ingredient, don’t buy it. And watch out for "low-fat" and "fat-free" versions of anything — this usually means there’s more sugar to make up for the loss of fat.

What can we do about sugar cravings?

If you think you or your kids are addicted to sugar, you’re probably right. When we eat something sugary, our brains release dopamine, which is a happy hormone that prods us to eat more of what is making us happy.

Here are a few tips to quell sugar cravings:

  • Minimize munchies that combine sugar, salt, and fat (french fries, cookies, chips, etc.). When these three pair up, sugar cravings are amplified.
  • Make sure you’re giving your kids enough protein, which curbs sugar cravings.
  • Give your sweet tooth natural sugars (which are complex carbs) — rather than added sugars — whenever possible. Simple sugars are too easy for the body to break down, and will make you get hungrier faster. Complex carbs, such as sweet potatoes and brown rice, will keep you fuller longer.
  • Reduce the added sugar in recipes (I usually reduce it 25 percent without a problem).
  • Replace the "added sugar" in recipes with the Sneaky Chef solution: naturally sweet purées, made from vegetables and fruits.

The result? Healthier kids, no sugar spikes, and less cravings for the added sugars none of us need. Sweet.