“Too much of a good thing” can be true when it comes to sugar, a fact that usually hits home when we feel its effects, whether that’s an upset tummy, changes in the scale, or when we’re sitting in the dentist’s chair.
Too much added sugar in your child’s diet (and your own!) can lead to all sorts of woes. Sugar fuels the bacteria in one’s mouth that causes cavities. Its additional (and often unnecessary) calories contribute to weight gain. A high-sugar diet can also increase the risk for Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. And while the verdict from the medical community seems to be that sugar doesn’t cause hyperactivity or bad behavior in children, we’re all familiar with that sugar-rush-and-crash cycle that leaves us feeling cranky (or in full meltdown mode for toddlers still learning to express themselves).
How Much Is Too Much?
Lauren Marlow, MS, RD, Supervisor of Nutrition, Commodities and Summer Program at Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) explains that because children’s caloric needs will vary based on things like activity level, so will their ability to consume more or less sugar. A general guideline is for added sugars to make up less than ten percent of total calories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Marlow says that the USDA regulates the food served in schools, and while the agency doesn’t look at sugar specifically, they do require schools to incorporate all food groups (dairy, meat, whole grains, and fruits and veggies). CPS has its own initiatives as well that look at sugar intake, including attempts to remove high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners, and a low sugar content for grain items like sweet breads or muffins. The school system also focuses on nutrition education for both parents and children. Marlow says that grains are paired with protein as often as possible, and monthly treats still get a healthy makeover. For example, this month children will receive a whole grain shamrock cookie.
“It’s not a healthy message to say ‘never,’” says Marlow. “We want to teach the message that once in a while is OK.”
Where It Hides
Cupcakes, cookies, ice cream … those are the obvious sources of sugar. Marlow advises parents to be on the lookout for sources that might seem healthy, but could actually be loaded with the sweet stuff – like yogurt, ketchup, BBQ sauce, salad dressings, pasta sauces, and even granola. She adds that although cereal tends to get a lot of “bad press” for being sugar-laden, manufacturers have actually been taking steps to reduce the amount of sugar in their products.
For parents looking to cut back on added sugar intake at home, take a few tips from Marlow, who plans daily meals for tens of thousands of children. Aim for whole fruit instead of canned fruit or fruit juice – your child will consume the fiber that is stripped away in the canning or juicing process, and that will slow the absorption of sugar. Read labels carefully and aim for clean labels that don’t list ingredients like HFCS or artificial sweeteners. And offer variety!
“There’s a salad bar at every school,” says Marlow, “and we change up a fruit or veggie each week. We try to find something they may not have tried before, like pineapple or mango.” You never know what new favorite your child will discover.