Eight Tips to Reduce Sugar in Your Child's Diet

Sugar is ubiquitous in industrialized countries’ food supplies and is added to a wide range of foods, some of which you may not even perceive as sweet. Bread, pasta sauce, crackers, yogurt, condiments, dressings, soups, cereals, juices, tea, and of course, soda and desserts, all represent sources of added sugar that may be in your child’s diet.

Key takeaways:
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    Use non-food rewards to encourage positive behavior rather than sweets to avoid long-term emotional eating struggles.
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    Distraction is a key tactic to help both kids and adults overcome sugar cravings.
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    Buying unsweetened drinks and foods is a top priority when aiming to reduce sugar intake.
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    Avoid products with sugar in the top 3 ingredients.
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    Consider cutting sugar in recipes by ¼-½ to reduce sugar intake with only modest changes to the final product.
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    Many natural sugar alternatives are readily available, though some natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup are concentrated sweeteners and must still be counted towards added sugar intake.
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    Eating foods rich in protein and fiber at meals and snacks can help reduce sugar cravings.
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    Sweetened foods are easier to eat when they are convenient. Make these foods out of sight and out of reach for children.

Excessive added sugar in the diet is a major contributor to obesity, diabetes, cavities, metabolic syndrome, and other diseases, as well as crowds out other more healthful and nutrient-dense foods in a child’s diet. The World Health Organization (WHO) strongly recommends restricting a child’s added sugar intake to less than 10% of total calories, or less than 5% for children with cavities. Sadly, the average child’s diet contains 16 teaspoons (64g) a day!

To put that in perspective, the National Institute of Health (NIH) provides calorie goals for children based on age and activity level. For a somewhat active 4-8-year-old boy or girl, the recommended goal is 1200-1400 calories per day. Following the above 10% WHO guidelines, this would require added sugar intake to be less than 30-35g (7-8 teaspoons) a day. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a stricter guideline of fewer than 6 teaspoons (24g) a day. Though this may seem like a liberal amount, just a cup of sweetened cereal and a small yogurt nears this maximum without factoring in popular sweetened foods such as juice, bars, and sweets.

1. Don’t reward with sugar

Rewarding good behavior with a sweet treat helps to reinforce the behavior but is not without downsides. This reward eating reinforces that sweets should accompany acceptable or positive behavior which may set up the child for a long-term struggle with emotional eating.

Looking for other options to reward behavior? According to the UK’s Child Feeding Guide, non-food rewards are plentiful - stickers, points towards a goal on a reward chart, small toys, verbal affirmation, and outings – can all play an essential role in motivating a child toward a desired behavior or action without the reliance on food bribes.

2. Distraction for overcoming cravings

Sugar cravings can feel intense and overwhelming but typically only last a few minutes. If you can help divert your child’s attention towards a fun activity, outside play, exercise, or other routines, your child may experience more success and less frustration in the process. Planning positive distractions ahead of time may also be helpful if your child has a specific sugar craving trigger such as a time of day, or after meals.

3. Buy unsweetened drinks and foods

Nowadays there are many alternatives to sweetened foods. Some foods include added artificial sweeteners, and added natural non-nutritive sweeteners, but the best long-term choice is to purchase unsweetened options. Experts encourage unsweetened foods more often so that the palate is not conditioned to always taste hyper-sweet foods. Overstimulated taste buds may lead to a higher desire for sugar and sweets over time and less satisfaction with unsweetened foods and natural sweet-tasting foods like fresh fruit.

4. Caution with the top 3 ingredients

Ingredients are listed by weight so the top three ingredients represent a large majority of what foods are present in a packaged food. Avoid added sugar in any form in the top 3 ingredients. In addition, check the added sugar grams within the nutrition label. The lower the better since every 4 grams is a teaspoon and it adds up fast.

5. Cut sugar in recipes

Many recipes’ sugar content can be cut by ¼ to ½ without a noticeable difference. The product’s taste will be less sweet if sugar alternatives are not used but the finished product may result in a more pleasing overall flavor profile if the original recipe required high amounts. Don’t be afraid to experiment – you may be pleasantly surprised!

6. Use alternatives

Sugar alternatives grace the shelves of local grocery stores and health food stores alike. While the best option is to avoid all sweeteners, in some cases, you may need a substitute to ease the transition to a lower-sugar diet. Consider the following options.

  • Unsweetened applesauce (works great as a sweetener in yogurt)
  • Cooked fruit (sweet flavors are concentrated)
  • Stevia
  • Monk Fruit Extract
  • Erythritol
  • Allulose
  • Xylitol (may cause intestinal discomfort if used in high amounts)
  • Raw honey (still a concentrated sweetener so must still be counted as an added sugar)

7. Provide more whole foods

When adequate protein, fiber, and calories are provided, you may find your child is less motivated to seek out added sugar and processed carbohydrate-rich foods. Since protein and fiber are the most satiating nutrients and can help minimize blood sugar swings, providing an array of whole foods like boiled eggs, cheese, nuts, fruit, vegetables, hummus, seeds, fish and meat can be a helpful strategy.

8. Make sweetened foods less convenient and available

Research shows we reach more often for foods and snacks that are easy, quick, and convenient. The same applies to children. Make sure to place unhealthy packaged foods and sweets both out of reach and out of sight to reduce the chances your child will be triggered to desire or crave a sugary snack.

An opaque cookie jar on a top shelf rather than a clear jar on the counter is a great example of a simple home environment change that can support you and your child.

Sugar in small quantities is unlikely to lead to long-term consequences but added sugars in a child’s diet threaten their nutrient intake and long-term health. Utilizing some of the strategies mentioned here such as choosing non-food rewards, making sugar less available in the home, and purchasing unsweetened foods can help you successfully transition your child to a healthier, lower-sugar diet.