The American Heart Association (AHA) recently released three guidelines for added sugars specific to children. It is well established that eating foods high in added sugars throughout childhood is linked to the development of risk factors for heart disease and an increased risk of obesity in children.

The recommendations include:
  1. Children ages 0-2 consume no added sugars
  2. Children ages 2-18 consume no more than 6 tsp. (25 grams) of added sugar a day or approximately 100 calories
  3. Children and teens have no more than one, 8 oz. sugar-sweetened beverage per week (this does not include 100% fruit juice)

The average intake for added sugars in children is 18-22 tsp. per day. Clearly, there is room for improvement. The majority of added sugars in our children’s diets comes from sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and sports drinks, cookies, cake, and candies.  Added sugars can also be found in foods like yogurt, cereals and sauces.

While I applaud the AHA for establishing concrete sugar recommendations for children, I must honestly admit that meeting these goals isn’t easy. Even as a health-conscious mom, I know my children’s added sugar intake often exceeds these limits. Henry, who is 11 months old, has had bites of cookies and tastes of ice cream. Jack and Patrick’s school allows parents to bring in cupcakes or cookies to celebrate birthdays, and extended family members often show love through sweets.  While I know the importance of limiting added sugars, I also know the potential negative impact of being too restrictive. There must be room for “fun foods” within a diet of mostly “fueling” foods. In light of these recommendations, I have made changes to reduce added sugars in our family’s diet and this is what works for us:

1. Out of sight, out of mind.

I don’t bring many sweet foods or drinks into our home. Isn’t it easier to say, “We don’t have any soda” than “You can’t have any more soda?” I am choosy about about what comes home from the grocery store and where I place foods in the kitchen. If kids can plainly see the cookies, there is no doubt they will be asking for them. I also try to keep only one or two sweet foods in the house at a time. If we have 3 different types of cookies, the increased variety can increase consumption.

2. Focus on fruit.

We are all born with the innate desire for sweet. However, tastebuds can be trained, and we have the power to shape our children’s food preferences at an early age. I often offer fruit as dessert, but the catch is to make fruit-based treats fun such as a trail mix with chocolate chips, bananas dipped in chocolate pudding or strawberries topped with cool-whip.

Dips are an ideal way to get kids excited about fruit as well. Our favorite apple dip combines 2 Tbsp. plain Greek yogurt, 1 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder, 1 tsp. honey, and 1 Tbsp. peanut butter.

3. Don’t deprive.

Studies have shown that when kids are restricted from eating cookies or other snack foods, their desire to eat the snacks increases, and they are likely to overeat them every chance they get. Our role as parents is not only to offer healthy foods, but also to help them establish a healthy relationship with food. How often sweets are offered is personal decision, but as mentioned in my sweet treat interview with eating disorder expert, Shannon Buescher, she recommends offering a sweet food daily! Giving permission to enjoy these foods on a regular basis (but not used as a reward/or taken away as a punishment) helps children to establish a healthy relationship with food.

Keep making small improvements.

Let’s start with an honest assessment of the major contributors of added sugar in our children’s diet. Do they drink a lot of soda or sports drinks? Do they have sweets after every meal? Do grandma and grandpa need to be reminded that giving out so many sweets reduces the opportunity for mom and dad to enjoy treats with the kids? The next step is to make small improvements like offering more fruit or selecting the yogurt with less sugar.

The release of these guidelines has caused me to make small changes in our family, but don’t be surprised if you see us at the ice cream store. There IS room for fun foods, and rest assured, we probably just finished a healthy meal before we left the house!

Jennifer McDaniel

Jennifer McDaniel is a Registered Dietitian, Media Spokesperson, and co-author of Prevention's Mediterranean Table Cookbook. She and her team of Registered Dietitians aim to help their clients go further, make change last, and unlock their potential. She lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband, and three young sons. If you are interested in working with Jennifer, please visit our contact page.