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Sugar: How Bad Are Sweets for Your Kids?

Understanding the role of sugar in young diets

Child holding bowl of jellybeans

Sweet treats. It’s tempting for parents to reward good behavior with them. And for grandparents to use sweets to see little faces light up.

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Is sugar really that bad for your kids? What’s wrong with using M&Ms for potty training — or keeping kids occupied with treats while you grocery-shop?

We asked pediatricians Edward Gaydos, DO, and Svetlana Pomeranets, MD, to explain sugar’s role in a child’s diet.

How much sugar is OK?

“Let’s start by looking at American Heart Association (AHA) recommendations,” says Dr. Pomeranets. The new guidelines call for less than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of sugar per day for children ages 2 to 18 years. That includes no more than 8 ounces of sugar-sweetened drinks per week.

“Children younger than 2 years should have no sugar at all,” adds Dr. Gaydos.

Why has the AHA adjusted sugar limits downward? Because eating lots of added sugar early in life is linked to obesity, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. And those problems put children and young adults at risk for heart disease.

Plus, filling up on sugary treats leaves less room in young tummies for heart-healthy fare like fruits, veggies, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.

Doing the math

“I advise parents to read food labels, find ‘sugar,’ and do the math — every 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon,” says Dr. Pomeranets.

For example, you’ll find 10 grams (2-1/2 teaspoons of sugar) in:

  • One serving (3/4 cup) of Lucky Charms® cereal
  • One serving (two) Chips Deluxe Rainbow Chocolate Chip Cookies®

That can add up fast, especially when kids ask for more.

“The worst sugars are in processed foods, sports drinks, pop, desserts and fruit juice,” says Dr. Pomeranets, adding, “Don’t rush to introduce fruit juice — it has no nutritional value.”

By July 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will mandate that all manufacturers clearly call out added sugars on food labels.

Meanwhile, review a product’s ingredients list for sugar (also known by names like high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice and honey).

Let hunger be your guide

Dr. Gaydos suggests that parents offer kids healthy choices at every meal and let them choose what their bodies tells them they need. It may be meat or vegetables first thing in the morning rather than at lunch or dinner — and that’s OK.

He goes on to explain that “children have an innate ability to adjust their diet to their energy intake. They can self-regulate when they need protein, fat and carbohydrates.”

Both kids and adults are programmed to use hunger and fullness cues to regulate food intake, says Dr. Gaydos, adding that when you’re hungry, everything tastes good.

“Coercive, restrictive and environmental cues that tell us when to eat can override our natural self-regulation so that we no longer pay attention to hunger and fullness cues,” he cautions.

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A place for sweets

Sweet treats can have a place in your child’s diet, but it shouldn’t be every day. “I try to impress on parents that sweets should be given strictly as a treat, in reasonable portions, on special occasions or days,” Dr. Pomeranets says.

Dr. Gaydos adds that “eating brings joy, but that joy should be geared toward the process of satisfying hunger and spending time with family. Children can’t choose a well-balanced diet. But adults can, and should — right from the beginning.”

Other options

So if M&Ms aren’t the best reward, how do you congratulate your child for potty training progress? “Add stickers to a chart, put marbles in a jar, or find other means to reinforce good behaviors,” advises Dr. Pomeranets.

And what should you say to doting grandparents? Ask in advance if they can treat kids to mandarin oranges, dried fruit or trail mix rather than ice cream, cookies and sugary cereal, she suggests.

Adds Dr. Gaydos, “I try to look at it not as compromising, but as refocusing where children’s joy should come from.”

That would be on the experience of enjoying food when they’re hungry and meal time with family (without distractions like TV, videos or the newspaper).

Finally, it helps when parents model good eating habits, says Dr. Pomeranets, and choose to eat fruits and veggies every day, too.

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