Sugar: How Much is Too Much for Kids?

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Kids love sugar. Many of you reading this probably know this all too well. As parents, we want to feed our kids healthy foods so they grow, but all they seem to want is sugar! Is there a reason for this? Why, yes. Yes there is.

Let’s talk about it and how much sugar is OK for your kids to consume.

It has long been determined that kids prefer sweeter foods. Is that a moral downfall? No! It’s biology. In order to survive, babies have a born preference for sweetness so they will drink breastmilk (which is sweet). As kids get older, they are immersed in a world of sugary foods and drinks, some of which are specifically targeted to them.

Added sugars and sweeteners can be upwards of more than 200+ times sweeter than naturally occurring sugar, which makes kids continually want sweeter and sweeter things in order to get that same effect. Naturally occurring sugars (such as those in fruit) are different than those foods with added sugar. Whole foods with naturally occurring sugar in them also have other nutrients (such as vitamins and fiber) that help to slow the absorption of the sugars, allowing for the impact of the sugar to be less. Chemically created sugars or those added to a food for the purpose of making it sweeter tend to not have that natural check and balance. The question then becomes, what is all of this doing to our children’s growing bodies?

Issues such as mood and behavioral disorders, malabsorption, digestive issues (gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea), fatty liver disease, pre-diabetes and diabetes, high cholesterol, hormone imbalances, and weight issues (both overweight and underweight) all can be tied back to added sugar and sugar substitute consumption. Longer term studies are currently being done but the staggering increase in chronic disease in kids as young as 3 years old is on the rise.

So does that mean that kids (and adults) can never have sugar again, ever?

Of course not. That is not realistic for most families at this stage in life. What we can do, however, is understand exactly what’s in the food we feed our family and make healthier swaps (with less added sugar) where we can.

How much sugar is safe for our kids?

This is heavily debated right now in the industry. The American Heart Association states that kids ages 2-18 should have no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of sugar daily. Now, personally, comparing the body of a 2 year old and 18 year old is wildly different and 25g of sugar is going to have a completely different impact on a 2 year old than it will on an 18 year old. Newer research coming out will likely adjust the recommendations to 24g of sugar or less for ADULTS, and much less for kids depending on their age. Children under 2 should have zero grams of added sugar, but the debate is still out on what is an appropriate level for growing kids. Even if the recommendations stayed the same, to give you context, a 1 cup (8oz) serving of chocolate milk made by Horizon Organic, is made with 10 g of added sugar. Almost half of the recommendation. A good rule of thumb? Less sugar the better.

What about juice? That’s healthy, right?

Juice has very little nutritional value and is very concentrated with sugar. Not only can this cause issues with tooth decay (especially when kids sip on it throughout the day), but juice lacks many of the benefits that eating the whole fruit gives, specifically fiber. Fiber helps to slow the absorption of the naturally occurring sugar in fruit, so when you take the fiber away, that sugar is rapidly absorbed and the roller coaster of blood sugar spiking and crashing takes place. This can lead to moodiness, energy crashes, and cravings for more sugar. If your child is going to drink juice, offer it watered down and in small amounts. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting juice to 4-6 oz a day in children ages 1-6 years, and limiting to 8 oz in kids ages 7-18 years.

So what do you do?

Start by taking note of all of the sources of added sugar your child has on a regular basis. Look at cereals, beverages (sports drinks, sodas, sweet tea, juice, chocolate milk, etc), snacks, bread, and even sauces like ketchup, BBQ sauce, and teriyaki sauce. Look at the food label and read how many grams of sugar it has. Labels are required now (as of 2021) to list “Added sugar” under the Total sugar. This helps you determine what amount is naturally occurring (like from fruit) and what is added. For example, if you look at this food label you can see that this item has 4g of Total Sugars and 0g of added sugars. That means that all of the sugar in this item occurs naturally. This item is frozen peas, by the way.

Nutrition label on bag of frozen peas

You also need to look at the ingredient list for sneaky hidden sources of added sugar, especially if you or your child have sensitivities caused by sugar or sugar substitutes. Food manufacturers know that people are aware of the health dangers of sugar so they have gotten good at hiding sources of sugar in the ingredients. There are over 200 names for added sugar that can be found on a label! I’ve created a handout of many of them so you can use it as a reference when looking at ingredient lists. It’s not an exclusive list but most of the common names that we’d see in America are on it. Download your free list HERE.

The bottom line is, read the labels of the foods and drinks your family is consuming and try to choose those with zero to low amounts of added sugar.

Better yet, choose more foods WITHOUT a food label such as fresh fruit, veggies, and protein sources.

If you or your child has physical or behavioral symptoms that you think could be related to added sugar intake, contact your medical doctor and then seek out the advice of a qualified nutrition professional to help get you on the right track.

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