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Salt, Sugar, and Fat Are the Biggest Health Threat to Kids. Anyone Listening?

Sweets and processed foods are a part of life. They're also no small part of the reason 42% of adults and 18.5% of kids have obesity. How do parents draw the line?

Getting children to eat less sugar, salt, and fat is a battle worth waging. Treats, by definition, should be something that kids get every once and a while — a sweet, decadent break from a diet filled with fruits and vegetables. If you’ve laughed at this sentence, you’re not alone. Just look at the American Heart Association recommendation versus the realities of what kids eat:

AHA Sugar Recommendation: Kids under age 2 shouldn’t eat any added sugar. Children 2 to 18 should limit added sugar to 25 grams per day.

The Sugary Reality: Toddlers eat an average of more than 29 grams of sugar per day. The average American child eats 79 grams.

AHA Salt Recommendation: The American Heart Association recommends that both children and adults eat less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day.

The Salty Truth: Children ages 2-19 seat an average of more than 3,100 mg of sodium per day. That’s more than double the recommended amount.

AHA Fat Recommendation: Fat should account for 30 to 35 percent of daily calories for kids aged 2-3, and 25 to 35 percent for kids aged 4-18. What you really want to watch out for are saturated fats and trans fats. Any amount of trans fat is harmful.

The Fatty Facts: It’s unclear how much fat the average child eats on a daily basis. However, if your child is eating fried foods or baked goods on a regular basis, they’re probably getting too much trans fat.

The results of these disparities are a real national health crisis. 18.5 percent of kids age two to 19 have obesity. Those kids will grow into adults, 42 percent of which have obesity. 193,000 children under age 20 are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes each year. Those health risks translate into high medical expenses. Obesity costs the average man $2,646 and the average woman $4,879 per year. Diabetes costs the average person nearly $10,000 each year.

Eating poorly has consequences and good food habits start young. Kale is not the answer, exactly, and improving your child’s diet doesn’t have to be an overnight overhaul. In fact, it shouldn’t be, says Sara Peternell, a holistic family nutritionist. If you’re trying to make a change, pick the low-hanging fruit first (literally, let them eat as much whole fruit as they want in place of processed foods or sweets). The question to ask yourself is simple, What’s easiest for you to regain control of? Maybe it’s cooking homemade dinners or healthy breakfasts. Maybe it’s restocking the pantry to have less processed foods and more nutritious snacks. Do whatever comes easiest. “It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition,” she says.

Once you get past that first step, build on it with a second, then a third, and soon you’ll have reframed the way your family approaches food. But doing so requires an understanding of what foods pose the biggest risks to children.

Sugar is ingrained in American culture. It’s not treated as a special indulgence to be eaten in moderation, but as a staple of everyday life. “The average 12-year-old will consume more than 40 pounds of sugar each year of their life,” Peternell says. Adults give kids sugar in school lunches, after sports games, and in popsicles all summer. “Sugar in our culture is extremely pervasive.” Sugar is also addictive, possibly as addictive as cocaine.

That’s an issue because added sugar can cause many health problems, both in kids and adults. “It’s the basis for childhood obesity. Other things like dental cavities, malnutrition, fatigue, and digestive issues all have an origin in sugar consumption,” Peternell says.

Raising a healthy kid doesn’t mean cutting sugar out of their diet altogether. That would cause the mother of all tantrums, and it certainly wouldn’t be a one-time thing. But parents do need to reel back sugar intake. Instead of giving children a sugar-loaded granola bar when they get home from school, opt for fresh fruit. Instead of letting them eat a huge pile of sweets at each holiday, encourage them to choose their favorite now and save the others for another day. Explain why you’re doing it; it’s not healthy to eat all that sugar in one day. And don’t be afraid to throw out Halloween candy that’s pure sugar, like Fun Dip.

For kids that mostly eat home-cooked meals, Peternell doesn’t worry too much about salt. “A little salt on some steamed broccoli or on a grass-fed burger does not concern me at all,” she says. It’s salt that’s hidden in processed foods and takeout that is the real issue. “That throws the body’s electrolyte balance off, and other foods that are consumed healthfully have to work hard to counterbalance the effects of too much sodium from the processed food,” Peternell says.

In general, it’s best to stay away from processed foods as much as possible. “Things that come in packages and that have long shelf life usually contain a trifecta of poor ingredients. That would be refined sugar, refined flours, and refined oils,” she says. “If you think about something that’s sitting on the shelf, like a Twinkie, it’s all three of those combined.”

It’s not just important to limit the number of added sugars, excess sodium, and refined oils so that they don’t cause health issues. But cutting down on them also makes room for fresh fruits and veggies, proteins, whole grains, and unsaturated fats that kids need to grow strong.

“My advice to parents is to aim for one or two fresh, home-cooked meals with unprocessed ingredients each day. Rely on processed or packaged foods on occasion, when we need to fill in the gaps,” Peternell says.

When you don’t have time to cook and need to order fast food, Peternell recommends going somewhere that you have more control over the ingredients, like a sub shop or a place that makes salad bowls. That way you can choose to load up on veggies and limit ingredients like mayo. “When my family is eating out or doing fast food, we make a choice in advance of what’s allowable on that menu so we’re not stuck in the drive-thru line making a snap decision.”

“Parents have a lot of control over what their kids are eating. Society would like us to believe otherwise. Commercials and fancy product packages are marketing directly to kids. Kids sometimes run the show, whether it’s what parents buy at the grocery store, what they cook for dinner, what they get at the fast-food drive-thru. But the reality is that parents are earning the money. They’re spending their time and effort and energy to feed their families. Parents can offer choices to their kids that may be healthier for them. Within those options, then kids get to choose.”