Everything You Need To Know About Sugar In Your Toddler’s Diet

It's as hard as taking candy from a toddler

Originally Published: 
toddler counting her candies

When something is super easy, the claim is that it’s “like taking candy from a baby.” Pointedly, the saying is not: “Like taking candy from a toddler.” Because that is pretty much impossible. Not only will a toddler shank you for taking their sweets, but they also have the full support of a powerful sugar lobby (but not a sugar rush, which doesn’t exist). So even if you do manage to get that candy, they’ll easily get more.

Kids chowing down on sugar has been a fraught topic for parents for hundreds of years. And the food and drink industry isn’t making it any easier. So how do you decide when and how much sugar your kid should have? And is it ever appropriate for them to load up on sweets? Research has an answer.

The Sweet Science

So, the fact is that your kid was born with a sweet tooth. Okay, not actually a tooth because that would be freaky. But babies are born with a preference for sweet, which is why breastmilk has a distinct sweetness to it. (C’mon, just admit you tried it.)

It’s also true that some of the most nutritious foods your kid can stick in their gob are loaded with natural sugars that make them particularly delicious. But fruits have a secret. While they do contain fructose (the main sugar in high-fructose corn syrup) that fructose is associated with fiber and other nutrients which slow its absorption into the body. That’s not the case with fructose-injected snacks and drinks.

Why does absorption matter? Because the body turns excess sugar into fat. When it’s flooded with a rush of sugars, everything it doesn’t need to supply your kid with the energy they burn driving you nuts goes straight to the fat reserves.

The Recommendations

In 2016 the American Heart Association (AHA) dropped their recommended intake for added sugar in a kid’s diet. For children age 2 or older, that recommendation topped out at no more than 100 calories of added dietary sugar per day. That’s 6 teaspoons or 25 grams.

Added sugar not only encompasses what you throw on their cereal in the morning. It also includes the sugar that manufacturers add to packaged foods.

But what about for kids less than 2 years old? The recommendation is zero. Zip. Nada. Go ahead and take some time to process that and wonder how the hell you would ever accomplish it. That’s a totally valid reaction.

Troubles From Too Much Sugar

These recommendations are based on pretty sound scientific and health observations. Those observations have placed sugar at the heart of poor brain development and even heart disease. And there’s a host of other issues. They may not be anything you haven’t considered, but keeping them in the front of your mind could help your next shopping trip.


The bacteria that lives on your kid’s pearlies are addicted to sugar. When they get some, they party and make babies and generally just wreck the joint. That leads to cavities. Cavities lead to pain and dental bills. Consider the financial implications of that before you stock the fridge with berry blast-flavored purple drink.


Guess how many kids in America were diagnosed with type-2 (a.k.a. “Adult onset”) diabetes in 1994? 5 percent. Now guess how many are saddled with that diagnosis these days? 30 to 50 percent. Much of this can be connected to poor diets and excess sugar. This is a wake-up call.


As noted earlier, those excess sugars go right into fat storage. That can eventually lead to childhood obesity, which in turn leads to a whole other level of health concerns including heart disease. That’s not the best future for any kid.


One of the biggest problems with super sugary processed foods is that they can create intense cravings. In time, this can edge out the nutritious stuff you’re trying to feed your kid. After all, who wants a real sour apple when you have sour apple Jolly Ranchers? Nobody! Nobody would choose the apple! And when the apple isn’t chosen, all the good stuff apples have in them aren’t chosen either.

The Sugar-Subtraction Plan

So with all this in mind, what do you do next? Well, luckily your kid is young enough to be pretty malleable. And it’s not like they can make (or buy) their own Pop Tarts, so the wheel is firmly in your hand. Here are some ways to curb the sugar flow.

Reach For Fruit

There is a crazy amount of fruit out there in the world. Surely there’s one that will get your kid excited. Every try a cherimoya? Boom. Now’s the time. Just maybe don’t hit the durian on the first outing. Unless you want your home to smell like death and cause your kid to never eat fruit again.

One word of caution, though. Balance is key. Too much fruit can lead to either diarrhea or constipation.

Read Labels

Yeah. Like you have the time. It’s totally understandable that you’re not going to be perusing sugar sources when your kid is melting down for Choco Face Blast Puffs in aisle 5. But you might be able to find time when you’re home. So why not check the labels of the stuff you already buy and reach for the laptop to do some comparison shopping online?

Keep in mind that the foods big in sugar might not be the ones you would expect. Yeah, looking at you, bagel. Oh, don’t look so surprised.

Make More Food From Scratch

Again, this is an idea that is hampered by time. But you can make it much easier by cooking in large batches and freezing meals for convenient cooking or defrosting. You may even have experience with this if you were prepping for your kid’s birth. And if you need a pre-made healthy shopping list to cut the time down even more, then this will help.

Juice Be Gone

Juices and sodas are a killer when it comes to extra calories from added sugars. You might think it’s healthy, but you’d be wrong. If you’re going with juice add some extra water. Or forget the juice and go with water only.

Don’t Ditch It Entirely

A full moratorium on sugar probably won’t do you any favors. In fact, it could cause your kid to binge when they finally get their hands on sweets. And frankly, you don’t want to be “that Dad” at the birthday party making everyone feel uncomfortable as you slap your kid’s hand away from the snickerdoodles. Besides, sugar can actually help make some of the most healthy stuff palatable. A bit on the oatmeal isn’t going to kill anyone. Neither will a birthday cake extravaganza. Let the sugar flow infrequently, but let it flow.

And of course, nobody is expecting you to make these changes overnight. Adjusting your kid’s sugar intake is going to be a process. And so much the better if it takes a month. A sudden stop in the sugar flow could really backfire. Because the act of taking candy from a toddler? Well, that’s insanely difficult.

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