How to Lower the Amount of Sugar in Sweet-Loving Kids’ Diets

Sugar turns up in places that parents might not expect, so reducing a kid's sugar intake should start a home with an eye towards ingredients.

by Matthew Utley
Originally Published: 
toddler sugar diet

Sweets have a major impact on children’s health. The biggest casualty may be the baby teeth, but the biggest hazard is childhood obesity, an epidemic by any definition for which sugar is not the sole culprit but remains profoundly culpable. Parents know this, but still struggle to cut down on sugar because unlike, say, saturated fats, it’s incredibly hard to avoid and remains common in “healthy,” fat-free snacks. The American Heart Association recommends that kids limit their sugar intake to 6 teaspoons of sugar a day, which is a nice way of saying that the American Heart Association recommends taking away those Pixie Sticks and rethinking the breakfast ceral selection. But, beyond those obvious choices, how can a parent drastically cut back?

Thea Runyan, co-founder of the nutrition startup Kurbo and lead behavior coach at the Stanford Pediatric Weight Control Program, has over 15 years of experience helping kids and their parents eat healthily and safely, and says there are a few strategies that really work, but just a few. The first will sound familiar to parents: read.

How to Ween Children Off Sugar

  • Read Food Labels – sugar is everywhere. Read food labels to restrict added sugar, and treat sweets like treats, not snacks. Kids will eat healthy snacks if that becomes to routine, but it will take time.
  • Set Limits – restrict dessert to once or twice a week, and serve sweets then. Get sugary foods out of the house so kids aren’t tempted.
  • Parents Can’t Control Everything – kids are going to be bombarded by sugary treat options, and they are going to eat them. Don’t sweat it, but don’t give up.
  • Be an Advocate – the best way to make sure kids are getting healthy snack options at community events like school parties and team celebrations is to sign up to bring them.

“There is so much sugar in foods that are marketed as and that we think are healthy, such as granola bars, cereal bars, juice, yogurt, and dried fruits,” says Runyan. “Read food labels and find the brands with the lowest amount of added sugar.”

That doesn’t mean granola bars, dried fruits, juices and most yogurts are off the menu, but parents need to realize that they are treats, and should be treated as such. There are healthier options for snacks, like fresh fruit. If parents serve it, kids will eat it. There may be some resistance at first, but every change takes time. It’s all about eliminating habits that don’t work and creating new ones that do. Maybe that means dessert becomes a special thing rather than a give. Maybe it means that cookies are excised from the shopping list. It’s easy to be disciplined when you function within a system and difficult when you try to do so on a case-by-case basis — especially when the cases of candy are within arm’s reach.

“Keep sugary, tempting treats out of the house if you don’t want your family to eat them!” suggests Runyan. “It is not fair for parents to expect will-power from their children.”

RELATED: Healthy Versions Of Fruit Rollups, Pizza Rolls, And Other Snacks You Can Make For Your Toddler

That lack of will-power is real and it’s not a character flaw. Most kids don’ have real power. Even the famed marshmallow test is based on the idea of a kid with restraint getting more marshmallows. So it’s on parents to eliminate sugar, not on kids to consider or reconsider their diet.

And it’s important to remember that there really isn’t anything wrong with having treats. It’s a part of birthday parties, class celebrations, post-game, or post-season rituals. Treats are fine. Lif is made sweeter by them so long as they aren’t fetishized or treated as a matter of course. And, for what it’s worth, they will be. Other parents will hand out sweets all the time. There’s not much parents can do about this without being unpleasant other than to accept it, react to kids’ reactions, and try to be a force for moderation.

“Don’t be afraid to speak out and encourage parents to start bringing healthier alternatives to sugary treats,” advises Runyan. “Start by adding healthy choices rather than eliminate all treats.”

That’s the best way to transition to healthier snacks and meals at home, too. Introduce healthy choices, and then slowly withdraw the treats and sweet options. If kids express a desire for a snack they used to have, it can be an option for a dessert night.

Cutting down sugar also cuts down the cravings, but it isn’t instantaneous. It’ll take time, and there very well may be some tantrums and bad moods along the way. But it can make the whole family healthier, and set up good habits for life. Now if they’d only brush their teeth.

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