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Sugar and kids

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Kids love sweet stuff. In fact, humans are wired to desire it

For most of history, humans evolved to seek out sweet tastes. Finding sweet, ripe foods offered an easy energy source, therefore, an evolutionary advantage. 

In the modern-day developed environment, foods high in added sugars are readily available and abundant. It is difficult to ignore the deep-rooted desire to consume sweet tastes. While a little is okay, it is easy to overdo it when packaged into hyper-palatable, well-marketed, affordable products. And when we over consume, our health suffers.

So, if we are designed to desire it, what about our kids and added sugars? 

How much can they have? What are the impacts on health? What if they won’t eat anything else?

Read on, and we will help answer these questions!

Why worry?

Broadly, a little added or free sugar is fine for kids, except those under 2 years. 

We do need to be mindful of having too much, as well as the packaged and ultra-processed foods added sugar often comes in. 

Why? It encourages the preference for intensely sweet tastes, displaces more nourishing foods needed for growing bodies and brains, and increases the risk for health concerns. 

Added sugar intake limit

If there is anything to take away from this article, it is this: There is no biological requirement for added and free sugars. Whole foods naturally offer up any sugars required to function.

Learn more about the difference between naturally occurring and added sugars.

For children up to 2 years, it is recommended they have no added or free sugar whatsoever. 

For kids 2 – 18 years, the upper limit of added sugar intake can vary from 3 to 6 teaspoons (12.5 – 25 g) per day, or 5% of their daily energy intake. The amount depends on age and energy requirements.

Obviously, the smaller they are, the less they eat, so keep the added sugar intake in proportion to their food intake over the entire day. 

Bottom line: Keep added sugars to a minimum, as an occasional or once in a while food.

Health concerns

There are plenty of reasons why kids should go easy on the sweet stuff.

Short term
Do you feel your kids go a little wild after a big hit of the sweet stuff?

A study from a while back found it was parents’ expectation of the effects of sugar on their kids rather than the sugar itself. 

However, anecdotally, many parents – who know their kids so well – notice the shift in behaviour and mood following excess intake of food and drink high in added sugar.

This may be due to the brain being initially overstimulated and the child experiencing a crash in energy following a surge, resulting in a mood swing and altered behaviour. 

This could explain why kids who start the day with a filling, nourishing breakfast are more able to focus at school. Monitor your kids and do what is best for you and your family.

Long term
The list of health concerns for kids (and adults) following a diet high in added sugars is concerning. They include increased risk for dental caries, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, neurological concerns, such as an increased risk for cognitive decline in adulthood, and implications for psychological health, including anxiety and depression.

In addition, eating this way can set up taste preferences and eating habits for later in life.

Nutrition and eating habits 

It is important to encourage healthful eating habits in kids, and it is never too late to start. 

For growth, development, and mental and physical health, kids require a diet mostly comprised of a variety of nutritious whole and minimally processed foods.

And it needn’t be expensive! See here for eating well on a budget.

As previously mentioned, humans are wired to desire sweet tastes. So, kids considered ‘picky’ or ‘fussy’ eaters may end up eating more added sugar.

If you are experiencing this, there is no need to fret. Picky eating often happens in phases and is pretty normal. 

To ease concern as a caregiver (and avoid developing an unhealthy relationship with food), we suggest you focus less on scrutinizing each morsel that passes the child’s lips and instead consider the overall dietary pattern. What they eat over the course of a week is a better indicator of a healthful diet than what they eat (or don’t eat) at dinner on that particular day.

Here are some ideas to tackle picky eating.

If the child’s diet lacks whole, nutritious foods, focus on incrementally improving the quality of everyday foods and intake.

For example, swap a high sugar cereal with a low sugar option, containing 5g of sugar per 100g or less. Sweeten it naturally by topping it with fruit. 

Check out our ideas on kids sugary swaps!

We suggest leaving the all or nothing attitude behind. If they have a day of mainly eating ready-made packaged foods, try to incorporate more nourishing whole foods into meals the following day. 

Gently persist with finding ways to incorporate healthful, whole foods. These nourishing foods will slowly replace the less healthy, ultra-processed foods and the added sugars often in them.

We have some fun and tasty, healthy meal ideas for kids to try for inspiration!

When encouraging kids to make changes, get them on board by explaining the reasons for doing so. Keep the reasons positive, such as ‘to feel better’ or ‘help the body and brain grow strong and smart’, avoiding reasons such as weight or behaviour (unless they bring it up and wish to have a conversation about it). 

Explore with them how they ‘feel’ after consuming certain food or drink, rather than for some abstract reason like ‘health’. 

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Be patient and persistent. It can take 8-12 attempts of serving up a new food before they are willing. Offer gentle encouragement – they may surprise you! 
  • When serving fresh produce, eat produce that is in season – it tastes better. 
  • Get them involved in the food prep, food shopping, meal planning, or even growing food!
  • Eat meals together, and be a role model. 
  • Trust them – if they don’t want to eat dinner, don’t push it. They will eat if they are hungry.
Go easy and have fun with food!

When limiting added and free sugars intake, remember a little is okay. Do what you can to incorporate as much whole and minimally processed foods into their day and week, and don’t overthink it too much.

Finally, to encourage more healthful eating, find ways to make food fun for you and the kids! Do this, and eating well will come. 

 

By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med)

 

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