Sugar and our kids. This is a tough issue for us parents, presenting choices and challenges all day long. From cold cereals at breakfast, to cupcakes at birthday parties, to a bedtime snack of cookies and (chocolate) milk, just about every "treat" -- especially those aimed at kids -- seems loaded with added sugars.
As a member of the Children's Advisory Council for the top-ranked NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, I was asked to join a panel of doctors to speak on the topic of sugar and our children. The parents present at this educational symposium asked some excellent questions. I've compiled 10 of them, along with our discussion, below.
First, the sickeningly sweet facts: According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the average teen consumes 125g of sugar a day, which amounts to about 500 calories (one quarter of a typical 2,000 calorie a day diet). Considering the American Heart Association's recommended amount of added sugar is no more than 12-36g per day, depending on age and gender, we are way, way over the limits.
1. Should I forbid sugar outright?
No! Don't be the extreme mom who won't let her kids have a slice of cake at the birthday party or who bans all sweets on the home front. Nothing makes kids want it more, and ultimately they'll over-indulge when they find access to the "forbidden fruit."
From a scientific perspective, our brains need sugar every day to function -- we just need to pay attention to what type of sugar and how much sugar is being ingested.
2. How are natural sugars different from "added" sugars?
Naturally occurring sugars are found in fruits (fructose), dairy (lactose), vegetables and whole grains. They do not need to be avoided. If you serve your child a cup of fresh strawberries, for instance, she'll be getting 7 grams of naturally occurring fructose sugar wrapped in nature's perfect package of fiber, vitamins, minerals and enzymes that help the body properly digest and utilize this natural sugar.
Any sugar that is not found naturally in the food is considered "added" sugar. This includes white or brown sugar, honey, maple syrup and sweeteners such as corn syrup. See the American Heart Association's (AHA) helpful guide for more.
3. How much sugar is too much sugar?
According to the AHA, the recommended daily sugar intake for adult women is 20g, for adult men, 36g and for children (depending on age) it's about 12g. But who's going around counting the grams? The simple answer is moderation. If your kids are having a donut and hot cocoa for breakfast, cookies and juice for snack and jellybeans after lunch, they're having way too much!
4. Will sugar make my kids fat?
Added sugar makes food taste good (why do you think they sweeten children's medicines?) and makes us want to eat more. This can lead to overeating and possibly to obesity.
5. Is it okay to serve dessert every night?
Yes. Just make sure added sugar isn't always high on the ingredient list, and that the dessert portions are on the small side (no need to bring out a whole pie -- just one slice per person suffices).
Variety is the spice of life, so broaden your definition of dessert to include juicy fruit (or fruit salad), popcorn, kale chips, dark chocolate, a homemade goody or an occasional outing to an ice cream parlor (which is less damaging than making daily dips into an ice cream carton in the freezer!). When you make a dessert, you can usually reduce the sugar the recipe calls for. Better yet, replace those undesirable "added sugars" The Sneaky Chef way, with naturally sweet fruit and veggie purees.
6. Are artificial sweeteners ok for kids?
While artificial sweeteners taste sweet, they are designed to be indigestible in the stomach. These sweeteners can lead to bloating, gas and diarrhea. They can also play tricks on the mind and body, sending all kinds of mixed signals and possibly making us crave sweets even more. Do not steer your children toward these unsafe sweeteners.
7. How do I get my kids to eat their dinner (and not just want dessert)?
Two words: No grazing. Kids should eat three meals (with one or two small snacks) a day. They should come to the table hungry. Make sure they don't skip breakfast even if they say they're not hungry.
8. Is sugar "toxic" or even cancerous?
Researchers who study the effects of sugar on the body are still unable to answer this conclusively. Sugar does cause inflammation in the body, which can lead to numerous health issues, including obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Here is a must-read article on the toxicity of sugar, by Gary Taubes (author of "Why We Get Fat")
9. What's an easy way to read a food label and look out for sugar?
Sugar is in almost all packaged and processed foods -- from salad dressings to soups, condiments, fruit tubs and of course, cereals. It lurks in large quantities in some surprising places, as well: for instance ketchup, bread, pasta sauce, many so-called "healthy" cookies and BBQ sauce.
An easy rule of thumb: if sugar (or High Fructose Corn Syrup) is the first or second ingredient, don't buy it. And watch out for "low fat" and "fat free" versions of anything -- this usually means there's more sugar to make up for the loss of fat.
10. What can we do about sugar cravings?
If you think you or your kids are addicted to sugar, you're probably right. When we eat something sugary, our brains release dopamine, which is a happy hormone that prods us to eat more of what is making us happy. Here are a few tips to quell sugar cravings:
• Make sure you're giving your kids enough protein, which curbs sugar cravings.
• Give your sweet tooth natural sugars (which are complex carbs) -- rather than added sugars -- whenever possible. Simple sugars are too easy for the body to break down, and will make you get hungrier faster. Complex carbs, such as sweet potatoes and brown rice, will keep you fuller longer.
• Reduce the added sugar in recipes (I usually reduce it 25% without a problem).
• Replace the "added sugar" in recipes with the Sneaky Chef solution: naturally sweet purees made from veggies and fruits.
The result? Healthier kids, no sugar spikes and less cravings for the added sugars none of us need. Now that's sweet!