Limit sugar in children’s diets

Dr. Julie Cheek with a young patient.
Dr. Julie Cheek with a young patient. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

New federal dietary guidelines were recently released that make new recommendations for Americans’ sugar intake. While the previous recommendation was that we limit consumption of added sugar that comes from food processing or preparation, the new guidelines get specific. We are now advised to limit the amount of sugar we consume to no more than 10 percent of our daily calorie intake.

The move comes as more and more nutritionists, public health officials, and health care providers see a link between sugar in the diet and obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions.

Sugar consumption is higher for children than for any other age group. This doesn’t account for naturally occurring sugar in some foods, such as juice. Sugar intake for both boys and girls rises steadily, peaking in the teen years at levels far above the recommended levels, before starting to decline in adults.

If you must shop with your kids, look for a checkout lane that has the fewest sweets on display.

Reducing sugar in your child’s diet may sound tough, but it is easier than you think. Here are three tips I recommend to my patients to help establish healthier habits.

Avoid ‘liquid sugar’

Children live in a world filled with juice boxes and fruit drinks. Juice and fruit drinks, however, provide few nutrients but a lot of sugar and calories.

A 15-ounce bottle of apple juice, for example, can have nearly 48 grams — or 11 teaspoons — of sugar. In comparison, a glazed doughnut typically has about 11 grams of sugar. Anything ending with “-ade,” “punch,” or “drink” can contain less than 5 percent juice and a hefty amount of added sugar.

If you choose to give your child juice, make sure it is 100 percent juice, and limit the amount your child drinks. Infants 6 months and younger should not drink juice. Children between the ages of 1 and 6 should drink no more than 4 ounces to 6 ounces of juice a day, and older children should limit their intake to 8 ounces to 12 ounces.

The best liquids for your child to drink are water and low-fat or non-fat milk. Avoid soda, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweet tea and other sugary drinks. Keep water readily available by using water bottles or putting a pitcher of cold water in the fridge. A child with a juice habit can be gradually weaned off juice by diluting it with water, with a bit more water added to the juice each week.

You can make drinking water fun. Adding lemon, lime, or orange wedges or an ice cube can help, and it’s amazing what a difference a straw can make for young children.

Rethink shopping habits

It’s often said that it’s best to shop from the side aisles of grocery stores, which tend to have more fresh and bulk products, than from the center aisles, where processed foods are most likely to be shelved. If you reduce the amount of sugar in the products you buy, your child will eat less added sugar.

Become a label reader. Take a look at the portion size on processed foods that you purchase and then scan down the label to see the sugar content. The lower the sugar content per serving, the better.

If you can, try to shop without your children present. What parent isn’t familiar with the “Can we get this?” refrain that is so common when you pass the candy, cookie or soda aisle? If you must shop with your kids, look for a checkout lane that has the fewest sweets on display. It will save you the difficult task of repeatedly saying “no.”

Reduce and replace dessert, treats

Your child doesn’t need to eliminate dessert. Kids who eat sweets less frequently and who eat smaller portions when they do will be on the right track. Instead of eating a whole candy bar or cupcake, perhaps half will do. Fresh fruit or a milkshake or smoothie made with low-fat milk, fruit or yogurt can be just as satisfying without the added sugar.

Remember that establishing healthy habits now will lead to a lifetime of healthy choices.

Dr. Julie Cheek is a board-certified pediatrician at the Bellingham clinic of Unity Care NW, formerly known as Interfaith Community Health Center.