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Are sweets turning into a bitter reality for your child?

There is no doubt the presence of sugar in your child’s diet has an influence on her health and weight.  For the child and teen, sugar consumption can be as high as 34 teaspoons each day! Let’s take a closer look at sugar, from its prevalence in your child’s diet to how to handle it.

“Added sugars” are sugars added to foods during food preparation (think baking cookies) or during food processing.  In contrast, natural sugars are inherent to a food, such as the lactose in milk and fructose in fruit.  The crux of the issue for children is this:  How often do foods with “added sugars” appear in your child’s diet and, do these foods crowd out more nutritious foods?

We know that drinking soda can have a significant impact on a child’s weight, due to its levels of added sugar.  While soda may contribute up to 30% of total added sugar in a child’s diet, other sources of sugar are lurking in the grocery aisles– from obvious and hidden sources.  Obvious sources of sugar such as cookies, candy, soda, cakes, pies, and ice cream, are known as confectionary sources, and are high in sugar, contributing a significant amount of sugar to a child’s diet, and few nutrients.  These sweets are easy to spot and most people recognize them as sugar-laden.  In addition to the sugar content, these foods can also be rich in fat and contribute to excess weight gain.

Hidden sugar sources, often advertised and appearing to be healthy, represent the remainder of the sugar in a child’s diet.  These are sources of sugar that can be sneaky, leaving parents unaware of their impact on total sugar and calorie intake.  Sugary cereals, yogurts, granola bars, energy bars, sports drinks, trail mixes, and fancy coffee drinks, are some sugary items to watch.

In a recent study, researchers looked at the total sugar intake in preschoolers.  On average, added sugar intake was 14 teaspoons per day for kids aged 2-3 and about 17 teaspoons per day for those aged 4-5.

The main culprits for toddlers and preschoolers were high-fat desserts, regular soda, and 10% fruit juices which accounted for half of “added sugar” sources.  Equally concerning, the study concluded that healthier foods such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, and grains may be low in diets that are rich in added sugar.

If you don’t have a grip on the sweets in your child’s diet, they might over-run it. Use these tips for getting sweets in the sweet spot:

An occasional treat:  Reserve obvious sugary foods like cakes, cookies, ice cream, soda, and candy for special occasions.

Focus on natural sugars:  These nature-made sugars are readily available in the form of fruit, vegetables, milk and milk products. The best part about natural sugars is they go hand-in-hand with other nutrients that benefit your child’s health, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Strike the balance:  If your child won’t eat yogurt unless it is sweetened, or drink milk unless it is chocolate, relax.  In these foods, added sugars keep company with other beneficial nutrients such as calcium, Vitamin D, and protein, which are an important part of a healthy diet and for a child’s growth. Back off on the other sweets if these are prominent in your child’s diet.

Be a “sugar-sleuth”.  Don’t let “healthy” foods trick you. Be a savvy consumer and seek out hidden sources of sugars: look on the ingredient list of food products for words like table sugar, fruit juice concentrate, cane sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, and honey. Other words such as dextrose, sucrose, maltose, and other words ending in “-ose” are red flags for the presence of sugar.  Compare products to find the lowest sugar content, which can be determined by looking at the nutrient label for grams of sugar per serving, and by looking at the ingredient list for the type of sugar. Pay attention to the order of the ingredients:  if the sugar source is near the top of the list, then it delivers a hefty dose of added sugar.