The study found that toddlers age 19-23 months ate an average of 7 teaspoons of added sugar per day. That’s one more daily teaspoon than the American Heart Association’s recommended amount for older kids and adult women. And, it’s much more than the recommended amount for children under age 2, which is no added sugar.
Chloe Plummer, a registered dietitian with ProMedica, said that limiting added sugars is especially important for these young, growing children. “When we think about how much a toddler is eating, it’s much less than an adult,” she said. “It’s so much more important for them to eat nutrient dense foods. Sugary foods are replacing other important nutrients that they’re not getting.”
And those early habits are difficult to break, even in adulthood.
“What’s so concerning about the high sugar intake in infants and toddlers is that they’re learning that preference for sweeter, less healthy foods very early,” explained Plummer. “That’s likely going to stick with them and it’s going to be so much harder to change those preferences as they get older.”
In early childhood, too much sugar may lead to cavities. Later in life, the risks may include obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Cutting sugar is challenging, especially when you’re working with picky eaters. Here are a few tips from Plummer to help you cut added sugar from your toddler’s diet:
Check out nutrition labels
Although nutrition labels don’t currently include the amount of added sugar, but it’s still a helpful place to start. “Looking at the ingredients list is the best thing to do,” Plummer explained. “High fructose corn syrup, syrup, molasses, honey, sucrose—they are all different types of added sugar.”
Foods targeted to kids—such as cereal, granola bars and yogurt—often have a lot of sugar. Try to find the healthier versions of foods by comparing total sugars.
Opt for whole foods
“Convenience foods are easy and often affordable, but will often have sugar added,” said Plummer. The solution: Try to remove these prepared foods from your diet as much as possible.
“Try your best to add in more whole foods, aiming for foods that hit the five food groups,” Plummer recommended.
Find new ways to introduce healthier foods
If little noses turn at new fruits and vegetables, try offering them as an appetizer before their meal. “When you’re really hungry, you are more likely to eat some of those healthier foods,” said Plummer.
Kid-favorites such as dips or cheese can also be helpful in moderation. Plummer advises, “If you’re able to use dressing or cheese to introduce that food to a child to get them to try it and then slowly cut back on the dip or cheese, they’ll get used to it over time and learn to like that food.”
Cut out flavored drinks
Juice, flavored milk, soda, sweetened tea and sports drinks—the sugar in those can really add up. Even 100% fruit juice has a lot of natural sugar without the fiber you get from eating the fruit. Plummer recommends avoiding flavored drinks and offering no more than 4 oz. of 100% fruit juice to your toddler daily.
Hold off on too much snacking
“Snacks are important, but we don’t want kids to snack so much that they aren’t hungry for their actual meal,” explained Plummer. “Have a healthy balance between snacks and meals, with enough hours between them to allow kids to get hungry again.”
Keep treats as treats
Cakes, cookies and ice cream are obvious culprits for added sugar. Keep them as special treats and not everyday foods.
Give kids some control
“Your role as a parent is to provide your child with healthy options, knowing they’re not always going to love it and they’re not always going to eat all of it, but getting kids used to that healthier palate of foods,” explained Plummer. She’s a fan of Ellyn Satter’s theory of the division of responsibility in feeding, which divides the roles of parent and child when it comes to food.
“Parents choose which foods to prepare and the kids choose how much they’re hungry for, how much they want to eat and whether they’re going to eat all those foods,” said Plummer. This allows parents to set the stage with healthy food options while taking cues from your child’s natural instincts.