In August 2016, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a scientific statement recommending that children between the ages of 2 and 18 consume less than 6 teaspoons, or 25 grams, of added sugars a day.
Why is sugar intake important?
Consuming high amounts of added sugars has been linked to an increased risk for obesity, elevated blood pressure, and unhealthy blood lipid levels in children, which are all major risk factors for heart disease. Foods high in added sugars can also take the place of nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy, reducing the overall nutritional quality of the diet.
American children typically take in about 3x the amount of recommended added sugars.
American children typically take in about three times the amount of added sugars recommended by the AHA, or about 80 grams of added sugar daily on average. This leaves a lot of room for improvement. The recommendation from the AHA may seem like a stretch compared to the average intake, but it’s meant to highlight a major public health concern for our children and provide a target for families to work towards.
How can parents help?
Some foods and drinks naturally contain sugar, such as the fructose found in fruit and lactose found in milk and dairy products. The real problem, however, is with foods that contain added sugars. Some of the biggest sugar culprits are sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda, sports drinks, fruit drinks, punches, lemonade, and sweetened teas. Other items that are commonly high in added sugars include cakes, cookies, candy, pies, ice cream, and sugary cereals. But added sugar can also be hidden in less-obvious foods, including yogurt, granola bars, pasta sauces, condiments, and canned fruit packed in syrup. (Read this article for 3 surprising food sources of added sugar.)
So what does 6 teaspoons of added sugar actually mean? This is equivalent to about 25 grams of sugar or 100 calories from sugar. Drinking just one can of soda provides around 9 teaspoons, or about 38 grams, of added sugars, which already puts kids well over the recommended amount for the day.
Figuring out the amount of added sugar your kids are currently consuming may be difficult right now since added sugar is not currently included in the Nutrition Facts Label. The good news is that by July 2018 the Nutrition Facts Label for most foods will include a separate line for added sugars, which will make tracking intake much easier.
Avoid major sugar offenders
In the meantime, focus on decreasing the main sugar offenders: sugar-sweetened beverages and desserts. Remember that low-fat milk and water are the best drinks for kids, and the AHA recommends limiting sugar-sweetened beverages to one 8-ounce serving per week or less. Sweets should also be considered occasional treats and be eaten in moderation.
After these two areas are addressed, take a look at the ingredients list for other foods you commonly consume. Added sugars can be listed under a variety of different terms, including any terms with the words sugar, syrup, molasses, honey, fructose, or any other word ending in –ose. Since ingredients are listed in order of weight in the product, limit foods that have sugar as one of the first ingredients.
Trying to reduce added sugars is something that may take time, so don’t get discouraged if your kids are not meeting the AHA recommendation right away. It’s a process that we can all be working towards to keep our kids and ourselves healthy. Keep the focus on consuming more nutrient-dense foods from each of the five food groups so that we can ensure our kids are receiving all of the important nutrients that they need each day.
For more information about the health impact and recommendations for added sugars for both kids and adults, visit the AHA’s website.
Chloe Plummer, MS, RD, LD, is a clinical dietitian with ProMedica Advocacy and Community Health, and her main passion is promoting childhood and adolescent health and wellness. She has a bachelor of science degree in Health and Sport Studies from Miami University and a master of science degree in Clinical Nutrition from Rush University. Read more of her Nutrition at the Table columns on HealthConnect.