Cut That: Simple Ways to Slash Sugar

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Your five-year-old asks for sugar on top of her already sweetened cereal. Then your sleepy 10-year-old wants free-pouring rights with the maple syrup. It doesn't take a degree in nutrition to know this is sweet-stuff overkill. But because sugar isn't always that easy to spot, your child can pack away an astonishing quantity before you can say, "Want a juice box with your frosted granola bar?" after school.

What Is It?
Sugar is a carbohydrate that delivers energy to the body quickly. Trouble is, it has zero nutritional value. And if you've hosted a birthday party or witnessed a post-Halloween binge, you know its energy-boost is short-lived, resulting in a sugar crash that can leave your child hungrier than before.

There are two types of sugar:

  • Natural sugar is found in many foods -- including fruit, certain vegetables, milk, and dairy products.
  • Added sugar is commonly found in most packaged products -- think cereals, candy, ketchup, and salad dressing -- to boost flavor. Added sugar is often called high-fructose syrup or super-concentrated sugar; fructose, fruit pectin, and cane juice are other names.

Why Cut It?
While sugar is okay in moderation, most kids consume it in excess -- and there's nothing sweet about the consequences. Research has linked excess sugar to pediatric obesity and Type 2 diabetes in children.

Major Offenders: It's easy for kids to overdo sugar simply by drinking sweetened beverages. OJ at breakfast, a juice box at snack, a chocolate milk at lunch, a sports drink after soccer, and wham -- your child has gulped down three times the daily recommended amount. Candy and processed, packaged sweets and snacks are more obvious culprits, along with syrup found in canned fruit and the maple variety that kids love to drown waffles in.

How Much Is Too Much?
It's best to keep your child's (and your own) sugar intake to less than 50 grams a day, advises Jaimie Davis, Ph.D. and registered dietician. You'll find more than half that amount in one can of regular soda.

Seven Ways to Keep Sugar in Check:
  1. Try low-sugar drinks. Choose drinks with less than 5 grams of sugar per serving, like water, seltzer, and low-fat milk. For more flavor, try these kid-approved low-sugar drink recipes.
  2. Dilute fruit juices with water or seltzer. Try a one-to-one ratio; kids often won't notice a difference.
  3. Diet trumps regular soda. If you can't avoid soda, go with its diet counterpart. In moderation, it's a better alternative to regular soda.
  4. Note serving size. In this super-sized world, many packaged snacks and drinks contain multiple servings in one container. A typical beverage serving is 8 ounces, but some individual bottles contain two or more servings, which means double the sugar, too. Look for true single-servings when you buy individually packaged food and drinks.
  5. Teach compromise. To tune kids into how much sugar they're getting, teach them about making smart choices. For example, tell them they can have the double-serving lemonade now or ice cream for dessert later, but not both.
  6. Choose cereal wisely. Look for cereals with less than 10 grams of sugar per serving. Be on the lookout for buzzwords like "brown sugar cinnamon," "honey," or "maple" in the name. They often indicate that even an otherwise healthy cereal is loaded with sugar. If your child can't find an appealing choice, try mixing half of her favorite with half of a low-sugar/high-fiber variety. Get more tips on finding healthy foods for kids.
  7. Monitor portions on toppings. Given the choice, kids will smother most any food in chocolate syrup, maple syrup, ketchup, and other high-sugar add-ons. The recommended two-tablespoon serving for maple syrup, for example, packs nearly 22 grams of sugar -- and most kids will use far more. To give your child a sense of control, provide a tablespoon and let him measure the right amount, or measure it into a small dish for him to pour from.

A Word on Artificial Sweeteners: Though it's best to choose sugars or sweeteners derived from natural sources such as honey whenever possible, artificial sweeteners such as sucralose and aspartame can help reduce sugar in a child's diet, says Davis. It's not clear that artificial sweeteners cause harm to children, but there is solid evidence that excess sugar plays a role in pediatric obesity and diabetes.

Learn More: Biggest Sugar Shockers lurking in favorite kids' drinks.

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