Ah, sugar. There’s plenty of buzz about monitoring children’s intake of it, and researchers are discovering more reasons why it’s important.
A new study released in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that 61% of infants and 98% of toddlers consume added sugars, which often come in foods like flavored yogurts and fruit drinks. While the researchers did notice a small decline in the overall intake of added sugars throughout the ten-year study period, they found that widespread intake of added sugars points to a much bigger problem: Unhealthy eating patterns and subsequent health problems can start in early childhood.
Highlights from the Study
Sugars are added to a lot of foods that we wouldn’t consider sweet or “sugary,” such as salad dressings, crackers, bread, and even tomato sauce. Previous studies have shown that unhealthy eating habits are formed early, and sugar plays a big role. Dr. Kirsten A. Herrick, from the National Center for Health Statistics and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stated that “previous research into the diets of children over 2 years-old associated sugar consumption with the development of cavities, asthma, obesity, elevated blood pressure, and altered lipid profiles.”
Family clinicians who weighed in on this study explained that dietary habits aren’t always high priority during well visits. One of these clinicians, Dr. Scott Hartman of Rochester NY, stated that pediatricians are often “shocked by the amounts of sugars, especially in beverages, that American children are consuming.” While labeling sugar content is helpful, many people may not know how much sugar should be consumed in one day, or the real threat of sugar to our health. Dr. Hartman explained the importance of more doctors and health organizations informing families about the consequences of sugary diets. Parents should “aim for less than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of added sugars per day, no more than 8 ounces of sugary drinks per week, and no added sugars for children younger than age 2.”
Tips for Building Healthy Eating Habits
Here are some expert tips to help parents and caregivers avoid added sugars and promote healthy eating habits:
Read labels on ALL foods, especially snacks and fruit drinks. Doctors, as well as the authors of this study, urge parents to read food and drink labels. Keeping track of the amounts of sugar in foods is an important first step in decreasing sugar consumption.
Try to offer two or three healthy snack options for toddlers. Having healthy snacks, fruits, and vegetables readily available and offering your toddler a choice helps him feel more involved and independent in making healthy food choices.
Have regular family meals. Family meals are a ritual that can instill good eating habits early on. Children who routinely eat family meals are more likely to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and are more likely to make healthy food choices throughout their lives. Plus, family meals are a great time to introduce new foods to picky eaters!
Involve kids when cooking meals. Toddlers can handle simple cooking tasks such as mixing ingredients in a bowl or washing fruit. Just be sure to always supervise your toddler in the kitchen and explain the kitchen safety rules.
Don’t use food as a punishment or a reward. It can be easy to fall into the game of using food as a punishment or reward. For example, giving your little one a cookie when he behaves well or threatening to take away dessert if he misbehaves. But this can stand in the way of him developing his own healthy eating habits. The idea is for children to eat healthy foods and have healthy emotional relationships with their food. Using sweets or comfort food to reward or punish him can promote unhealthy eating habits.
The information from this study shines a light on the role of sugar in children’s diets and encourages parents to be aware and mindful about it.