Did you know that little ones under 2 aren't supposed to have any added sugars in their diets? None, zip, zero. Here's why the recommendation matters... and how it actually works out in real life.
The American Heart Association recently updated their recommendations to say that kids under 2 should avoid eating or drinking any added sugars. And since added sugars are in almost everything that comes in a package or a box—and none of us has time to scratch cook everything our families eat—I wanted to share some advice for how to implement the recommendation without making yourself (or your family) crazy.
What Are Added Sugars
The term added sugar refers to any sugars that aren't naturally occurring in a food. So while there are sugars in fruits, vegetables, and milk products, those are not the ones to worry about. When looking at a label, added sugars include honey, maple syrup, cane syrup, high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, fructose, maltose, dextrose, and more. (There's a complete list of these terms here.) You will find them in foods like granola bars, cookies, cakes, ketchup, salsa, jarred tomato sauce, fruit snacks, crackers, dry cereal, sweetened drinks, flavored yogurts, some fruit and veggie pouches, and many/most other snacks marketed to toddlers.
Why They are Bad
Eating too much sugar can lead to a host of issues including higher risks for heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, and more, which is why the American Heart Association cares. And eating sweets can increase a preference for sweets, which if developed at an early age, can set a child up to want to eat more treats than is good for their body. The new recommendation says that kids under 2 should avoid eating all added sugars since their food intake is relatively small and eating foods with added sugars could replace an opportunity to eat healthier food.
What this Means in Reality
The problem with this advice is that unless you make every single food your toddler eats from scratch—which means no restaurant food, no family parties, no birthday parties, no playdates, no church events, no packaged snacks, and likely, no prepared food at daycare—there's simply no way to avoid some added sugars. But there are ways to keep it at a minimum.
When my daughter was younger, I was completely neurotic about sugar because it seemed like it was everywhere. (And like I was the only one who cared about it.) So when she was one and we went to a birthday party, I mainly kept her away from the dessert table since she didn't yet know what she was missing. This worked well until she got closer to two and she started to become highly aware of what other kids were eating. At that point, I made the choice to let her participate in birthday treats as a sort of cultural experience—and to avoid tantrums or making her feel left out—but if there was a crazy amount of frosting on a cupcake or slice of cake, I removed most of it first. I also tried to offer the treat food with a side of milk (or another food with some protein) to help balance out the sugar.
I sent her food to daycare (which admittedly didn't mean that she never had their snack food because see above about her being aware of what other kids were eating...) and tried to talk to family members ahead of visits about our food preferences. I found that if I tried to have the discussion in the moment, I was often too emotional to convey my thoughts rationally. (Not to mention that it sometimes caused hurt feelings when people were trying to show their love through treats.) I again tried to make sure that a less nutritious treat or snack was at least balanced by one with protein to help avoid sugar crashes and associated meltdowns.
I also tried to choose lower sugar snacks whenever possible.
Other Simple Ideas to Keep Sugar in Check
When my daughter was about two, I pretty much stopped buying "snack food" on a regular basis. This simple step ensures that we surround ourselves with fresh fruits and veggies (and whole milk dairy including cheese sticks, yogurt, and cottage cheese) while we're at home so that none of us needs to worry about an occasional treat when we're out in the world. It also helps us eat a balanced diet and to make better choices at snack time. And while it likely sounds rigid and not at all fun, I promise that there is always plenty of yummy things to eat in our house.
Top pancakes with nut butter or applesauce during the week and save maple syrup for the weekends.
Offer super yummy fresh fruit more frequently for dessert than other foods.
Rely on cheese sticks, roasted chickpeas, low-sugar cereals (like Cheerios), and natural bars like Larabars as go-to snacks.
Drink water and milk and milk first and save juice for special occasions (and try to pick 100% juice).
You may want to look at the bread you buy and switch to one with fewer ingredients and less sugar—but you can of course still buy your bread! And try a lower sugar breakfast cereal and using fruit to sweeten everyday baked goods—like ripe bananas, applesauce, and dates—rather than straight sugar.
What this Means for Kids Over 2
The recommendation for kids aged 2-18 is no more than 25 grams or 6 teaspoons of added sugars each day. For reference: A fun-size pack of Skittles has 11 grams of sugar, 4 Starbursts have 12 grams of sugar, regular vanilla almond milk can have 16 grams per serving, and an instant oatmeal pack can have 13 grams of sugar. It can add up to 25 grams pretty quickly. (Though why the recommendation on this is the same for a 2 year old and an 18 year old who might vary in weight by 100 pounds and have vastly different energy outputs is not clear to me...)
—->Generally speaking, if you aim for your kids to have no more than two servings of snack or dessert type foods per day, you should stay near or below the recommendation. (This is especially important to keep in mind if they regularly get candy or food rewards in their school classroom.)
I do completely realize that it is more difficult to go backwards if your child already has a sweet tooth, or if you are used to serving many packaged foods throughout the day. But my advice remains the same even with the older kiddos: Simply focus on having more fresh foods in the house, particularly at snack time, and less packaged ones (other than cheese and yogurt). We also strategically buy better-for-us snack foods like popcorn (to pop on the stovetop), tortilla chips, and dark chocolate chips. And we don't stress about occasional treats—or maple syrup on Sunday pancakes—because that's no way to live!
I think it's possible to walk the line between moderation and all out sugar policing if we take simple steps to have more fresh foods than packaged ones in the house.