Did you know that the recommended sugar intake for toddlers under 2 is to have no added sugars in their diets? None, zip, zero. Which, real life: Is totally impossible! But since I know that many of us worry about this and often it feels like treats are everywhere, let’s get into what you can do to keep your kids healthy—and what we really need to worry about when it comes to sugar.
Recommended Daily Sugar Intake
The recommended daily sugar intake is the amount of sugar that’s recommended we eat in any given day. It’s typically presented in grams and is the upper limit of what we should eat, according to health organizations such as the American Heart Association. Knowing the upper limit can help you assess whether or not you or your kids is mostly at or below the recommended amount.
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. So remember that for context.
Is my toddler eating too much sugar?
The American Heart Association recently updated their recommended sugar intake 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. Because even attempting to keep track of this is really, really difficult in real life.
What are added sugars?
The term added sugar refers to any sugars that aren’t naturally occurring in a food—and these are the sugars that we are meant to worry about in the daily total. 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.
Do we need to worry about natural sugars?
While it is true that there are sugars in fruits, vegetables, and milk products, those are not the ones to worry about or to keep an eye on. The sugar in fruit is okay!
Effects of Sugar on Toddlers
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.
How can I make sure my kids don’t eat too much sugar?
So here’s the rub with this advice: 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.
I 100% don’t think the recommendation is realistic. But there are ways to keep it at a minimum if you’re worried. Here are a few tips.
- BUY THE FOOD YOU WANT YOUR KIDS TO EAT.
If it’s not in the house, they can’t eat it. This is my motto and it helps me to decide what to buy for snacks and meals and then relax when we’re out in the world and the kids are exposed to more treat foods. This means I don’t often by “snack” foods to keep in our house and instead try to have snacks be fruit, veggies, yogurt, cheese, or other similar foods.
- USE IGNORANCE TO YOUR ADVANTAGE.
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.
- LET KIDS ENJOY CELEBRATIONS.
I’ve never wanted to turn food into a battle or power struggle, so once my kids were old enough to know what certain foods were, I made the choice to let them participate at birthday parties, holidays, and other celebrations. I didn’t want them to be left out or feel like they weren’t worthy of certain foods—and I don’t want to make foods more appealing by making them off limits.
- TALK TO CARE PROVIDERS.
We’re lucky that our daycare doesn’t serve sugary juices or treats, but there are the occasional birthday treats and there are treats everywhere in my older child’s school. I talk to the staff of the school in person whenever possible with my concerns and I don’t hesitate to raise them (respectfully, of course).
- TALK TO FAMILY.
I always try 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.)
Recommended Sugar Intake for Kids
The recommended intake 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
- 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…)
I’ve found that sugar being offered at school, events, practice, and meetings can make it feel like treats are all the kids are eating. It can be very frustrating when you’re trying to set the kids up to eat healthy foods.
Aim for No More than 2 “Fun” Foods a Day
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 without needing to count. (This is especially important to keep in mind if they regularly get candy or food rewards in their school classroom.) This can be a really helpful and sanity-saving metric!
I do 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!