Ma Nature (and apparently the Temptations) knows your weakness: sweets. And you know what? You really can’t help yourself: humans are programmed at birth to prefer sweet flavors to any other. (Theories abound as to why this is. Most widely accepted is that this is a natural instinct to protect oneself from poisons, most of which are bitter in flavor. Probably more than you needed to know…). Unfortunately, the food industry has definitely gotten a hold of this little tidbit, and has run away with it. Sugar – with all of its various forms and monikers – is a big seller. This is one thing that most nutritionally conversant experts agree on: people should try to limit their intake of sugars.
Before we get into how much is too much, though, you need to understand about the two extremely broad categories of ‘sugar in foods’ that those experts are refer to. First you have natural sugars, which are found in whole, unprocessed foods, such as milk, fruit, and some vegetables. The most common natural sugars are glucose and fructose which are found in fruits, some vegetables and honey; and lactose which is found in milk products. As most of the foods natural sugars can be found in are often the very foods health experts recommend you consume more of, we obviously are not suggesting you avoid these types of sugars.
The second kind of sugars in foods are added sugars which can be defined as any sugar or syrup that is added to foods during processing or preparation, and/or added at the table during meal times. Added sugar includes sugar, glucose, dextrose, fructose, and sucrose, “syrup” such as corn syrup (corn syrup solids), glucose syrup (glucose syrup solids), high fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, corn sweetener and honey or honey powder. Yes, you read that right: a naturally-occurring sugar can also be an added sugar. To complicate matters further, sugar can also be added during food production or preparation through a variety of different ingredients. These are the sugars that have sky-rocketed the sugar consumption of our population. Number one source of sugar in the collective American diet? Fructose, as in high fructose corn syrup, found in processed foods, sports drinks and sodas.
Please know that I am not suggesting you count calories. But I find it useful to know what is in the foods I am eating. So if you are curious, 1 teaspoon of sugar is equal to 4 grams of sugar and is equal to 16 calories. As a general rule of thumb, a normal healthy woman should consume no more than 100 calories, and men no more than 150 calories of added sugar, which is about 6 to 9 teaspoons of added sugar each day. Preschoolers with a daily caloric intake of 1,200 to 1,400 calories shouldn't consume any more than 170 calories (about 10 teaspoons) of added sugar a day. Children ages 4 to 8 with a daily caloric intake of 1,600 calories should consume no more than 130 calories (about 8 teaspoons) of sugar per day, because they have greater nutritional needs and have fewer discretionary calories in their daily diets. You’ve seen how your child eats; perhaps a bit more selectively? It doesn’t begin to compare with the rate they used to have with food consumption. You have to make a bigger bang for your caloric buck with these active little guys. Pre-teen and teenagers should limit their intake to between 5 and 8 teaspoons of sugar per day.
A recent study conducted by the AHA found children as young as 1-3 years already bypass the daily recommendations, and typically consume around 12 teaspoons of sugar a day. By the time a child is 4-8 years old, his sugar consumption skyrockets to an average of 21 teaspoons a day. The same study found 14-18 year old children intake the most sugar on a daily basis, averaging about 34.3 teaspoons! That’s triple the recommended amounts!
So where is all of this sugar coming from? I hate to say it, but from your prepackaged and prepared food. The farther the food is from the form that nature made, the more chemicals, additives and very often sugars it will contain. The biggest offenders in the average American kid’s diet: soda and sports drinks, ketchup, and cereals.
Friends, take a look at granola bars. Healthy, right? Well, often, not exactly. Sure it SAYS it has ‘whole grains’ in there, but … how much fiber is your child really getting from that bar? Usually, less than 1 gram. If you look at the sugar content, these bars often have between 15 and 20 grams. And calories will often be greater than 150, closer to 200. Most preschoolers are going to be consuming roughly 1,500 calories a day; 200 of it should not be spent on something that is basically a candy bar. Other foods you think might be healthful – instant oatmeal, breakfast cereals, crackers, etc – have very similar nutritional diagnoses. Look at ketchup: 3.5 grams of sugar in 1 tablespoon. Does your child really only use 1 tablespoon of ketchup?
What’s a parent to do? It’s hard enough to keep track of what you eat, never mind everything your kid(s) put in their mouth(s)! Don’t feel overwhelmed, though. One of the easiest solutions is to take one area of consumption every couple of weeks and really focus on it. For example, breakfast. For your yogurt lovers, instead of getting the presweetened varieties, try some of the plain (Greek-style yogurts are especially tasty), and add fresh fruit or a bit of jam instead. You have a lot more control over how much sugar is added. You like cereal? Trust me, there are less sugar-laden options out there, and they don’t taste like twigs. Try a few different varieties and you will likely find one that you and your family will like. If you are hot cereal fans, get the old fashioned plain kind, and mix in your own bit of brown sugar or maple syrup. Again, you get to control how much is added. By breaking it down like this, you will slowly reduce your and your family’s sugar intake, and it hopefully won’t feel like such an overwhelming task.
One last thing: fake sugars. Oh, who doesn’t love a diet coke every once in a while, right? You know, it’s hard to know what to think about these ‘fake’ foods. Fact is, none of the tests they’ve done on these foods have been on children, and there are a lot of questions out there. My mantra is ‘all things in moderation’ but my preference is to try to stick to the things that Ma Nature had something to do with, and that I can pronounce. Fake sugars (and fake fats), perhaps not the best option.
Okay, back to the granola bars. I’m not saying all granola bars are bad. Really, I’m not. There are healthier options, though (especially the homemade varieties so you know for certain what is in there). Nor am I saying that giving your kid ketchup is like child abuse (although, I admit, my kids have been told that they can only get it in restaurants). Go with your gut. Take the time to learn more and make an educated decision about how much sugar your kid –and you!—should be eating.