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Kids, Sugar and Healthy Eating



Like many parents, you may worry about the amount of sugar your child gets from sugary drinks, snack foods and desserts. Read on to get information about sugar, healthy eating and your child’s health.

What is sugar?

Sugar is a type carbohydrate that adds sweetness to food and drinks.   White sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave and corn syrup are all forms of sugar. Sugar is often added to food and drinks like desserts, pop, some breakfast cereals and yogurts, energy drinks, fruit drinks, and chocolate milk. Sugar is also found naturally in fruit, vegetables and milk.

Are all sugars the same?

Yes. Raw sugar and honey, for example, are not more nutritious than white sugar.  All sugars, whether they are naturally found in food or added to food, are digested in the same way. However, it is best to choose foods with naturally occurring sugars most often.  Fruit, vegetables and milk are nutritious and have important vitamins and minerals.

Does too much sugar cause health problems in children?

It can. Food and drinks that are high in added sugars have extra calories and may have few nutrients.  Too many sugary foods and sweet drinks can make children feel full and leaves less room for healthy foods.  Too much sugar can also lead to cavities if children do not brush their teeth regularly. Sugar is often blamed for behavioural problems and hyperactivity in children.  However, studies have not shown that eating sugar makes a difference in the behaviour of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Should I limit the amount of sugar my children have?

Yes.  Canada’s Food Guide recommends limiting food and drinks that are high in sugar.  Children can enjoy sweetened foods and beverages in small amounts, however, it is important to offer a variety of healthy foods every day. 

Should I limit food and drinks with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)?

Yes. HFCS is an inexpensive sweetener similar to sugar.  Food manufacturers use it because it makes food sweet, but is less expensive.  In Canada, HFCS can be called “glucose-fructose” in the ingredient list. Food and drinks high in HFCS are high in calories and may provide few nutrients.  Some studies suggest that HFCS may lead to weight gain and other health concerns.  More research is needed to better understand the health effects of HFCS.

What are some healthier foods and drinks I can give my children?

Use the chart below to help you offer lower sugar choices to your child. 

Instead of

Offer

  • Pop, fruit punch and sports drinks
  • Water (try adding lemon, lime, orange, or cucumbers slices or fresh or frozen berries)
  • Sweetened milk and yogurt drinks
  • White milk or unflavoured soy, rice or almond beverages
  • Homemade smoothies made with milk, yogurt and fruit
  • Frog smoothie (spinach and fruit)
  • Sugary cereals and flavoured oatmeal
  • Plain cereals such as bran flakes, oat “o” cereal, shredded wheat and plain oatmeal
  • Add sliced banana or berries for sweetness
  • Flavoured yogurt, pudding and ice cream
  • Plain yogurt with whole or pureed fresh or frozen fruit for sweetness
  • Homemade pudding with less sugar added
  • Layered yogurt pops
  • Cookies, packaged desserts, muffins and cereal bars
  • Homemade baked goods made with less sugar
  • Try pureed fruit like applesauce, prunes or 100% fruit juice as a sweetener instead of sugar
  • Banana muffins two ways
  • Fruit gummies, chews or roll ups
  • Canned fruit in syrup
  • Canned fruit in juice or water
  • Fresh or frozen fruit

If you offer your child juice, offer 100% juice and give small amounts:

  • 1-6 year olds:  no more than 125-175 mL (4-6 oz) juice per day
  • 7-11 year olds:  no more than 250-375 mL (8-12 oz) juice per day

How do I help my kids eat less sugary foods?

  • Children can enjoy sugary food and drinks in small amounts as a ‘treat’ once in a while.  Try these ideas to help your child eat less sugar:
  • Offer small portions of high sugar foods along with healthy foods.  For example, top a small scoop of ice cream with fruit or try chocolate pudding as a dip for bananas. 
  • Make fruit fun.  Try fruit kabobs or fruit faces.
  • Offer sparkling juice (a small amount of juice mixed with soda water) as an alternative to soft drinks or other sugary drinks.
  • Mix chocolate milk with white milk in equal amounts.
  • Make homemade baked goods and desserts made with less sugar. Keep some in the freezer so there is less chance of buying sweets from the store. Read Recipe Makeover: Reducing Sugar in the Kitchen for more ideas.
  • Avoid using candy or sweets as a reward for good behaviour.  

Are artificial sweeteners safe for kids?

It depends. Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes that have a sweet taste, but few or no calories.  Most sweeteners including aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium and stevia are considered safe for children. However, foods with sweeteners should be limited so that they do not replace other nutritious foods.

The bottom line

Healthy eating for children can include some sugar.  Small amounts of added sugar brings enjoyment to eating. Foods with naturally occurring sugars like fruit are nutritious and offer health benefits.  Offer meals and snacks that include healthy foods low in added sugars.  With a little creativity, there are many ways to help your child enjoy healthy eating with less sugar. If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s eating, call EatRight Ontario to speak with a Registered Dietitian at 1-877-510-5102 or send an email.

You may also be interested in 

What you need to know about sugar
What you need to know about high fructose corn syrup
The juicy story on drinks

Last Update – October 9, 2016

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