You would be hard-pressed to find a child who doesn’t love sugary foods. And, chances are the processed or packaged food your child eats has some amount of added sugar. New research suggests that this trend has spiraled out of control. A childhood sweet tooth isn’t as harmless as it might seem. Our country’s addiction to sugar is adding up to serious health consequences for families, and experts are saying it should be reined in.


You would be hard-pressed to find a child who doesn’t love sugary foods. And, chances are the processed or packaged food your child eats has some amount of added sugar. New research suggests that this trend has spiraled out of control. A childhood sweet tooth isn’t as harmless as it might seem. Our country’s addiction to sugar is adding up to serious health consequences for families, and experts are saying it should be reined in.

The American Heart Association has released guidelines limiting the amount of added sugar considered acceptable for a healthy diet. The guidelines, published in the August 2009 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, connect increased sugar consumption with a variety of health problems, including obesity, high triglycerides, high blood pressure and other risk factors for stroke and heart disease.

The guidelines state that most women should consume no more than 100 calories, and men no more than 150 calories, of added sugar. These numbers average out to about 6 to 9 teaspoons, or 25 to 37.5 grams, of sugar a day. Preschoolers with a daily caloric intake of 1,200 to 1,400 calories shouldn’t consume any more than 170 calories, or about 4 teaspoons, of added sugar a day.

Children ages 4-8 with a daily caloric intake of 1,600 calories should consume no more than 130 calories, or about three teaspoons a day. To accommodate all the nutritional requirements for this age group, there are fewer calories available for discretionary allowances like sugar.

As your child grows into his or her pre-teen and teen years, and his  or her caloric range increases to 1,800 to 2,000 a day, the maximum amount of added sugar included in his or her daily diet should be 5-8 teaspoons.

The scary truth

Are you ready for the scary truth? A 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 or her sugar consumption skyrockets to an average of 21 teaspoons a day.

The same study found 14-18 year old children have the highest sugar intake on a daily basis, averaging about 34.3 teaspoons. In general, a statement from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted from 2001-2004 found the average American consumes about 355 calories of added sugar a day, or the equivalent of 22.2 teaspoons. That is about triple the recommended amount.

Unfortunately, as careful as you may be, you may inadvertently be feeding more sugar to your child than you think. According to the AHA, added sugar is defined as any sugar or syrup that is added to foods during processing or preparation, and sugar or syrup that is added at the table during meal times.

Soft drinks and sweetened beverages are the No. 1 culprit in Americans’ diets, with one 12 ounce can of soda containing 8 teaspoons and almost 130 calories of sugar. Each tablespoon of ketchup your child uses adds a teaspoon of sugar to their diet. Many brands of children’s favorite foods, such as yogurt, cereal and fruit juice, also contain added sugar, which usually makes them high in calories and low in nutrition.

So how can you curb your child’s sugar intake without cutting out all his or her favorite foods? To help eliminate health risks due to poor diet, the AHA recommends a diet pattern that is rich in fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, high-fiber whole grains, lean meat, poultry and fish. KidsHealth offers parents some ideas to help your little one eat a healthier diet, and curb the amount of sugar that is going into his mouth. Some helpful tips include:

Offer naturally sweet and healthy snacks like fruit or raisins. Try frozen grapes or other frozen fruit or make a fruit smoothie.

Replace soda and sweetened beverages with low-fat milk (whole milk for children under 2) or water.

Offer small servings of 100 percent fruit juice. Although it has some health benefits, it is important to note that the natural sugars it contains can still make it a high-calorie drink. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting daily juice intake to 4 to 6 ounces for children under 7, and 8 to 12 ounces for older children and teens.

Pay attention to food labels. Look for the grams of sugar. If you divide this number by four, that gives you teaspoons. Keep in mind that products containing dairy or fruit will have some natural sugars. This isn’t what we are concerned about. We just want to watch the sugar that is added to foods that are not naturally sweet or that are highly processed.

Choose cereals with less than 9 grams of sugar per serving.

It may seem impossible to completely cut out added sugar, but choosing healthier alternatives isn’t as difficult as it may seem. Also, make sure high-sugar foods are not taking the place of foods with essential nutrients. The AHA recommends using your daily limit of added sugar wisely. For example, if your child wants something sweet, choose a nutrient-rich sweet snack like yogurt or a sugar-sweetened whole grain cereal. Although both of these have added sugar, they also have essential nutrients, unlike a piece of candy or a soda.

And of course, be a role model for your child. Leading a healthy lifestyle yourself is a surefire way to help your child grow up to do the same.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach.