In a typical week, my teenagers might eat edamame straight out of the pods, roasted seaweed, whole grain pasta, homemade granola, frozen mango right out of the bag, and fruit and vegetable smoothies made with kefir, chia seeds, kale, carrots and pineapple.
I was shocked to realize that they were also eating potentially toxic levels of sugar in the course of the day, well above recommendations from health experts like the American Heart Association.
Even if we think our kids are relatively healthy eaters, there’s a good chance they are eating far too much added sugar from foods even healthy kids typically consume. Foods like fruit-flavored yogurts, sports drinks, pasta sauce, cereal, ketchup, energy bars, and barbecue sauce are all loaded with added sugar.
The American Heart Association recommends that children consume no more than 12 grams, or 3 teaspoons, of added sugar per day. While a wonderful goal, it is very difficult to achieve for children whose regular daily diet includes any packaged or processed foods.
To find out how quickly those grams add up, I calculated how many grams of sugar are in the foods that my kids and the children of some of my health-conscious friends might eat or drink in a day. (I did not pick the products with the highest amounts of sugar; rather, I picked a random sample of foods many parents may think of as healthy — or at least not as unhealthy.)
- Yogurt: 8 oz. Yoplait Strawberry Greek yogurt = 11 to 12 grams added sugar, 18 grams total sugar* (these can easily go up to 18 grams of added sugar, depending on the brand)
- Cereal: 1 cup Cinnamon Life Cereal = 10 grams total sugar (most or all is likely added sugar, but no information is available)
- Frozen waffles: 2 Trader Joe’s Multigrain Toaster Waffles = 7 grams added sugar
- Ketchup: 2 Tbsp. Heinz Ketchup = 4 grams added sugar, 8 grams total sugar
- Pasta sauce: 1/2 cup of Barilla Traditional Pasta Sauce = 8 grams added sugar
- Chocolate milk: 8 oz. chocolate milk = 13 grams added sugar, 26 grams total sugar
- Cereal bars: Special K Red Berries Cereal Bar = 8 grams added sugar (granola and cereal bars can easily go up to 11 grams or more)
Many foods like fruit and yogurt have naturally occurring sugars, which many nutrition experts differentiate from added sugars. FDA labels may soon reflect amounts of both added and naturally occurring sugars.
If your child has a container of fruit-flavored yogurt or a bowl of cereal in the morning for breakfast (as ours often do), she is likely to meet or exceed her daily sugar recommendation by the time she walks out the door to catch the school bus. I asked my 16-year-old daughter to record her diet on a recent day, and although her diet sounded very healthy and included plenty of fruits and vegetables, she had likely consumed 36 grams of sugar, or 3 times the recommended amount! If using adult guidelines for her, she still would have had 1 1/2 times the recommended limit, and that’s with no desserts (or at least none she reported to me).
For kids whose diets typically include cookies, candy and soda (a 12-ounce soda has 30 to 40 grams of added sugar), their sugar intake can easily be quadruple the recommended levels — or worse.
Eating too much sugar can not only lead to obesity but also to metabolic disease and early onset of diabetes and heart disease as well as general inflammation that may lead to other diseases like cancer. A recent study found that after just nine days without added sugar, even though their diets still were full of non-sugary junk food like chips and hot dogs, metabolic health improved drastically in overweight kids, and their appetite decreased.
“Developing a healthy diet is critical while still in childhood as lifestyle changes become increasingly difficult to adopt with age, and adolescents are often resistant to these changes. Unfortunately, once a child has developed Type 2 Diabetes, studies have shown that most of the currently approved treatment regimens are not particularly effective in children.
“As the number of children with Type 2 Diabetes increases, one can expect the disorder to multiply exponentially in future generations. This is due to a biologic process known as metabolic imprinting, where the children of mothers who have obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, and high blood pressure when they are expecting are more likely to also develop these conditions,” according to Bethesda, Md.-based pediatric endocrinologist Rachel Gafni, M.D.
What’s more, sugar is addictive, so if we are used to eating sugar, as most of us are, our brains crave more and more. The only way I’ve found to combat this in our family is by removing added sugar completely from our diets for three to seven days to lose our cravings, and that’s not easy to do. The kids often start enthusiastically and lose their interest within less than a day.
Last year I served as a member of the media advisory board for a documentary that links the epidemic of obesity and early onset of disease in the U.S. to our high consumption of sugar. The producers found that sugar is in 80 percent of the products on supermarket shelves, and not just in the candy and desserts where we would expect to find it, but in bread, pasta sauce, marinades and salad dressings.
This awareness has led me to make changes in how I shop (like reading labels more carefully and choosing products without added sugar) and how I cook, and to educate and try to inspire better choices for our children.
By buying and demanding lower sugar products, and supporting the FDA’s proposed new rules to separate added sugars from naturally occurring sugars on nutrition labels, we concerned parents can put consumer pressure on food manufacturers to reduce the amount of added sugar in foods they produce, which some are already doing based on consumer demand.
Along with changing our own purchasing and consumption habits, doing so is one of the best routes to consuming less sugar in our daily lives, losing our sugar cravings, and reducing the epidemic of lifestyle- and weight-related diseases, especially diabetes and heart disease that are afflicting so many children at earlier and earlier ages.
Even for someone whose profession and passion is healthy eating, reducing sugar in my own family’s diet is a major challenge, and I understand all too well the power of sugar cravings. (More than once, my family has walked in to find me lolling in a sugar-induced daze on the couch, with empty marshmallow bags and nutella-stained spoons strewn around me.)
I can only imagine how hard it is for families with more typical American diets to combat the power of sugar-laden foods. I hope that as … we make gradual reductions of sugar in their diets, their dietary choices when they are out of the house will also include foods with less added sugar.