Sweet Retreat: Replacing Sugar With Healthy Options
Too many sweets can mean serious harm to your kid’s health.
You may have heard parents warn of giving your child too much sugar for fear of them riding high on a hyperactive sugar rush—and eventually crashing. In actuality, the concept of a sugar high in kids may be a myth. You read that right—it might be that no such thing exists. Research suggests that, in general, there is no clear evidence of sugar affecting a child’s behavior or cognition.
So, why the sudden burst of energy? Kids are to sweets like bees are to honey. They adore them. Yet, what’s often mistaken as a sugar rush is actually your little one’s excitement at the prospect of getting a treat—then their immense enjoyment devouring it.
Seems harmless, right? Well, not quite. Too much sugar can actually be bad for your kid’s health, now, and especially during the holidays. To find out why and learn how you can limit your kid’s holiday treats and sugar year-round, read on. We’re discussing the dangers of children consuming too much sugar, as well as ways to limit it, creative uses of leftover holiday treats, and healthy sugar and candy alternatives.
How Much Candy & Sugar Should Kids Have?
The American Heart Association recommends that children ages 2 to 18 should eat no more than six teaspoons (or 25 grams) of added sugar each day—that includes no more than eight ounces of sugar-sweetened drinks each week. Easier said than done. In fact, added sugar makes up a whopping 17% of what the average kid eats every day—far more than a healthy amount. And children under the age of 2 shouldn’t have any added sugar at all.
Fruits and veggies naturally contain a certain amount of sugar. But it’s the sugar added to processed and packaged foods and drinks, as well as sprinkled onto homemade meals and snacks, that’s the real issue. However, after years of private manufacturing practices, thankfully, brands are now required to list added sugar on food and drink nutrition labels. And even when foods don’t list added sugars, knowing what to look for can help.
If you see raw sugar, brown sugar, malt sugar, or invert sugar on a label, the sugar content is pretty straightforward. But other ingredients, like corn sweetener, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, or honey dextrose are also forms of sugar. Then there are ingredients such as fruit juice concentrate and turbinado that might not be as obvious, but are also sugars. Another trick you can use is to look for any ingredients that end with “ose”—whenever you see those three hallmark letters, think sugar.
What Happens to Kids When They Eat Too Many Sweets & Candy?
The harms of excessive sugar intake go beyond cavities on your kid’s pearly whites. Eating too many holiday treats or sugary food and drinks during childhood can lead to a host of health problems, like obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and fatty liver disease, which can all result in a higher risk of heart disease. Holiday treats for kids once in a while, in moderation, are fine, but, if your child fills their belly up with sweets, there’s less room left for heart-healthy foods such as fruits, veggies, low-fat dairy, and whole grains. Not to mention, they can give your little one a tummy ache.
Mommy Pro Tip: If your child’s belly starts churning, try Children’s Mylicon Tummy Relief. It provides fast relief of discomfort from overeating, as well as gas, bloating, heartburn, and acid indigestion. (Now, also available in a liquid formula.)
Ways To Cut Down on Candy & Treats for Kids?
If your kid’s sweet tooth has gotten out of hand—or you have trouble resisting their pleas—there are some things you can do to cut back on the amount of sugar they consume. Keep in mind, these are not overnight fixes. All good habits take time to develop, so be patient and try to remind yourself that this is what’s best for their health. Plus, as they get into healthier habits, their sugar cravings should subside, since too many sweets is often what fuels them.
Be on the lookout for “sneaky” sugar: As we mentioned, added sugar is rampant in processed and packaged foods and drinks. Even ones marketed as “healthy” can have loads of added sugar, especially smoothies, sports drinks, yogurt, and protein and granola bars, which can have as much as five teaspoons of added sugar per serving! Even dried fruit, baked beans, salad dressing, and ketchup can harbor hidden sugar.
Teach moderation: When you’re trying to limit the amount of sweets your kid has, it can be tempting to keep them hidden away under lock and key or ban them altogether. But, doing so can actually make “the forbidden” more desirable, and doesn’t teach them to make healthy decisions. Instead, demonstrate that it’s OK to have a small portion of sweets occasionally, like on a birthday or holiday.
Swap traditional desserts with healthy ones: Instead of giving your kid cookies or ice cream for dessert, try offering whole fruit instead. Ditto with swapping out sweets with trail mix, dried fruit, or mandarin oranges. Or, you can mix one sugary treat in with healthy ones, like chocolate with strawberries or replacing whipped cream with coconut-flavored yogurt.
Dress up whole fruits: Sure, a banana or apple may seem boring to them at first, but, if they’re resistant, dress them up by melting some dark chocolate for dipping—it has less than half the sugar of milk chocolate. (And, kids love to dip!)
Avoid using sugar as a reward: It’s common for good behavior in kids to be rewarded with a sweet treat. But it’s not a great idea—especially when it’s used to reward them for eating a few more bites of nutritious food. This is because, over time, they’ll come to equate sweets with good behavior, which could backfire down the road.
Limit juice and other sweetened drinks: Store-bought juice and sweet drinks are ripe with added sugar, so it’s best to avoid them altogether. Drinks that are a 100% fruit juice are OK, but only in moderation, according to your child’s age. Children under 12 months old shouldn’t be given any juice at all. And limit 100% fruit juice for your 1- to 3-year old to four ounces max per week, and only four to six ounces at most for your 4- to 6-year old. If your kid already has a juice habit that’s a bit hard to kick, try giving them water with a piece of sliced fruit in it for flavor. Other than that, stick to regular water and milk as your kid’s primary beverages.
Mommy Pro Tip: When your child does have some good ‘ol 100% fruit juice, keep an eye on the amount of time they spend sipping on it. Bathing their teeth in sugary liquids for extended periods of time can promote the development of cavities. And, if you do give them juice, mix it 50/50 or 40/60 with water. They’ll get the taste without all the sugar!
Foster independence: Kids feel a sense of pride when they hit milestones that allow them to have more autonomy. Empower them to get their own snacks and help them learn how to make healthy decisions in the process. You can do this by keeping cut-up fruits and veggies on an easily accessible lower shelf of the refrigerator, so they can reach for a healthy snack themselves. Same goes for storing whole-grain, low-sugar cereal in a lower cabinet they can reach.
Empower them to make healthy decisions: Your kid has a nifty ability to adjust their appetite to their energy needs. This means that their body tells them what they need. So, offer them a variety of healthy choices at each meal, like low-fat dairy, meat, veggies, and whole grains. You may find that they go for more carbs in the morning than in the evening or vice versa. As long as there are healthy options to choose from, they’ll get all the nutrition their growing body needs. Having restrictive, pushy, or rigid mealtime rules, on the other hand, can override their natural hunger cues, making it difficult for them to heed what their body actually needs.
Make dessert fun (and a valuable lesson): There are plenty of ways to make healthy treats for your kid. Frozen bananas or fruit dipped in dark chocolate, for instance, are healthy and tasty. Something like fruit kabobs can also help teach them moderation. Layer fruit, such as bananas, apples, oranges, and melon on a wooden toothpick or spear. You can also add small pieces of candy, like a cut up chocolate bar, in between the fruit to sate their sugar craving while ensuring they’re getting good nutrition at the same time.
Mommy Pro Tip: Have a picky eater at home? Try these 12 tips.
Start a food journal: In order to know how much excess sugar your kid is consuming, the best approach is to keep a journal or notebook on exactly what they're eating and drinking each day. Look for the sugar content on labels, or do a quick google search on nutritional information for an item. There are also apps you can download that scan barcodes to calculate nutritional info including sugars.
What Should You Do With Leftover Candy & Sweets?
We’ve all been there: A holiday, birthday, or other celebration passes, and you’re left wondering what to do with all the sugary treats left in its wake. Rather than force yourself to eat it all—or use it for trash bin target practice—you can get creative with it.
Donate it: Your kid may have too much candy and sweets, but there are lots of children out there who would do anything for a taste. Especially given the pandemic and rising inflation, if you have extra treats, donate them to charity or a philanthropic organization. Hungry bellies will be ecstatic for the gift!
Freeze it: Many baked goods and candies such as chocolate freeze well. Pop them in the freezer for another time and save on your budget the next time you want to get treats.
Make sweets into healthy treats: Leftover candy, such as chocolates and M&Ms, can be easily mixed in with some nuts, whole grain cereal, and raisins to create a tasty homemade trail mix. It won’t be as sugary as its original form—plus, it’s another fun activity you two can do together.
Create a piñata: This one’s great if you have a party coming up where they’ll be other kiddos. Take your leftover candy and fill a piñata with it. That way, you can spread the sugary joy around, rather than have your kid eat all of it themselves.
Use it for a teachable moment: Kids are information sponges. Foster their knowledge by making a simple science experiment out of leftover sweets. For instance, you can bring out different liquids—like water, juice, and milk—and have them guess which will dissolve a particular type of candy the fastest. You can also remove the candy after five minutes or so and discuss what changes to it have taken place.
What Are Some Sweets & Candy Alternatives for Kids?
As we discussed, it may be tempting to reward good behavior—like, say, making progress while potty training—with a treat. But there are other non-sugar-related ways to celebrate your kid’s achievements.
Sticker chart: Give them a sticker for goals they achieve, such as using the potty, picking up after themselves, or taking the dog out, and make a big deal of it each time they earn one.
Pack on the protein: A protein-rich diet helps your kid feel fuller for longer. So, keep proteins to snack on, like deli meats, hard-boiled eggs, and cooked chicken tenders or drumsticks on hand to grab in a pinch. Nuts and nut butters are also a great, healthy option—as long as your child doesn’t have an allergy to them.
Give ‘em the grains: Whole grains are excellent for energy that lasts. You’ll find them in whole-grain pretzels, cereals, bread, and tortillas. Pair them with deli meat, cheese, or hummus for a healthy, satisfying snack.
Create a rainbow of options: You can engage your kid—and get some nutrition into them—by having them choose a mix of colorful fruits and veggies. Think mangoes, pineapple, cranberries, avocado, and red and yellow peppers, as well as baby carrots, celery, apples, and sugar snap peas. Hummus, fat-free ranch dressing, and peanut butter make great dipping sauces as well.
Use breakfast foods as snacks: Replace sugary snacks with some of your child’s favorite breakfast foods such as dry cereal with diced up fruit and nuts, or microwaved oatmeal with low-fat milk, cinnamon, and unsweetened applesauce.
Jazz up healthy foods: Make snack time fun by using cookie cutters to create shapes of cheese and whole-grain bread or tortillas. The fruit kebabs we mentioned earlier also make snacking on healthy foods more enjoyable, as does spelling out words with whole-grain pretzel sticks. You can also arrange fruit into funny faces on a plate or build towers with whole-grain crackers to make them more appealing.
Provide healthy sweets: Frozen fruit bars, frozen yogurt, and low-fat pudding can help satisfy your kid if they're looking for something sweet. Or, you can make them a smoothie with fresh or frozen fruit, plain yogurt, and low-fat milk.
Next: If your child is still a baby, start healthy eating habits early by learning how to introduce solid foods the right way.