How to Break the Sugar Habit

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Here’s the sugary scoop: American kids consume far too much of the sweet stuff. According to the American Heart Association, toddlers are getting 12 teaspoons instead of the recommended 4 (19 grams), and school-aged children who should have no more than 3 teaspoons (14.2 grams) are consuming 21. Preteens and teens take the cake; instead of the recommended 5 to 8 teaspoons (23.7 to 38 grams), they’re getting up to 34.3. That’s over two-thirds of a cup per day.

How does this mountain of sugar affect kids? Besides contributing to childhood obesity, poor cardiovascular health, and juvenile diabetes, sugar can play a major role in mood swings, meltdowns, and tantrums.

“Sugary foods cause blood sugar to spike and then plummet, leaving kids feeling cranky, irritable, and tired,” says The Today Show licensed nutritionist Joy Bauer, bestselling author JOY’S LIFE DIET and Slim and Scrumptious. And when sugary snacks fill plates and stomachs, less room is left over for the nutrient-dense calories that growing children need.

It’s clear that kids should eat less sugar. But let’s face it: the thought of a sugar-free world sends chills down parental spines. Sugar can reward, motivate, or pacify a child, and a well-timed treat can work wonders. I’ve been known to avert toddler tantrums with a chocolate chip or two, and I keep an emergency lollipop in my purse.

Even highly motivated parents who want to cut sugar face an uphill battle. School lunches, misleading food labels, relatives, and even kids themselves can throw a wrench in the most well-intentioned plans.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the facts and the potential payoff. “By dealing with a sugar habit early in life, parents are giving children a lifelong gift,” says Kathleen DesMaisons, Ph.D., bestselling author Little Sugar Addicts. “Parents whose kids are out of control are absolutely amazed at the bright, loving, incredible child who emerges.”

Ditching a sugar habit benefits moms too. “By limiting sugary foods, you maintain a steady blood sugar level and keep yourself feeling energized and alert all day long. Nothing’s more important when you have active young kids running around,” says Bauer.

If you’re ready to change your family’s sugary ways, fear not. Drastic measures aren’t required. Instead, slowly shut off the sugar tap with a simple, step-by-step approach.

Drowning in liquid sugar
First, take a look at what your family sips. The AHA reports that Americans drink most of their added sugar in the form of soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages. According to American Journal of Preventative Medicine, consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages with meals has doubled. Switching to water or low-fat milk will make a huge dent in kids’ sugar consumption.

Even 100% fruit juice contributes sugar and calories that kids may be better off without. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting fruit juice to 6 ounces for children under 7 and 12 ounces for older kids. Stretch the smaller servings by diluting juice with water, or create a healthier alternative to soda by mixing juice with seltzer.

Top of the morning
Next, work on meals. Start at the top—of the day, that is. According to DesMaisons, a healthy breakfast is essential to lowering sugar intake, because eating the right foods in the morning helps to ward off sugar cravings later on.

Begin by losing the sugary breakfast cereal. Bauer recommends that parents choose cereals with no more than eight grams of sugar per serving. Instead of sweet cereals and candy-coated pastries, serve up protein and complex carbohydrates like eggs and whole-grain toast or protein shakes made with fruit.

Combining protein with complex carbohydrates provides lasting energy and enables the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin to enter the brain. Kids will feel satisfied, alert, and ready to start their day.

After kids have accepted a new breakfast routine, move on to lunch, dinner, and snacks. Gradually replace sugary foods with healthy alternatives and give kids time to adjust to each change. Plan to spend anywhere from two weeks to six months on the whole process, says DesMaisons, depending on their level of sugar consumption, attachment to sweet foods, and temperament.

Plan for success
Kids need to eat on time to avoid the blood sugar crashes that bring on meltdowns (and that emergency lollipop in my purse). Don’t plan outings when they’re running low on fuel. Aim to serve meals at a consistent time and keep fruit, crackers, nuts, and other snacks on hand for hectic days.

For those occasions when a sugar splurge is inevitable—birthdays, holidays, and Halloween—serve a high-protein snack before the festivities begin. They’ll eat less of the sweet stuff on a full stomach, and the protein will slow the absorption of sugar to ward off a post-party crash.

Detective mom
Family physician Tony Vento, M.D. tells moms to become label sleuths to cut out sneaky hidden sugars that kids probably won’t miss. “Spend a week reading every label, and you’ll be surprised,” says Vento. Some brands of kids’ favorites like peanut butter, fruit snacks, and dried fruit contain added sugar, while others don’t. Switching brands can add up to big sugar savings.

Eliminating hidden sugars gives more dietary leeway for treats that they’ll appreciate. Fortunately, the AHA dietary guidelines allow for some sweets. It makes sense to spend some of that discretionary sugar on nutritious foods like yogurt or chocolate milk (Journal of the American Dietetic Association reports that flavored milks are fine in moderation and don’t cause weight gain in children). When total sugar intake is under control, even cupcakes aren’t off-limits. Now that’s a sweet reward to feel good about.

Malia Jacobson is a nationally-published health writer and mom of two.