Sugar Detox: How to Curb Kids' Sugar Habits

How much sugar is too much sugar for kids ... and you?

Growing up, our family had dessert every night. It was usually ice cream. Without fail, my lunch always included a Twinkie, Devil Dog or Suzie-Q. When I became a parent, it was hard for me to let go of those same sweet treat traditions with my own family. I felt guilty that my children were not getting the same things I got as a kid. It took me a few years to realize that my childhood tradition had become a sugar habit for me as an adult. I knew that I didn’t want to pass that onto my children.

Most families, like my own, try their best to live healthfully, with sports and exercise, eating in, and making good food choices. Without realizing it, sometimes we may be feeding our families more added sugar than we intend. In recent years, sugar detoxification, or “sugar detox,” has become a way to learn about the added sugar in foods, make different choices and lifestyle changes.

What is a Sugar Detox?

A sugar detox is when you choose to reduce sugar from your diet by making a concerted effort to remove as much as you can for a certain length of time, says Merritt Tracy, an integrative nutrition health coach with Namasté Green. Tracy teaches an online class called Free Me From Sugar 6-Week Detox to help people break the habit and create a new mindset.

“People are realizing just how much sugar is in our diets or recognizing that they have a problem with sugar,” Tracy says. The goal of a sugar detox program can be to make a complete lifestyle change or to create awareness about the amount of sugar in the foods eaten daily.

Jen Fowler, 41, and her husband, Doug Fowler, 40, signed up for Tracy’s sugar detox program because they noticed their sons Will Fowler, 9, and Owen Fowler, 7, seemed to crave sugar, and were always asking for dessert.

Jen is a teacher and staff manager with YogaOne. For the most part, their family eats healthy and exercises. When they joined the program, Jen and Doug introduced the idea of reducing sugar by being role models. They discussed the good sugars in fruit and the bad sugar in cookies and candy with their sons, and taught them how to read labels.

“I want my kids to make healthy choices. We invited them into the conversation instead of them being told they were going to do this,” Jen says.

How Much is too Much Sugar?

The numbers may surprise you. According to Charlotte-based integrative pediatrician, Dr. Sheila Kilbane, the American Heart Association recommendations for sugar-intake are three teaspoons of sugar for children ages 4-8. The amount increases to five to eight teaspoons at age 9 and throughout adulthood. These numbers translate to most everyone taking in too much sugar. For instance, 12 ounces of soda has just under eight teaspoons of sugar and 12 ounces of orange juice has seven teaspoons of sugar. 

Labels can be deceiving. Words like juice concentrate, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate or cane sugar disguise what is really just sugar. Foods, such as fruit snacks and fruit drinks, that we think are healthy are sometimes the worst culprits. Fruit grain bars have 12 grams of sugar, which is the equivalent to three teaspoons of sugar. A 20-ounce sports drink has 34 grams of sugar, which is more than eight teaspoons. And sugar shows up in the most unexpected places.

“You’ll find it in anything from condiments, soups, veggie patties, snack foods, toaster pastries and frozen foods,” Kilbane says.

Making Lifestyle Changes

Start by taking a three-day inventory of the foods your family eats, Kilbane says, to assess the sources of your family’s sugar intake. She recommends taking out big-ticket items like juice, soda and sports drinks first.

“I tell people to take it out of what they are drinking,” Kilbane says. Look at cow’s milk and sweetened almond or soymilk. Then, tackle the candies and desserts.

Jen admits that she had created a story that Will and Owen were not vegetable eaters. Once she stopped telling herself that and started feeding them veggies, they ate them. Jen also got the kids involved by having them hunt for cereals, tomato sauce and other foods with low to no added sugar. Her shopping methods have changed.

“I am more deliberate with what I buy. I read labels when I shop, and I choose the things that have less sugar. I buy more vegetables, and don’t go in the center aisles of the grocery store,” Jen says.

Instead of a fruit smoothie with orange juice in the morning, Jen uses no-sugar almond milk. One son loves chocolate and peanut butter smoothies. She was able to make a few adjustments by adding protein powder, banana, avocado, vanilla extract and cacao powder.

Although the Fowlers plan to continue eating less sugar after the class with Tracy ends, they know it is a balancing act. Jen makes it clear that their kids are not completely off sugar, but their desserts have changed to sliced banana with natural peanut butter with cinnamon or apples dipped in peanut butter.

“We still have treats for special occasions. When Doug turned 40, we did have cake. We are just a lot more mindful about what we put in our bodies,” Jen says.


Vanessa Infanzon is a freelance writer in Charlotte. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @morethanVMI.

Try these simple ideas to decrease sugar in your family’s diet.

1. Pack real fruit, not fruit-like items.

2. Bring healthy snacks to your kid's soccer game.

3. Celebrate special occasions with an activity rather than with dessert.

4. Reward good behavior with quality time.

5. Substitute sports drinks with lemon water or herbal teas. ​

6. Make sweet treats a family outing once a week.

7. Replace one packaged snack with a whole food like carrots or strawberries.