Skip the Struggle over Sweets: How to work with your child to reduce sugar, gradually

by Emily Ventura, Phd, MPH, and Michael Goran, PhD

It’s a scenario that many of us parents know well: our children want more sweet foods and drinks than we think they should have. It can be hard to set limits, especially if your child tends to whine, beg, or complain. And you don’t want to be that type of parent who doesn’t allow any sweets whatsoever– it is okay to have some sugar in moderation. The most recent guidelines from the American Heart Association suggest that kids ages 2-18 years have less than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) per day. But the reality is that American children are consuming an average of 19 teaspoons per day.

 If you are convinced that it is time to help your child cut down on sugar, how can you go about it in a way that avoids a struggle? Here are some ideas that we have used with the families we have worked with, and in our own families, to take a collaborative approach, ease into changes, and minimize conflict:

  1. Dilute, dilute, dilute. Is your child used to drinking juices, sports drinks, or soda? Work together to start adding some water (or plain soda water/sparkling water) to them. Go gradually and eventually you can add just a splash of these sweet beverages to a glass of water. At that point your child may be more likely to accept a plain glass of water instead. The same goes for flavored milk — dilute it with plain milk until you can eliminate it or reserve it entirely for a special treat.
  1. Mix cereals. Does your child prefer the sugar-coated stuff? If Frosted Flakes (10g of sugar per ¾ cup serving) are your starting point, don’t despair. Gradually start mixing in some plain Corn Flakes (3g of sugar per 1 cup serving). Then transition to mixing in something that is higher in fiber. You can involve your child by teaching him or her how to read the nutrition labels and help pick a lower-sugar mix-in. Simultaneously, start proposing non-cereal breakfasts that are higher in protein and don’t have added sugar, like this baked vegetable frittata, which will provide more constant, longer-lasting energy. By starting with a high protein breakfast, you can avoid the mid-morning sugar crash and the cycle of never ending hunger and cravings for sweets which can carry on throughout the day following a high sugar breakfast.
  1. Pick one treat a day. When eating out, does your child want both a sweet beverage and a dessert? Instead of saying no to both, as you may want to do, allow just one or the other. One sweet treat per day is reasonable, with the eventual goal that on some days, your child can go without, enjoying just foods that are naturally sweet, like fresh fruit.
  1. Downsize. Is your child begging you to stop at Starbucks for a Frappuccino? You are likely aware that many of these drinks can contain more calories and sugars than a soda. As an initial compromise, you can propose ordering the smallest size possible, or just one to share between siblings or friends. While at the cafe, you can look together at the menu to see what might be a better, lower-sugar choice for next time, like an herbal tea or a steamed milk sprinkled with cocoa powder or cinnamon. If getting used to these other options is difficult at first, you can modify the sweeter beverages by asking for less syrup or sweetener when ordering.
  1. Buy plain and sweeten yourself. Does your child prefer pre-sweetened yogurt, which is often really a dessert in disguise? Try buying plain yogurt instead and allowing him or her to add in a little honey or maple syrup to taste. When you can control the sweetener yourself, you can see what you are eating and then play around with adding less and less until your tastes begin to change. The same applies for things like oatmeal and iced teas.
  1. Search for hidden sugars. There are many foods that are full of hidden sugars. Prime culprits include sauces (like ketchup, barbecue sauce, tomato-based pasta sauce, and teriyaki sauce) and most anything that says “honey” (like honey whole wheat bread or honey-roasted ham or turkey.) With the help of your child, who can play “detective,” check the food labels of any products you buy regularly and make adjustments as needed. This way, the staples in your house won’t be accidentally contributing to a high-sugar diet.
  1. Add healthy alternatives before taking away favorites. Does your child insist on the usual granola bar and fruit snacks as lunchbox fillers? Work together to try adding in some new items to go along with those that don’t have added sugar, such as almonds, raisins, cubed cheese, cut fresh fruit, or raw vegetable slices like red peppers or cucumber. Once your child is used to these new alternatives, it will be easier to rotate the old favorites out.

Know that you are doing the right thing by helping to create a lower sugar environment for your child and preventing “secondhand sugar” exposure. But give yourself permission to allow these changes to happen gradually. It is important to involve your child in the process in order to minimize stress and make the changes stick for the long-term.

 

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