Sugar is added to and hidden in most processed foods, and we’re eating more ultra processed foods than we ever have. That’s why it’s incredibly important to build a healthy relationship with sugar when your kids are young. The American Heart Association recommends that kids get no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day. Dr. Goran over at Sugarproof recommends that kids get less depending on their age, and recommends that kids under 2 years old should get NO added sugar at all.
When a serving of Pop Tarts has 27 grams of sugar, it’s easy to blast through that requirement.
When you look at common snack foods for kids, like yogurt, granola bars, fruit snacks, and graham crackers, you see they are all loaded with sugar. Even processed cereal and oatmeal are full of sugar, and these are the foods that many kids start their day off with.
One response is to say, “sugar is bad,” and avoid it altogether. But let’s be honest, it’s nearly impossible to unconditionally cut out sugar. And you aren’t around all the time to decide what your kids eat. Plus, setting up sugar as the evil villian might set our kids up to have an unhealthy relationship with sugar. Labeling foods as “good” or “bad” is something we avoid in our home.
We like to take a more nuanced approach.
We cultivate a healthy mindset around sugar rather than focusing on a militant attitude toward consumption itself. Yes, we do a lot of work to reduce the sugar our family eats, especially when it’s hidden in processed foods. Still, we want to empower our kids to relate to sugar in healthy ways. As parents, we are responsible for feeding our children. We are also responsible for setting them up to feed and care for themselves.
What does a healthy sugar mindset look like?
For us, a healthy sugar mindset includes:
- Being mindful about the sugar that we are eating.
- Knowing that Big Food makes things hard, and baking at home is the solution.
- Never demonizing sugar to our kids and having grace for occasional splurges.
Let’s break these points down.
1. Be mindful of the sugar you are bringing home.
Being mindful about sugar starts with understanding the different types of sugar. There are over 260 names for sugar and counting. This may seem daunting, but the bottom line is that less processed sugar is better for your body.
There are three main points to examine when researching the types of sugar in food:
quality, quantity or amount, and degree of processing. These are great topics to talk about with your kids. You can ask them to read the ingredients on food. Together, you can look up the ones they can’t pronounce. More often than not, it’ll probably be another form of sugar.
The quality of the sugar depends on where the ingredients were sourced and how they were grown. Is the product organic or was it grown with pesticides? Does it have a few recognizable ingredients or a list of words you can’t pronounce?
Next, check the quantity/amount of sugar in the recommended serving size. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams of added sugar daily for kids. That’s less than 6 teaspoons a day. They also recommend no more than 8 ounces of sugary beverages a week.
Lastly, consider how much processing went into the making of this product. The more an ingredient is processed, the more difficult it is for our bodies to recognize and digest. High fructose corn syrup is nothing like local raw honey. The less that’s been done to the food, the better.
Practice Tip 1: When grocery shopping, decide what you bring home. Leave the processed food and processed sugar at the store. That way, you don’t have to be the sugar police in your own home.
2. Big Food Makes Things Hard, so Bake at Home More
Understand the foodscape you and your kids are navigating. Big Food (giant corporations like Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s) uses many tactics to advertise highly processed, unhealthy food. These brands are cheap, easy, appealing, and addicting. It is HARD to walk through the brightly colored cereal aisle and say no to your kid over and over. It is also hard to decode the labels that shout “sugar-free,” “low-calorie,” and “heart-healthy” yet list out artificial sugars, artificial ingredients, and seed oils in the ingredients.
Food choices are nuanced. As the spectrum illustrates above, there is a range of quality in types of sugar. It is okay to eat sugars as a part of a healthy, balanced, diet, especially if you choose natural sugars that are more nutrient-dense and not as addictive as their processed counterparts. Balancing out the sugar with healthy fats and nutrient density helps.
Even though it’s still added sugar, local honey and organic maple syrup are forms of natural sugar, as they contain more nutrients. Raw honey and maple syrup contain antioxidants that help neutralize free-radical damage and keep the body healthy. These sugars, along with whole fruits, are always our first choice of added sugar. But the best form of sugar to have is always through real, whole fruit. Ripe bananas and dates are great options for adding sweetness to dessert.
The worst choices are foods with artificial low calorie sugars and processed high fructose corn syrup. We always stay clear of those! So, instead of walking through the world battling all the different types of sugar, choose the natural forms of sugar.
The best way to do this is to bake and cook more at home.
Baking at home has tons of perks, and the biggest one is that you don’t have to wonder what is hidden inside those processed cakes and desserts! At home, you get to choose how much and what kind of sugar goes into your sweets, and everything else that you eat.
When we make chocolate chip cookies at home, we use grass-fed butter, pastured eggs, organic flour, organic chocolate chips like Hu, and honey or maple syrup. These cookies are nutrient dense, have limited, high-quality sugar, and have tons of nutrient density. I feel good about giving these cookies to my kids because they are free of processed sugar and balanced out with protein and healthy fats. They’re nothing like Oreos we buy at the store.
I don’t even have to limit my kids on how many cookies they have or how big of a slice of cake they want. The beautiful thing about cooking with nutrient-dense, quality ingredients is that your body knows when you are full, so kids find their own limits. On the other hand, natural flavors and artificial sweeteners leave you constantly craving more.
Practical Tip: Try cooking your favorite desserts at home. Find a recipe online, but prioritize using high quality ingredients like grass-fed butter, pastured eggs, and organic flour. When looking at the sugar content, try cutting it in half or by a third and use a higher quality sugar like maple syrup, honey, or coconut sugar.
3. Never Demonize Sugar. Give Yourself Grace for Occasional Splurges.
Food is not just the fuel we run on. It’s also a way we celebrate, create rituals, relate to other people, and show them care and gratitude. So, if birthday cakes are an important part of celebrating your kid’s birthday, then, by all means, have a birthday cake! But maybe try out a recipe with no added sugar, like our banana birthday cake, or swap the sugar for honey, maple syrup, or coconut sugar and reduce it by half.
Sometimes, your kid is invited to birthday parties or celebrations with cakes loaded with refined sugar and topped with artificially colored blue icing. Having grace for these moments is critical to cultivating a healthy relationship with sugar. One day of your kid eating double or triple the recommended daily sugar intake will not kill them (although it might be a hard day for you!). What matters are the foods they eat daily, weekly, and throughout the year. Keep the big picture in mind. Avoid demonizing these foods, as this sets them up to potentially have unhealthy relationships with these foods in the future.
How we eat our sugar and what we eat it with also matters. We teach our kids the importance of all the macronutrients – fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Fat or protein pair well with a dessert because they help to stabilize our blood sugar. This means our kids have less of that big sugar rush after dessert.
Practice Tip: A normal response to eating sugar is lots of energy. It’s a healthy response for kids to sprint around outside after eating cake. Their bodies are intuitively burning off all that sugar. You can try pairing your dessert with a glass of raw milk or some grass-fed butter and watch how that evens the sugar rush!
Navigating the world of sugar is HARD, and we hope that this guide helps you to find a healthy sugar mindset in your home.
Again, it’s not about demonizing sugar, but by understanding how hard Big Food makes it to cultivate these healthy relationships in our kids.
Understand where your sugar consumption is coming from each day. Avoid it in processed foods and in other foods where sugar might be hidden unnecessarily inside.
We believe that desserts are delicious and to be enjoyed. Homemade desserts are always better because we bake together. We clean up together. We enjoy it together. It’s the best quality time.
Sweets should be made to enjoy with family and friends! Good things are worth ALL the extra effort! Leave the artificial ingredients and high fructose corn syrup at the store, and prioritize cooking and baking at home instead. There’s nothing better.