Sweets & Treats for kids: My thoughts as a dietitian and mom

Tis the season to be jolly and eat…and eat…and eat some more.  The grocery store aisles are filled with treats galore, from flavored candy canes to marshmallow Christmas trees and chocolate snowmen-food brands really know how to lure you in!  But when it comes to kids and sweets, how much is too much?  and should we be allowing our kids to indulge in sweets during the holidays at all?

First I’ll share that when it comes to counseling adults and children, including my own, I don’t have a deprivation mentality and don’t think any food should be labeled as “bad”. Children should learn to develop a healthy relationship with food and as parents, we need to encourage this.  With that said, I see holidays as an opportunity to teach children that all foods could be included in an overall healthy diet when used in moderation.  Most times, when children have restrictions like “no sweets, no cookies, no cake”, they often seek it elsewhere and when faced with the opportunity to indulge, they easily will and then some!

Although parents insist that sugar is the cause for their child’s hyperactivity, it’s important to note that substantial body of research shows there is no link between the two.  However, sugar is linked to obesity and metabolic diseases like diabetes, but micromanaging your kids’ candy consumption may actually make them crave it more.  Now does this mean you should give your child a free pass to shove candy in their mouth, absolutely not!  Instead, be supportive and ask questions about how they feel after eating it and explain the importance of eating nutritious foods and how this can benefit them.  Children who eat loads of sugar tend to eat less healthy foods, so be sure to be a good role model and eat healthy foods along with your child and be sure to keep your fridge and pantry stocked with healthy, easily accessible foods such as a bowl of fresh whole fruits on the kitchen counter or a plate of veggies its dip in the fridge.

Recommendations for added sugar with children.  What’s the latest?

According to a scientific statement released by the American Heart Association in 2016, children should eat less than 6 teaspoons, equivalent to 100 calories or 25 grams, of added sugar daily with recommendations that advise children under 2 to not consume any added sugars from food or beverages.  By July 2018, most foods will require the newly designed nutrition facts label which includes a separate line showing the amount of added sugar in the product.  However, in the meantime, be sure to read nutrition labels, especially for snacks geared toward kids and be mindful of the amount of sugar they contain.  Stick with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, low fat dairy and healthy fats as the main sources for your child’s calories.  Regarding 100% fruit juice, according to a new policy statement issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, fruit juice offers no nutritional benefit to children under age 1 and should not be included in their diet.  The new recommendations state that 100-percent fresh or reconstituted fruit juice can be a healthy part of the diet of children older than 1 year when consumed as part of a well-balanced diet.  Fresh fruit is also promoted versus fruit juice.  Here are the policy recommendations:

  • Intake of juice should be limited to:
    • at most, 4 ounces daily for toddlers age 1-3.
    • For children age 4-6, fruit juice should be restricted to 4 to 6 ounces daily
    • and for children ages 7-18, juice intake should be limited to 8 ounces or 1 cup of the recommended 2 to 2 ½ cups of fruit servings per day.
  • Toddlers should not be given juice from bottles or easily transportable “sippy cups” that allow them to consume juice easily throughout the day. The excessive exposure of the teeth to carbohydrates can lead to tooth decay, as well. Toddlers should not be given juice at bedtime.
  • Children should be encouraged to eat whole fruits and be educated about the benefits of the fruit as compared with juice, which lacks dietary fiber and may contribute to excessive weight gain.
  • Human milk or infant formula is sufficient for infants, and low-fat/nonfat milk and water are sufficient for older children.
  • Consumption of unpasteurized juice products should be strongly discouraged for children of all ages.
  • Children who take specific forms of medication should not be given grapefruit juice, which can interfere with the medication’s effectiveness. In addition, fruit juice is not appropriate in the treatment of dehydration or management of diarrhea.

Although it’s nearly impossible to get away from sweets and added sugars around the holiday season, it’s important to talk to your kids about how treats could be enjoyed in moderation.  You can also set an allowance for your kids on how much candy they can have.  For example, if you allow for them to have one piece of candy as a dessert after dinner, they will then see it as a dessert versus a snack.  I actually did this with my kids for Halloween. When they came home with a huge bag of candy, I stored it and made an agreement with them that they could choose one piece of candy from the “treat” bag to have as a dessert after dinner and some days they wouldn’t even ask for it at all.

As parents, we should lead by example and follow the same rules you’re setting for your children.  Teach them lessons about nutrition early one and they will carry it with them throughout their lives.

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