How to Make Sure Your Kids Don't Eat Too Much Sugar

Mighty Mommy and Nutrition Diva discuss how much sugar is too much for your kids.

Cheryl Butler
4-minute read
Episode #366

Quick and Dirty Tips host, Monica Reinagel, also known as The Nutrition Diva, joins Mighty Mommy in discussing a challenge that many parents face daily— controlling the amount of sugar our kids take in due to meals, snacks, and drinks. I get e-mails frequently from listeners about how they can get a better handle on how much sugar their child is getting in their diet so I’m thrilled that The Diva is on hand to give us the skinny on sugar.

Mighty Mommy:  How much sugar is "too much" sugar for a kid?

Nutrition Diva: It depends on how old the child is and how active they are. As a general rule, we aim for no more than 5 -10% of your daily calories to come from added sugars. For a six-year old, that would be somewhere around 16 to 25 grams per day, or 4 to 6 teaspoons of sugar. For a 12-year old, that works out to 20-40 grams per day or 5 to 10 teaspoons. Kids (and adults) who are very physically active can afford to be at the upper end of the limit because their muscles are more likely to quickly burn that sugar for energy. Kids who are very sedentary should stick to the lower limit.

MM:  Where are some of the major and hidden places that sugar is hiding in kids' diets?

ND:  In addition to the obvious sources like soda, candy, and other dessert foods, breakfast cereal is another huge source of added sugar. Plain cheerios, kix, or homemade oatmeal are good lower sugar choices.

Parents also think of yogurt as a healthy choice—and there are lots of brands that are pitched specifically at kids. However, most of these have 8 to 10 grams of sugar (or half the day’s allowance) in a small container. Get your kids used to eating plain yogurt and add some chopped fruit or applesauce for a little sweetness.

Finally, although fruit juice technically doesn’t count as added sugar, it’s another huge source of sugar—and empty calories—in kids' diets. Kids who drink fruit juice have an elevated risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Kids who eat fruit have a lower risk. So: give your kids fruit to eat and water to drink!

MM:  What are some of the detrimental ways sugar can affect a child's growing body in addition to tooth decay and obesity?

ND: I think one of the big ways that eating too much sugar negatively affects a child’s nutrition is by crowding healthier and more nutritious choices off the plate. Not many kids that I know would choose an orange over a cupcake or a peanut butter sandwich over a candy bar. For that matter, I know a lot of adults who wouldn’t either. So not only are there the negative effects of a diet high in sugar, such as increasing the risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes, but there’s the opportunity cost: the nutrients they aren’t getting from those other foods, like protein, antioxidants, and so on. They’re also developing eating habits that will follow them into adulthood.

MM: Are there natural sweeteners on the market that are safe for kids? 

ND: Natural sweeteners such as honey, maple, and agave syrup have essentially the same amount of sugar as refined white sugar. Although they may contain some additional nutrients, the amounts are actually very modest—not enough to make a significant difference in your nutrition. If you like the idea of more natural sweeteners, that’s fine. But it’s important to be just as moderate in your use of natural sweeteners as you would with more processed sweeteners.

Artificial sweeteners carry a different set of issues. The most recent research suggests that artificial sweeteners, even though they don’t contain any calories, may still contribute to weight gain because they negatively affect our gut bacteria. Rather than giving our kids zero-calorie sweeteners, I think we’d do them a bigger favor by teaching them that sweets are something we can look forward to as an occasional treat but not something we need to (or should) eat every day or with every meal. That’s a healthy habit that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives!

MM: It’s been a real eye opener to learn about the sneaky places sugar hides in our kid's diets.  If you’re looking for ways to make eating healthier in your family's life easier and more fun, be sure to check out more episodes with the Nutrition Diva.  And be sure to listen to the second part of this sugar series when Mighty Mommy is a guest on an upcoming episode of the Nutrition Diva's podcast.

How do you monitor the sugar in your kid’s diets?  Share your thoughts in the comments section at quickanddirtytips.com/mighty-mommy, post your ideas on the Mighty Mommy Facebook page. or email me at mommy@quickanddirtytips.com. Visit my family-friendly boards at Pinterest.com/MightyMommyQDT.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.