Do your children crave sugar? If you are struggling to wean your child off of sugar laden foods and sweet treats, you are not alone! Globally the trend in sugar consumption by children is increasing and in the UK it is reported that on average, children are consuming 11g of sugar (almost three teaspoons) just at breakfast! In a time where ‘no sugar’ diets and government enforced sugar taxes on food are becoming more common, how does this translate to the health of your child?
Making the right choices
In Australia, we are overweight and alarmingly so, this trend is increasing. The Australian Bureau of Statistics Health Survey Data from 2014-2015 revealed that a staggering 63.4 percent of Australian adults are overweight or obese which is well over half of our population and represents almost two in three adults. This data also revealed that approximately one in four children (27.4%) are also overweight or obese. The National Health Survey report notes that specific risk factors for children centre around dietary intake. Healthy practices established early in life are likely to continue into adolescence and adulthood, thereby reducing the risk of developing chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. Conversely, being overweight or obese in childhood is likely to increase the risk of developing such health conditions later in life. The prevalence and availability of fast food, highly processed packaged foods and the overwhelming acceptance of energy dense, high fat, high sugar and high salt foods as commonly consumed items by children is fuelling the fire. The notion that these foods should be ‘sometimes’, ‘treat’ or ‘special occasion’ options has been lost along with the respect for appropriate portion control.
The taste, texture, temperature and visual presentation of food to children are all vital elements in their initial introduction to solid foods and development of eating habits as they progress from infant, to toddler, to child and beyond. In our modern world where convenience is king and the nature of our food supply is more processed than ever, children’s dietary intakes are extremely susceptible to excessive amounts of calories, sugar, fat and salt. The risk of habitual presentation and consumption of foods that are higher in sugar can quickly develop into the ‘norm’ as the child adapts to and expects foods that give them the pleasurable taste and increased energy that follows after high sugar foods are consumed.
The most prominent risks associated with excess sugar intake in children include overweight and obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay. There is also mounting concern on the acute physiological and psychological impacts of excessive refined sugar intake in infants and children. Research has so far been centered on aspects of behaviour such as hyperactivity, poor concentration and irritability. The evidence for a link between sugar consumption and hyperactivity to date is slim however further research continues to be undertaken on these potential associations.
Remember – sugar is sugar! Whether it is white, raw, brown, coconut, cane, icing, castor, or malt – all sugars are similar; 1 teaspoon contains approximately 15 calories (63kJ). ‘No added sugar’ in processed products can considered as no refined sugar, syrups, agave, honey, fructose or fruit concentrates. Products that achieve sweetness using only natural, low GI sugar substitutes which do not raise blood sugar and thus insulin levels and that are suitable for everyone from diabetics to children and those that are monitoring carbohydrate intake are becoming more readily available.
If your child is one to always ask for dessert after dinner or arrives at a party as a reasonable, polite little angel and then suddenly transforms into an over-excited, over-energetic ball of energy after consuming an abundance of lollies, cakes and sweets, then check out the following tips as a starting point to cut down on sugar and enforce some healthier habits.
01. Decipher the drinks
Instead of sugary soft drinks, fruit juice and sports drinks, go for water, low-fat milk or herbal tea. Remember, even unsweetened fruit juice is a concentrated source of sugar, so limit to occasional consumption.
02. Swap out the sugar
Rather than spreading jam, marmalade, syrup or honey on toast, try sliced banana or low-fat cream, cottage or ricotta cheese instead. Other alternatives such as tinned/canned fruit in juice rather than syrup, low-fat yoghurt instead of ice-cream, whole fruit instead of fruit juice and wholegrain breakfast cereals instead of high sugar refined varieties are simple switches that can help to significantly reduce sugar intake.
03. Recipe check
Try halving the sugar you use in recipes and look for healthier ingredient alternatives to bump up the vitamin and mineral content. Give these easy kid-friendly suggestions a go!
- Add mashed banana, grated zucchini or pumpkin to cakes, muffins and baked goods instead of sugar.
- Combine natural low fat yoghurt with homemade fresh fruit puree instead of sweetened yoghurt.
- Top toast or pancakes with freshly chopped banana or strawberries instead of sugary syrups.
- Try home-made cookies with oats, apple puree and cinnamon instead of sugary biscuits.
- Switch the milkshake for a smoothie with milk, yoghurt, fruit and ground flaxseed.
- Add vegetable based dips to bread/wholegrain crackers such as beetroot or roast pumpkin instead of sauces, mayonnaise or sugary spreads.
- Try homemade fruit icy poles made with low fat yoghurt and berries instead of ice-cream.
- Homemade fruit slushies (blended fruit & ice) instead of fruit juice.
- French toast topped with cinnamon, blueberries and strawberries instead of sugar and cream.
- Porridge topped with banana, blueberries and low fat yoghurt instead of milk and sugar.
- Superfood smoothie bowl with rolled oats, spinach, kale and banana topped with blueberries instead of cereal.
- Zucchini noodles ‘zoodles’ instead of white pasta.
- Try raw cacao instead of cooking chocolate in a healthy chocolate slice or brownie.
- Add grated zucchini, capsicum, pumpkin or carrots to zucchini slice, frittata or savoury muffins.
- Homemade tomato relish instead of tomato sauce.
Sweet potato brownies by Deliciously Ella (simply reduce the dates and omit maple syrup).
04. Look at labels
For packaged foods such as cereals, baked goods and biscuits, check the sugar content per 100g. Products that contain 5g or less are the best options with 15g/100g as a maximum target to keep in mind. This can sometimes be deceiving if a product contains naturally occurring sugars such as lactose or fructose so also take a look at the ingredients list. Added sugars must be included in the ingredients list, which are listed in descending order of weight. Be wary of words used to describe added sugars, such as cane sugar, raw sugar, brown sugar, concentrated fruit juice, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, maltose, maltodextrin, sucrose, honey, agave nectar, blackstrap molasses, rice syrup, rice malt, barley malt.
05. Re-train the brain
Gradual reduction in the offering of high sugar processed foods, reduction of sugar in recipes/meal preparation and switching to healthier alternatives are great strategies. Substituting fresh fruit and yoghurt for ice cream, or a chocolate bar for a slice of homemade low sugar chocolate cake are simple swaps that can help to create a shift towards healthier alternatives becoming the ‘norm’.
Creating healthy eating habits with children starts from day one. It is up to parents to decide what to provide and to educate and create understanding with the child on the benefits of nutritious food. Take comfort in the fact that the investment is worthwhile; as far as sugar goes, as consumption reduces over time, taste buds and the desire for sweet foods will correspondingly also diminish. Most significantly, the connection with wholesome food from an early age helps to develop a platform of understanding for nutrition and the health benefits associated with a balanced and nutritious diet in later years.
For personalised dietary advice it is suggested you seek the guidance of an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD). The information in this article does not replace medical advice and may not be appropriate for certain health conditions.
About Olivia Disisto
Olivia is the General Manager of the Beston Global Food Company (BGFC) Health and Nutrition division where she is responsible for upholding the BGFC commitment to health, wellness and optimal nutrition via promotion of a safe, clean, nutritious and sustainably and responsibly produced food supply. Olivia provides internal nutrition advisory support and the review and analysis of all food products and new product development projects.
- Qualified Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) and Accredited Nutritionist (AN) credentialed by the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA).
- Owner and Director of Nutriliv Dietetic Consulting private practice.
- Previous experience in Medical Sales for a major international pharmaceutical company and Clinical Dietitian for several public and private medical facilities including the SA Health Repatriation General Hospital and East Adelaide Healthcare. Clinical project experience in Paediatric Dietetics and infant nutrition at the Women's and Children's Hospital, South Australia.
- Graduated with a Bachelor of Nutrition & Dietetics from Flinders University, Adelaide.
- Academic awards include the Flinders University Chancellors Letter of Commendation 2008 & 2009, the Nutricia Australia Prize 2010 & the Dietitians Association of Australia Prize 2011. Post-graduate qualifications in Medicines Management from University of Tasmania and awarded the National Prize for Academic Excellence 2014. Fitness Australia Level 1 Exercise Professional & Les Mills Certified Group Fitness Instructor.