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Are Our Kids' Diets Too Sweet?

It's hard to find a child who doesn't love sugary foods, and chances are that the processed or packaged food your child eats has some amount of added sugar. Research suggests that this trend has spiraled out of control.
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It's hard to find a child who doesn't love sugary foods, and chances are that the processed or packaged food your child eats has some amount of added sugar. New research suggests that this trend has spiraled out of control and is causing serious health consequences for families.

Foods that are high in added sugar (soda, cookies, cake, candy, frozen desserts and some fruit drinks) tend to also be high in calories and low in other valuable nutrients. As a result, a high-sugar diet is often linked with obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

A recent American Heart Association (AHA) scientific statement containing specific guidelines on limiting sugar intake has sparked conversation about just how much sugar people should consume and how to make cutting back less bothersome.

How Much Sugar Should You and Your Kids Consume?

The guidelines, published in the August 2009 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, state that most women should consume no more than 100 calories, and men no more than 150 calories, of added sugar. These numbers average out to about 6-9 teaspoons, or 25 to 37.5 grams, of sugar a day.

Preschoolers with a daily caloric intake of 1,200 to 1,400 calories shouldn't consume any more than 170 calories, or about 4 teaspoons, of added sugar a day. Children ages 4-8 with a daily caloric intake of 1,600 calories should consume no more than 130 calories, or about 3 teaspoons a day. As your child grows into his pre-teen and teen years and his caloric range increases to 1,800 to 2,000 a day, the maximum amount of added sugar included in his daily diet should be 5 to 8 teaspoons.

A study conducted by the AHA found children as young as 1-3 years already bypass the daily recommendations and typically consume around 12 teaspoons of sugar a day. By the time a child is 4-8 years old, his sugar consumption skyrockets to an average of 21 teaspoons a day. The same study found 14-18 year old children intake the most sugar on a daily basis, averaging about 34.3 teaspoons. That is about four times the recommended amount!

For this reason, it is extremely important to be able to recognize sources of added sugar in your diet, understand why consuming extra sugar can be harmful to health, and how best to limit added sugars.

Beware of Hidden Added Sugars

Added sugars are sugars and syrups included in foods during processing or preparation, as well as sugars and syrups that consumers add themselves. According to the AHA statement, a healthy and well-balanced diet contains the naturally occurring sugars present in fruits, vegetables, dairy products and many grains. Naturally occurring sugars supply healthy nutrients while still fulfilling people's cravings for sweets.

The best way to determine whether a food contains added sugar is to read the ingredient list. Although added sugars may appear in a variety of ways, in terms of calorie content, all added sugars are essentially the same. The names for added sugars used on food labels include those listed below:

• Brown sugar
• Corn sweetener
• Corn syrup
• Dextrose
• Fructose
• Fruit juice concentrates
• Glucose
• High-fructose corn syrup
• Honey
• Invert sugar
• Lactose
• Malt syrup
• Maltose
• Molasses
• Sucrose

As of now, sugar grams listed on the Nutrition Facts panel on food labels don't distinguish naturally occurring sugars from added sugar so it is important to scour the ingredients list for hidden sources of sugar.

The main sources of added sugars in the Western diet include soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages such as fruit juices and sports drinks. In fact, according to the AHA statement, between 1970 and 2000, the per-person daily consumption of caloric soft drinks increased by a whopping 70 percent! While you may know that such foods are sugar sweetened without reading labels, there are other items that may not be so obvious. Examples include ketchup, barbeque sauce, baked beans -- and even some salad dressings.

The Problem With Sugar Overload

High intakes of added sugar have been linked to overweight and obesity, a lower intake of essential nutrients, increased triglyceride levels, hypertension and inflammation. All of these are risk factors for cardiovascular disease, which is what the AHA scientific statement addresses on specifically. In addition, too much added sugar in the diet can also "take up space," leaving little room for healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy foods and lean sources of protein.

Defeat the Sweets

Start out small, and note that beverages are often a great starting point for change. Beverages are especially problematic because research shows that liquid calories are not as satiating as calories consumed through solid food. As a result, people don't compensate for liquid calories in the same way they do calories from solid food. Quench your thirst with these healthier alternatives:

• Plain or carbonated water are the best choices.
• Add a splash of your favorite fruit juice to a glass of sparkling water!

Although there's no added sugar in 100 percent fruit juice, the calories from the natural sugars found in fruit juice can add up. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting juice intake to 4-6 ounces (118-177 milliliters) for kids under 7 years old, and no more than 8-12 ounces (237-355 milliliters) of juice for older kids and teens.

Candy is another sweet treat that many may find difficult to relinquish. Try substituting candy with these healthier alternatives:

• Mixed nuts, dried fruit (made without added sugar), and low-sugar cereals for candy
• One square of 70 percent dark chocolate
• Apple slices with 2 tablespoons of almond butter

Remember, enjoying a treat now and again is not a bad thing, which is exactly why two red light foods are allowed on the "Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right" meal plans. Those who allow themselves an occasional indulgence rather than trying to abstain often find success making healthy lifestyle changes. Those who attempt to deny themselves all sweets may not have as much success, especially if they previously consumed a lot of sugar. By taking small steps, you can begin to cut back on the sweet stuff and get on track to a healthier, green light, lifestyle.